Following a string of losses and sitting in last place, the Washington Spirit were hoping to get out of a rut before the upcoming international break began. Cheyna Williams got the Spirit off to a good start with a 3rd minute goal, and 19-year-old Mallory Pugh followed it up by scoring her first ever professional goal. Washington made those strikes count, fending off the Houston Dash the rest of the way en route to a 2-0 win.
Houston was carrying a bad streak as well: the team had four straight losses ahead of Saturday’s game, and head coach Randy Waldrum was fired on Monday. The Dash were under the direction of acting coach Omar Morales, who joined the Dash this April as an assistant coach.
“The result is great, three points and a clean sheet. It’s something our play probably deserved over the first seven or eight games but it’s a good opportunity to dig in and look at areas where our play could improve,” Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said.
Just over two minutes into the game, Havana Solaun fed Williams a ball in the space between Rachel Daly and Amber Brooks. Williams ran onto it and took it down the right edge of the box before slotting a low shot across goal and in. The goal was Williams’ first of 2017.
“We wanted to come out explosive and Havana played a great ball and it was like shoot, all I have to do is finish it,” Williams said.
“Any time she’s facing the goal we have a good opportunity and we can make something of it,” Williams said of Solaun. “She’s so spot on with her passing, she’s a very smart player.”
For the first 20 minutes or so, the Spirit pressed hard and held a high line, pinning Houston back. The Spirit had several chances in that span but couldn’t add on another goal.
“I thought we probably could have put away the game in the first 10 or 15 minutes but we kind of let them in and that’s something we want to address,” Gabarra said.
In general, Houston’s chances came when the Dash counter-attacked and broke the Spirit’s high line. A lot of these chances were called offside though, and the rest were either shot straight at goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe or were off-target.
After the game, when asked about what the Dash needed to work on during the upcoming break, Houston midfielder Morgan Brian simply said, “Finish our chances.”
“We were in positions to expose them in those areas and we didn’t execute, we didn’t read the line the way we should have,” Morales said of Houston’s eight offside calls.
For a team that conceded 10 goals in the preceding three games, last night’s game was a marked improvement for the Spirit.
“Overall our lines were very close together,” said Gabarra. “Past times we were taking too many chances in our press and getting lines broken and then not really adjusting. Tonight, outside of one or two opportunities where they broke our top two lines, our backline wasn’t allowing them to get in behind us. It was always those couple chances and fortunately tonight we got those breaks and they didn’t result in goals.”
Playing with four in the back also helped the Spirit defensively. When playing in a three back against the Dash earlier this year, the Dash often pulled play to the side and then switched the ball, leaving the Spirit exposed.
“This game we played a different system so we were able to be a bit tighter as a team,” Labbe said. “First half, they were able to find a few pockets centrally but I think second half we really narrowed down those central pockets and forced them to play on the wings. That’s where we got a lot more success.”
With a nifty backheel, Pugh started a great buildup in the 27th minute between her and Mewis. With numbers up, Mewis played the ball to the right for Pugh, who one-timed a pass back across the box for Arielle Ship, who started ahead of both Katie Stengel and Francisca Ordega. In a great spot, Ship’s first touch was too heavy, and while she did get a sliding attempt away, Dash goalkeeper Lydia Williams had closed the angle to make the save.
It was still a glimpse at what the Spirit are capable of going forward. Pugh was consistently one of the smartest players on the field for either team, consistently finding the best option with her passes. Solaun also had a standout performance despite having to play a bit more defensively than in previous games.
The Dash earned a good chance in the 35th minute after Beckie passed to Daly on the flank. Daly’s cross from deep was headed away by Whitney Church, but it fell to Beckie, whose shot from the top of the box forced a diving save from Labbe.
A few minutes later, Nichelle Prince split the Spirit’s center backs with an outside of the foot pass to Kealia Ohai, who was suddenly one on one against Labbe. Ohai’s shot from about 10 yards out slid past Labbe, but fortunately went just wide of the far post.
The Spirit were back in charge after halftime, with the speed of Washington’s front three a major factor. “I think our speed and our dynamic movement up front with the pace that we had overwhelmed them,” said Gabarra.
Given a look with a 57th minute free kick, Mewis fired a shot under the jumping Dash wall. Williams had to react late but managed to do just enough to make the save for Houston. Cheyna Williams kept the rebound in along the endline before finding Ship, who fired wide.
In the 70th minute, Solaun brought it up the field and gave a quick pass to Mewis on the edge of the box. Mewis shuttled the ball on for Pugh, who was unmarked at the near post. Pugh sent a one-touch shot through the legs of Williams for her first-ever professional goal. With the goal, Pugh also became the youngest player to score in NWSL history.
“It feels cool,” Pugh said. “Especially against this intense team and in this league there’s great players and to be able to score in this league, it’s super special.”
Two later, Labbe’s goal kick went right to the Dash at midfield. Alyssa Kleiner blocked a cross from the Dash, but the ball fell to Beckie, who hit a volley that Labbe stopped low to her left.
In the 89th minute, Mewis slid a pass to Pugh near the top of the box as the Dash had been caught with numbers forward. Pugh charged towards the goal, but Williams was quick off her line, and Pugh scuffed her shot wide.
A 2-0 win against a team at the bottom of the table and under the direction of an acting head coach is no guarantee of future success for the Spirit. But nonetheless, the movement up top and defensive performance were the best of this season and going into the international break with a win is helpful mentally.
“It feels amazing,” Williams said. “Especially going into the break, we were really adamant about making sure we were putting some points on the board before going out into the break. We expect to have the same momentum and have this carry over into the next phase of the season.”