The Washington Spirit saw their season summed up in a lot of ways during today’s wild 2-2 draw with the Boston Breakers. Despite dominating stretches of the game and taking the lead twice, the Spirit saw Abby Smith produce some stellar saves and had three shots strike the crossbar (two from Mallory Pugh) while conceding both goals via some shoddy defensive play.
Facing a third game in eight days, head coach Jim Gabarra made three changes. Team captain Shelina Zadorsky returned at center back, replacing former Breaker Kassey Kallman, while Estefania Banini came in for Cheyna Williams. The big surprise came in goal, where Goalkeeper of the Year candidate Stephanie Labbe was replaced by DiDi Haracic, who made her first-ever start for the Spirit in NWSL play. Gabarra also shifted away from a 442 defensive shape, playing a 433 from the start.
Despite the heavy schedule, Washington jumped all over Boston early, pressing high and attempting several through balls. In the 6th minute, the good beginning turned into a goal from an unlikely source. Estelle Johnson had overlapped during an attack that Boston slowed, but never actually cleared out. Staying forward, she ended up getting lost by the Breakers, who left her unmarked. Meggie Dougherty Howard slipped her through on Abby Smith, and though Johnson’s first shot attempt was saved, Johnson left no doubt with the second attempt.
For Johnson, the goal is her second in under a month after previously never having scored in NWSL play.
The Spirit tried to build on their strong start. Arielle Ship’s quick shot from a good position in the 9th minute skipped wide, while a cross from Banini following a half-cleared corner nearly ended up going in at the back post. In the midst of all that, Havana Solaun - probably in an offside position, but uncalled - found herself on the doorstep, but had to hurry her shot and was denied by Smith.
Washington started to drop their pressure off after that strong opening, and Boston started to get themselves into the game a bit more. They didn’t have much in the way of chances - a half-hearted penalty shout from Adriana Leon and a header from Rosie white that flew well wide in the 32nd minute - but the visitors were on surer footing as the Spirit preserved their legs.
Following a hydration break, the Spirit turned up the heat once again. Following a corner kick, Washington hit Boston on the break, with a fluid move seeing Banini and Solaun connect before sending Pugh in alone on Smith. However, Smith - a hopeful to break in with the USWNT these days - showed her quality, making a big save.
Dougherty Howard saw a shot from the top of the box sail wide after more good work from the Spirit in the 41st minute, as the return of the high press caused the game to open up in Washington’s favor. However, Boston sprang an ambush, producing a couple of turnovers in quick order that became an equalizer. Zadorsky cut out Salem’s attempted through ball, but her touch allowed White to pick up the loose ball and lay it off to Tiffany Weimer (another former Spirit player with the Breakers these days). Weimer dinked a pass over the top for Leon, only for Whitney Church to appear to get the first touch.
That ended up not helping. The ball fell between Zadorsky, Katie Stengel (yup, another former Spirit player), and Dydasco, where Stengel’s attempt to poke it goalwards ended up going off Dydasco and back to Leon, who bundled it over the line.
Despite that goal coming in the 44th minute, stoppage time saw opportunities both ways. From a free kick, Pugh cracked the crossbar on a curling free kick in the 46th minute, and in the moments that followed Zadorsky’s back pass nearly ended up giving Boston a breakaway. White picked it off, but her first touch was heavy and Haracic claimed at her feet to extinguish the danger.
The wild ending wasn’t done. With virtually the final play of the half, Megan Oyster - you guessed it, another former Spirit player on the Boston side these days - made contact with Banini’s foot in the box, missing the ball entirely. Washington wanted a penalty kick, the Breakers wanted a yellow for diving, and in the end referee Danielle Chesky opted to make no call either way.
Pugh started to get more involved in the early part of the second half. She nearly ran in for a breakaway on a ball from the left side only for her first touch to let her down, and in the 55th minute Smith denied her with a great save at the near post following a pass from Banini.
The Spirit were cruelly denied a goal in the 58th minute. Pugh’s free kick from the right was sublime, freezing Smith on her line and finding Zadorsky at the back post. Zadorsky put the ball past Smith, but it ended up bouncing off of Tori Huster, who had been crashing the goal trying to attack the service, and Boston managed to clear.
Washington were back in charge, and they made it count in the 64th minute. Banini surged into a pocket of space on the right after Dougherty Howard moved the ball wide. Banini’s delicate lob was going in, and Smith had to backpedal to get her fingertips to it. However, Williams - on as a substitute just 10 minutes earlier - was on hand to nod the ball into the back of the net before Smith could recover.
Kristie Mewis replaced Banini soon after the goal, and nearly made a quick impact. Pugh got the ball wide right before pushing it inside for the former Breaker, who hit a trademark blistering shot that Smith had to lay out at full stretch to save in the 75th minute.
Unfortunately, the Spirit’s tendency to let good performances and leads turn into draws or losses reared its head once again in the 79th minute. Midge Purce, an Olney native, used her speed to push the tempo from right back, picking out substitute Ifeoma Onumonu. Typically seen as someone who provides speed, Onumonu showed her class on the ball, bending an inch-perfect cross from the right to Leon, who was kept onside by the Washington back four. Leon didn’t have a spectacular finish, but it was enough to get past Haracic and in.
Washington didn’t hang their heads despite the familiarity of the bad news. Pugh set Alyssa Kleiner - on as a sub in the moments after the goal - up for a shot from the penalty spot, but she scuffed her shot, which ended up going right to Smith. Pugh called her own number in the 83rd minute, hitting a rocket from an angle that beat Smith cleanly. Sadly, for the second time on the day, her shot crashed against the bar and bounced away.
The Spirit’s frustrations kept piling up. A 25 yard shot from Huster looked destined for the upper corner, only for Smith to somehow get up high enough to make a dramatic 90th minute save. At the other end, deep in stoppage time, a turnover from Dydasco let Onumonu in, only for the rookie to fire several yards over the crossbar.
A tough day nearly got worse, as Huster and Salem clashed heads in the 93rd minute. Both players required two minutes of treatment before returning to play, with Salem getting a booking for arriving late.
This appeared to be the final play of the game, but there was still major drama coming. Pugh’s free kick into area picked out Johnson, who lofted her header over Smith only for it to hit the crossbar for a third time. Washington had several players around the ball, but no one could reach it, letting the Breakers clear.
Straight up to the other end from that clearance, Boston found themselves with a 3v2. Onumonu rolled the ball into the middle for White, who from a glorious position somehow managed to send a sure game-winner wide of frame.
The draw did neither team a favor, as both now sit 7 points from a playoff spot with 8 games left in their respective seasons. Next Saturday, the Spirit will visit the North Carolina Courage, who sit atop the NWSL standings. That game will be a second straight Lifetime Game of the Week, with the broadcast starting at 3:30pm.