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Mallory Pugh’s debut not enough as the Washington Spirit lose 1-0 to FC Kansas City

Despite some good opportunities, the Spirit were frustrated by FCKC

Caitlin Buckley

USWNT phenom Mallory Pugh made her Washington Spirit debut on Saturday night against FC Kansas City, but Pugh’s arrival wasn’t enough for the Spirit, who fell 1-0 on a second half goal from Alexa Newfield. Pugh joined training this Tuesday and entered the game in the 54th minute, replacing Arielle Ship and playing as a left forward.

Gabarra went with a four-back tonight but started Alyssa Kleiner over Kassey Kallman. Kallman had an unusually rough game against Seattle last week, while head coach Jim Gabarra cited a desire “to get our our wide defenders more involved in the attack” as a reason for the change. Other lineup changes included Kristie Mewis returning to the starting lineup, replacing the injured Tori Huster, and Ship surprisingly starting as a wide forward over Havana Solaun, who was very effective last week.

Though the Spirit controlled the run of play early, FC Kansas City forced two shots in the first ten minutes and did well at forcing the Spirit backline into dangerous turnovers. Sydney Leroux had a particularly strong game, and her speed helped FCKC maintain a constant threat against a high Spirit line.

Tori Huster was out due to a right quad strain and the Spirit suffered up the middle as a result. The backline was disorganized and players had trouble coordinating who was stepping to the ball, who was dropping back and often ended up collapsing towards the center, leaving FCKC an easy option to work it around.

Stephanie Labbe had a dangerous error in the 13th minute when she tried to dribble out of the box. FCKC forward Shea Groom picked her off, but the Spirit were able to get out of trouble without facing a shot.

Washington had a dangerous chance in the 24th minute but a close-range shot from Kristie Mewis - set up via Ship’s stepover on right back Brittany Taylor - clanged off the underside of the crossbar. The rebound bounced out Mewis and Yael Averbuch, but when neither could corral it, Francisca Ordega tried to volley the ball home only to have the ball ramp up over the bar off of an FCKC defender.

Cheyna Williams started on the right wing, but she and Ship switched sides midway through the first half. Most of the Spirit’s attack focused on trying to find Williams on the run, particularly down the left wing. It was from that side that she came close to scoring in the 31st minute, after a Lo’eau LoBonta interception ended up rolling into her path. Williams sped past Taylor, but from a narrow angle couldn’t beat Nicole Barnhart in the Kansas City net.

FCKC fluctuated between being direct and holding possession, with the former being more dangerous on the night. The Spirit looked more comfortable defending out of the four-back than when the team moved to a three-back for the latter stages of last week’s loss to Seattle. Washington wasn’t as vulnerable to a switch of the point of attack, and the team did better at defending the flanks.

The Blues continued to force turnovers, and it resulted in increased offensive pressure. In the 39th minute, that finally paid off as Alexa Newfield scored the game’s only goal. Newfield was involved in the start of the attack, but after the Spirit half-cleared the ball it was pumped in by rookie left back Christina Gibbons. Leroux’s bicycle kick attempt drew attention, but while it didn’t produce a goal it did end up deflecting the ball to Newfield, who powered the ball into the goal to give FCKC the lead.

Mewis forced a 48th minute save on a driven free kick from wide left before Pugh entered in the 54th minute and made an immediate impact. Pugh posted a crafty, intelligent performance at left forward. In the 60th minute, she nutmegged Gibbons and found Mewis, who fought through one tackle before winning a free kick within the restraining arc. Mewis took the free kick herself, beating the wall but seeing a rocket blocked by USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who read the play and dropped back to deny the Spirit a goal.

Katie Stengel saw her first action in nearly a month when she subbed in for Williams in the 68th minute, with Ordega moving out wide. The Ordega-Stengel-Pugh front three may be the regular starting group once Pugh settles in and Stengel fully recuperates from the bone bruise that kept her out.

Despite the Spirit pushing for a goal, Kansas City nearly made it 2-0 in the 79th minute. A sublime pass from Gibbons picked out substitute Katie Bowen slashing in from the right, but Bowen was called offside as she ran onto what was going to be a sitter.

Pugh continued to create some danger. A 78th minute one-touch pass seemed to set Ordega up to split the defense, but her first touch betrayed her. Seven minutes later, Pugh surged forward along the left flank after picking off a bad pass before finding the overlapping Kleiner, but Kansas City prevented a cross.

The Spirit had one last look, and it was again via Pugh from the left side. Bowen tried to throw Pugh off with a push to her shoulder, but the Spirit debutant fought through the challenge to set up Ordega’s hard run into the middle. Pugh’s cross was timed well, but it came at an awkward height for Ordega, who hopped up to try a volley but couldn’t direct her shot on goal.

Next week the Spirit play FC Kansas City again, but this time at Swope Soccer Village in Missouri at 8:00pm Eastern.