It wasn’t the result they were looking for, but the Washington Spirit showed some real fight in coming back twice to get a 2-2 draw before a sellout crowd of 5,200 at the Maryland Soccerplex. Marta twice gave the visitors the lead, with a 10th minute penalty kick and a 56th minute shot through traffic, but Mallory Pugh responded both times with a goal of her own, including a 90th minute spot kick after Kristie Mewis drew the foul.
Jim Gabarra, with the closest to a full strength team he’s had all season, sprang a bit of a surprise by moving to a 442 formation for just the second time this season. Mallory Pugh returned to the starting lineup for the first time since an ankle injury suffered playing for the national team, while Estefania Banini made her first start since returning to the club from her time in Spain. Cheyna Williams and Kristie Mewis made way.
On the other side, Alex Morgan made her first start since returning from a loan with French gians Olympique Lyonnais, while Ali Krieger appeared at the Maryland Soccerplex for the first time since being traded in the offseason.
The Spirit put a couple balls into dangerous spots early, but found themselves behind on Orlando’s first real attack. Some tidy work up the middle saw Camila find a seam in the Spirit defense. Just a yard into the box, the Brazilian international was bundled over by an overly exuberant tackle from Kassey Kallman in the 9th minute. Marta collected the ball to convert the resulting penalty kick in the 10th, sending Stephanie Labbe the wrong way from the spot.
After taking a few minutes to recover from the early blow, the Spirit struck back. Banini forced a turnover by intercepting a pass from right back Kristen Edmonds, and the Spirit surged into the attack. Banini picked out Francisca Ordega at the top of the box, and she shuttled the ball along to Pugh. Ordega’s pass wasn’t perfect, but Pugh took advantage of some hesitation in Orlando’s defense before rolling a shot past Aubrey Bledsoe and into the bottom corner.
The Spirit kept at it, and nearly took the lead four minutes later. With the Washington midfield and attack collapsing into the middle, it ended up being the defensive midfield duo of Meggie Dougherty Howard and Tori Huster combining to create the opening. Dougherty Howard played Huster in for a one-on-one with Bledsoe, but despite Huster’s calm attempt to lift the ball over Bledsoe, the ‘keeper got a hand up as she went to ground, making a huge save to keep the game level.
Both teams appeared to benefit from the hydration break. The Spirit made a tactical adjustment, swapping Pugh and Banini’s roles, while Huster nearly got on the end of another ball into the box. Camila blazed a shot over the bar after a sharp Pride move forward, while Toni Pressley produced an outstanding sliding block to deny Ordega after a good pass into the area from Huster.
Both teams continued to play front-foot soccer after halftime, with one sequence seeing Huster - again bursting into the box from central midfield - send a cross into the six yard box. Orlando cleared, and suddenly Marta threatened to have a breakaway. Whitney Church did well to recover and managed to shut the Brazilian legend down one-on-one inside the box.
The Pride started to get more numbers forward, with Steph Catley becoming more of a factor, and that pressure ended up leading another Marta goal. The Spirit could never quite get the ball clear on a couple attempts to put the ball into the area, and Camila’s attempt to pop the ball over a crowd ended up taking an unlucky carom off of Huster, spinning directly to Marta. Given a tiny window, the five-time World Player of the Year made no mistake, hammering a half-volley through a crowd and into the lower corner.
After a pair of subs - Morgan was replaced by Rachel Hill, while Havana Solaun gave way to Williams for the Spirit - Marta went looking for a hat trick from a long way out, with her soaring effort arcing over Labbe but floating just wide in the 65th minute.
Washington brought Caprice Dydasco on at right back for Estelle Johnson, who appeared to possibly be favoring her right leg after a slide tackle. The Spirit also needd to add more attack-minded players, and followed that move up by bringing Mewis in for Dougherty Howard. Gabarra shifted his side into a 4132, with Mewis as a second forward.
Williams and Banini both created openings on the dribble only to have their shots end up going right at Bledsoe. Banini’s chance looked to be the better opportunity, but Pressley did just enough to get a knee on the ball, giving Bledsoe an easy save. Mewis then had an attempted through ball blocked by Alanna Kennedy, before Dydasco had a pair of crosses float just a bit too long for Spirit targets in the box.
Washington’s late press for a goal finally paid off with a 90th minute penalty kick. Williams made the play, spinning Catley to get into space in the box. Williams found Mewis inside the six, where she posted up Pressley. The two tangled legs, with referee Henrik Karlsson pointing to the spot. Pugh
Pugh and Williams both had shots at a winner in stoppage time with the former shooting right at Bledsoe while the latter couldn’t quite square her hips on goal to give Washington a last-gasp winner.
The late equalizer is a plus for the Spirit, as they’ve now lost once in five games, but finishing with a draw left them temporarily one point behind three clubs (Houston, Kansas City, and Boston) all tied for 7th on 13 points. That’s a tough spot to be in, as the next four Washington games will all be on the road. The Spirit play the Dash next Saturday at 8:30pm.