The Washington Spirit became the first NWSL team to clinch a playoff spot this season with tonight's 1-1 draw against the Western New York Flash. Spirit forward Katie Stengel opened the scoring in the 64th minute but the Flash responded and equalized with 15 minutes remaining, but Samantha Mewis pulled the Flash level as Western NY piled on the pressure.
Tonight was the first game back for the Canadian internationals but none of the three bronze medalists started, mainly due to the Spirit's depth and the challenge of another game mid-week. Megan Oyster was recalled at center back for the injured Whitney Church, while Katie Stengel came in up front for Cali Farquharson.
Spirit goalkeeper Kelsey Wys was called on frequently in the first half as the Spirit struggled to contain Western New York's attack. Washington struggled to match that, only managing brief offensive spurts. The Flash's press pushed the Spirit to play many of their passes back to Wys, and Washington also struggled to win second balls.
Still, the first look went to the Spirit: Crystal Dunn beat several Flash defenders by herself early in the game but her shot went high. Throughout the first half, Western New York challenged the Spirit frequently with dangerous crosses, balls over the top, and speed on the flanks. Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams each looked threatening for the Flash but neither managed to convert their opportunities.
Dunn had a promising run late in the half but as she played it off to Cheyna Williams, the rookie forward was brought down by Elizabeth Eddy, who earned a yellow card for the tactical foul. Nairn took the ensuing free kick from about 20 yards out and nearly scored, only to graze the top netting. Moments later, Flash defender Alanna Kennedy had a powerful effort but sent it over the bar as well.
In the second half, the Spirit improved offensively but still struggled to contain Western New York and concede fewer chances. Stengel had a shot goes wide left and a dangerous cross just past the hour mark, before finally breaking through with her fourth goal of the season.
Dunn played a pass ahead of Stengel up the right flank and as Stengel reached the ball on the edge of the box, Flash goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo dove in front of Stengel. Stengel nudged the ball around the keeper and hopped over her, and from the far right side of the penalty box lofted the ball into the far left side of the empty net.
After Stengel's goal, Lynn Williams earned two potent chances for the Flash but didn't convert either, including one against an empty net with Wys on the ground fifteen yards out of the goal. Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra elected to switch to a five-back with ten minutes to go, substituting Shelina Zadorsky for Stengel. The defensive adjustment didn't solve was the Flash's dominance in the midfield as the crosses kept raining in.
"We had a one-goal lead and thought we could manage it," said Gabarra. "But it didn’t really address the serves into the box from some of their wide players."
With five minutes remaining, Christine Nairn made a goal-line clearance for the Spirit after the Flash hit the underside of the crossbar. Shortly afterward, Flash forward Taylor Smith sent in a cross from the left flank which Spirit center back Estelle Johnson cleared right into Samantha Mewis' feet. About fifteen yards out, Mewis sent in a low shot to the left corner past several Spirit defenders and into the goal.
Both teams pushed for the winning goal and while Flash forward Lianne Sanderson and Dunn each had chances, the game ended with a 1-1 draw.
The Spirit, with 36 points from 17 games, return to the Maryland Soccerplex this Wednesday for the final regular-season home game. Kickoff against the Seattle Reign is set for 7pm.
Highlights will be added when they are available.