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Washington Spirit stun Sky Blue FC with late goals

Whitney Church and Mallory Pugh struck in the final 15 minutes to give the Spirit a sweep of the season series

Jane Gershovich/Washington Spirit

A short-handed Washington Spirit posted a second half comeback to beat Sky Blue FC last night, eliminating the New Jersey club from playoff contention. Sky Blue took the lead just before halftime through Maya Hayes, but in the second half center back Whitney Church’s first professional goal equalized for the Spirit. Mallory Pugh, a second half sub, then produced the winner with a long-distance effort in the 85th minute.

With few healthy field players, the Spirit were rather limited in how they could set up. Mallory Pugh and Tori Huster were held out of the starting lineup, while recently acquired rookie Morgan Proffitt made her first start for the Spirit and second pro start. Jim Gabarra opted to start the game with a 352, and had just three field players sitting with goalkeeper Kelsey Wys on the bench.

The Spirit managed to keep the high-scoring home team quiet in the early going. Washington set a pretty effective offside trap against Sam Kerr that kept her silent for much of the first half, and both teams largely contained each other.

Washington’s best first half chance came following a 14th minute corner kick. Kailen Sheridan couldn’t quite punch the ball clear, causing a scramble to break out in the goalmouth. The ball popped out to Church at the back post, but the Virginia native’s shot through traffic cracked off the post and went behind.

In the 33rd minute Sky Blue had a couple passes in the box before Hayes sent a headed shot back across goal. DiDi Haracic, at full extension, just barely pushed it wide of goal. Five minutes later, Madison Tiernan and Taylor Lytle combined to set up Sarah Killion, whose shot forced a reflex save out of Haracic.

Sky Blue had taken charge of the game as the half wore on, and they turned that into a lead in the 43rd minute. Hayes won a header from a Haracic goal kick, with Kerr getting the loose ball and muscling Kassey Kallman aside. Kerr set the sprinting Hayes up, but Haracic came out in time to prevent a shot. Unfortunately, she was injured in the resulting collision, and even though Shelina Zadorsky blocked Kerr’s resulting shot, the ball bounced back to Hayes, who fired into the empty net.

Alyssa Kleiner came up huge for the Spirit in stoppage time, when a Sky Blue clearance following a corner put Kerr behind the entire Washington defense. Kleiner caught up with her, making up a big gap before stripping the ball from Kerr with a perfect tackle.

At halftime the Spirit switched to a 4-3-3, moving Kleiner up as a left forward while Lindsay Agnew moved out to the right. While this helped slow Sky Blue down a bit, Washington wasn’t creating much, and Gabarra turned to his bench. Pugh replaced Solaun in the 62nd minute and took over as the playmaker, while Cali Farquharson replaced Cheyna Williams a few minutes later. Agnew moved into the center forward spot as a result.

In the 74th minute Sky Blue thought they had the game wrapped up. Kerr sent a header to Daphne Corboz, who ripped a shot past Haracic from 9 yards out. However, the offside flag was up on Kerr, and referee Rebecca Pagan waved the goal off.

That proved crucial. From the Spirit’s next possession, Kelley O’Hara’s tackle on Kleiner pushed the ball out for a Spirit corner kick. Zadorsky swung it to the back post, where Church headed in the equalizer with authority.

Sky Blue, with their playoff hopes on the line, manufactured two quick chances. Yet another offside flag denied Kerr in the 80th minute, but a Proffitt turnover a minute later resulted in Corboz playing Kerr in behind, this time onside. Haracic got a hand to the ball as Kerr tried to round her on the dribble, and then Kallman did just enough to force Kerr into shooting wide before Haracic had gotten back into position.

Those misses seemed to take the wind out of Sky Blue’s sails, and with five minutes left before the final whistle, Washington stole a late game-winner. Agnew turned into two defenders 30 yards from goal and was fighting to keep the ball alive when Pugh took over. Pugh left Nikki Stanton in her wake before blazing a 22 yard shot past Sheridan and into the bottom corner.

Stoppage time was hectic to say the least, despite an unexpectedly short two minutes being added on by Pagan. First, Kerr called for a penalty kick after a tackle from Church, with Pagan making no call. Kerr was offside again moments later.

Then there was a huge scramble with seconds left on the clock. Haracic looked like she was coming off her line to get a through ball, but misjudged the bounce, allowing O’Hara - now playing up front - to dribble around her. Yet Church managed to get back and block O’Hara’s shot at the empty net. Haracic recovered in time to save Corboz’s follow-up and then deny O’Hara from an angle. Caprice Dydasco still had to hack the rebound from that shot off the line, allowing the Spirit to close the game out for a 2-1 victory, their first win since August 4th (also against Sky Blue).

Washington won’t play this weekend due to the upcoming international window but will return to the Maryland SoccerPlex on September 23 to face the last place Boston Breakers.