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Bad start dooms Washington Spirit in 1-0 loss to visiting Houston Dash

An injury-riddled Spirit attack couldn’t create the necessary chances to get a result

Caitlin Buckley

The Washington Spirit’s attack stumbled on Saturday night as the team posted a 1-0 defeat against the Houston Dash. Houston forward Kealia Ohai scored in the 28th minute, capping off a dominant start for the visitors. Despite the Dash’s performance deteriorating in the second half, the Spirit couldn’t find a goal despite a lot of pressure.

Beset by injuries, the Spirit made some personnel adjustments to cope without Kristie Mewis (quad strain) or Katie Stengel (bone bruise) and started in a 3-4-1-2 with Kassey Kallman is a very defensive position to manage dangerous Houston attacker Rachel Daly.

The Dash dominated the first fifteen minutes, switching the point of attack frequently and looking for speedy wide forwards Ohai and Daly. The Spirit, starting timidly for the third straight game, struggled to keep up.

Janine Beckie was often the player picking out those two from her attacking midfield role. In the eighth minute, Beckie found Ohai, who cut it across for Daly. With Kallman caught upfield, Daly delivered a cross that neither Sarah Hagen nor Ohai could finish.

The Spirit’s play improved after the 15-minute mark, but miscommunication and a tendency to rush things kept them from creating chances. At the other end, Beckie made a 40-yard run in the 21st minute without any challenge ended with a dangerous 20 yard shot that Stephanie Labbe did well to keep out.

The Spirit replied, as Francisca Ordega made a good run down the left flank. Her cross to Lindsay Agnew was blocked out by Janine Van Wyk, who made several similar plays on the night.

Without Stengel and Mewis combining up the middle, the Spirit attack mostly consisted of runs down the flank. Stengel’s back to goal play can’t be emulated by anyone else on the roster, and while Solaun slid back into an attacking midfielder role, Mewis’ absence was evident.

In the 28th minute, Houston grabbed the lead. Ohai made a 30-yard run on the left flank, isolating Estelle Johnson. Ohai showed the quality that has gotten her USWNT call-ups, cutting inside to slide a shot into the lower far corner that Labbe couldn’t reach.

Despite the goal, Johnson played very well both on the right side of a three-back and as the right back - not a natural position for her - once the Spirit changed formations to adjust to the Dash.

“They did a really good job of pulling us over and then hitting a big ball across, there was a lot of ground to cover. I think a little bit more communication and a little bit more aggression will help us start the game out,” Johnson said of the early portion of the game.

Labbe made a challenging low save off an Ohai shot in the 33rd minute, and the Spirit responded with a formation change. Alyssa Kleiner moved from right wingback to become a third forward, while Kallman dropped back to left back as Jim Gabarra moved Washington into a 4-3-3.

“We just weren’t aggressive, we weren’t pressuring, we were backing off everything and we couldn’t break the midfield,” Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said of the change. “That way we’d get more numbers forward, we would have three forwards and our wide players were ahead of their midfield line instead of being behind their midfield line.”

Arielle Ship replaced Alyssa Kleiner to start the second half, giving the Spirit three true forwards.

In the 52nd minute, Hagen pulled off a shot from distance when the Spirit got caught in transition. Amber Brooks fed it to Daly, who broke the offside trap and passed to Hagen. Shelina Zadorsky provided a crucial block, though, and Washington cleared.

Labbe was forced to make another save when Daly opened up a shot from over 20 yards out at the hour mark. The Spirit pushed back a minute later, as Ordega slid a nice pass to Agnew in a dangerous position. Dash left back Camille Levin produced a strong sliding challenge to disrupt the play, and Washington couldn’t capitalize on the resulting corner.

Newly-signed Crystal Thomas replaced Agnew in the 65th minute, with Gabarra reshuffling up front. Ship slid to the center, with Ordega on her right and Thomas on the left. Soon thereafter, Whitney Church’s long distance free kick found Line Sigavardsen Jensen whose header was tipped wide by Dash goalkeeper Lydia Williams. The opportunity recalled Sigvardsen Jensen’s goal last week, and only a top-notch save from Williams prevented a Washington equalizer.

In the final twenty minutes, the Dash showed signs of tiredness and the Spirit increased their pressure on Houston. Still, despite lots of possession and plenty of time in the Dash’s end of the field, Washington couldn’t generate many shots.

A 75th minute tackle from Huster helped keep a Spirit attack alive, and Johnson pushed into the box from right back to receive a pass from Ordega. With the area crowded with Dash players, though, an attempted cross was blocked before Solaun volleyed high over the bar.

Kallman won a tackle in the final minutes and burst forward to slot the ball to Ordega. Van Wyk arrived in the nick of time, though, robbing the Spirit of what looked like a golden opportunity with an outstanding defensive block.

After that, Huster kept the attack alive with a tackle but couldn’t corral the loose ball. Center back Bruna - who had the assist on Ohai’s goal - played a long ball that sent Ohai in behind for a breakaway. Labbe came to the rescue, though, charging out to snuff out the danger by saving at Ohai’s feet.

Despite three minutes of stoppage time, Washington couldn’t crack the Dash defense for one last look, and fell to 0-2-1 on the season. Next week, the Spirit face Sky Blue FC at the Maryland Soccerplex. Kickoff is set for 7pm.