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Wasteful Washington Spirit fall 2-1 to the Houston Dash

Despite a first-ever NWSL goal from Estelle Johnson and plenty of chances, the Spirit missed a chance to leapfrog the Dash

Jose Argueta/Washington Spirit

The Washington Spirit saw a strong attacking performance go to waste as the Houston Dash won 2-1 at BBVA Compass Stadium last night. It was a familiar story for the Spirit, who have been able to create chances in three straight road games but only have one point (a 1-1 draw against Chicago) for their efforts. The Brazilian duo of Poliana and Andressa - who troubled the Spirit all night - scored on either site of halftime for Houston, while the Spirit got a first-ever NWSL goal from Estelle Johnson in the 75th minute.

Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra made just one change to his starting lineup, bringing Cheyna Williams in up front for the injured Francisca Ordega. Mallory Pugh and Estefania Banini switched spots as well, with Pugh out wide to start while Banini played underneath Williams.

The Dash - playing without the suspended Carli Lloyd - grew in confidence after Washington saw more of the ball in the game’s first 10 minutes. Still, it was Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell who had to make the game’s first challenging save in the 19th minute. Pugh manufactured the chance, collecting a pass from Banini near midfield and charging past Janine Beckie and Poliana. Pugh put a move on Amber Brooks to create a shooting window, but Brooks did just enough to force Pugh off-balance as she fired, with Campbell making the save.

Stephanie Labbe had to produce a bigger stop just one minute later. Andressa played a delightful through ball behind Washington’s back four for Poliana, who squared the ball into the six yard box for Rachel Daly. Daly looked to have a sure tap-in, but Labbe managed to stick a leg out and keep the scores level.

Brooks blocked a shot from Williams and a cross from Pugh in short order, the latter coming after the USWNT attacker danced past Poliana. However, Houston had the next solid push forward, and that’s where they took a 1-0 lead in the 25th minute. Andressa passed a short corner to Beckie, who whipped a perfect cross in to the near post where Poliana glanced it across the face of goal and into the lower corner.

Labbe was forced into another save after Daly had a go from well outside the box, while the Spirit won a corner on the next move upfield. While Pugh’s ball in was headed away by Houston, center back Shelina Zadorsky collected the ball 27 yards from goal before curling in a shot destined for the upper corner. Unfortunately, what could have been goal of the week may well now be save of the week, as Campbell somehow flung herself up to claw the shot away.

The back-and-forth attacks kept coming. Poliana again bombed forward down the right in the 31st minute to run onto a pass from Andressa, this time chipping the ball over Johnson and Whitney Church to Daly, whose floated header had Labbe beaten. Fortunately for the Spirit, it landed on the roof of the net.

Pugh had a pair of shots before the Spirit’s best first half chance came in the 42nd minute. Pugh was again involved, as her hard work tracking back produced a turnover. Kassey Kallman quickly found Tori Huster at midfield, and the Spirit original opened up to swing the ball right only to chop a smart pass back across herself to Pugh, who was sprinting up the left touchline. Pugh found Banini in a seam between the lines, and the Argentine took a touch to get around Janine Van Wyk. With Morgan Brian bearing down, Banini fired on goal from 10 yards only for Campbell to produce another big save.

The Spirit brought Kristie Mewis and Caprice Dydasco in for Williams and Kallman at halftime. The 45 minutes were the most Dydasco has played since tearing her ACL in last year’s NWSL final, which took place on this same field in Houston. Gabarra didn’t change his formation, but he did tweak his lineup by pushing Pugh up to lead the line while Mewis played underneath as a second forward.

Johnson had to be alert straight away, producing a last-second lunge to force Andressa to side-foot about a yard wide of Labbe’s left-hand post. Washington replied in the 50th minute, with a promising spell of possession in the attacking third ending when Solaun’s shot unluckily hit Mewis in front of goal and bounced over the endline.

Banini should have done better in the 53rd minute, as she and Pugh showed a flash of what the new-look Washington attack is capable of. Meggie Dougherty Howard directed a header to Banini, who quickly dished to Pugh. Pugh took one touch to draw defenders before using the outside of her foot to give Banini a return pass. Forced to shoot with her left foot by Poliana, Banini couldn’t get enough power on her shot to beat Campbell.

The Spirit would rue the miss, as they’d fall behind 2-0 just seconds later. Andressa, again able to find a pocket in transition, this time fed Daly in behind on the right wing. Daly cut back away from the endline before passing back to Andressa, who hit a sublime arcing shot that found its way into the tiny window between Labbe’s attempted save and the crossbar.

Washington pushed back quickly. Solaun shot wide before then coming up with a 64th minute backheel to set Pugh up for a wonderful pass to an open Banini, who beat the offside trap. Banini probably should have shot with her first touch, but ended up only winning a corner that Washington couldn’t capitalize on.

In the middle of all of that, Houston nearly got a third as Nichelle Prince picked Daly out on the counter, only for the English forward’s near-post blast to be parried away by Labbe.

Daly would go even closer in the 67th minute, as Andressa’s early ball sparked another Dash counter. Prince got a bit lucky that her pass got by Church, but no luck was involved as Daly’s great turn to shed Zadorsky set up a glorious look at goal. Labbe charged off her line, though, getting just enough contact on Daly’s shot to send it trickling wide of the post.

A frustrating night for Banini continued in the 72nd minute. Solaun’s pass from the right had Houston thinking she was looking for Pugh’s run. That deceived the Dash defense, leaving Banini with a great chance to pull one back. However, Banini simply got the execution wrong, and her intended shot back across Campbell’s stride ended up going right at the Dash netminder.

After so many chances for their skillful attackers had gone awry, it was perhaps fitting that a defender got the Spirit on the board. Dougherty Howard nearly lost the ball at midfield only to win it back with a strong but fair tackle on substitute Caity Heap. The ball ran on for Solaun, whose pass for the overlapping Johnson managed to catch Cami Levin on the turn, letting Washington’s right back race into the box. Johnson fired just before Levin could make a recovery tackle, beating Campbell low at her near post in the 75th minute. The goal is the first in NWSL play for Johnson, who has been in the league since it started in 2013.

Gabarra made his final roll of the dice, bringing Alyssa Kleiner on for Solaun and moving to a three-back in the 78th minute. Mewis nearly got Washington an equalizer in the minutes that followed, shooting powerfully on the turn from 24 yards only to be denied by another acrobatic save from Campbell.

As ever, though, the game had chances at both ends. Poliana chipped a pass for Beckie as the Spirit left numbers forward, and in the end blocks from Church and Labbe were required as Beckie and Poliana both had shots from a narrow angle.

The Spirit got one last opportunity, with a free kick and a corner deep into stoppage time, but the Dash were able to do just enough to prevent any more shots, leaving the Spirit stuck in last place despite taking a season-high 21 shots.

Washington’s long spell of road games continues next week, as the Spirit head out to Oregon to take on Portland Thorns FC Saturday night at 10:00pm.