Sunday night’s game against the Houston Dash was a crucial step for the Washington Spirit to work their way up the NWSL standings, but a series of costly turnovers and poor positioning punished them in a 3-2 road loss. While Estefania Banini and Ashley Hatch both scored in the second half for the Spirit, a missed penalty kick from Mallory Pugh also cost the team. Rachel Daly scored the first and last goals for the Dash, with Kealia Ohai striking in between.
It was the third game in eight days for the Spirit, and head coach Jim Gabarra put Mallory Eubanks up top in Pugh’s spot, while also rotating Meggie Dougherty Howard in at left back in place of Caprice Dydasco. Dougherty Howard played a bit at right back during preseason but was uncomfortable at left back in the early moments, and made an error in the first minute that would have been dangerous if not for an offside call against Ohai.
Houston had the better of a poor first half from both teams. Washington couldn’t move the ball from their backline to the attack, and frequent turnovers in the midfield resulted in a choppy tempo. The most notable moment in the opening stages was an unfortunate one, as Kristie Mewis went down with a knee injury early. After lengthy treatment, she returned to the game, but lasted just moments as an attempted tackle on Francisca Ordega appeared to exacerbate the same knee issue. Mewis was stretchered off, with Haley Hanson replacing her.
Washington had a token shot towards the end of the half, which was the first attempt by either team in the game. However, the Dash responded with the game’s opening goal. In first half stoppage time, a Spirit turnover fell to Mana Shim — with no pressure on her after she moved away from Andi Sullivan — and she played a wonderful long ball across the field to Nichelle Prince, catching the Spirit with numbers forward. Prince was off to the races and crossed low to Daly, who was in behind Whitney Church and fired a one-time effort past Aubrey Bledsoe from point-blank range.
Mallory Pugh entered for Francisca Ordega at halftime, but the second half didn’t start on a stronger note for the Spirit. Shim found Ohai on the right in the 47th inute, where she cut inside before trying to pass to Linda Motlhalo. Dougherty Howard blocked the pass, but it bounced to Ohai, who took another touch inside and curled an inch-perfect shot from 24 yards past Bledsoe before any Spirit player could close her down.
Washington had a chance to narrow Houston’s lead four minutes later when former Washington player Lindsay Agnew fouled Pugh in the box. Pugh took the Spirit’s first penalty kick of the season, but her shot down the middle didn’t fool Jane Campbell, who easily saved the shot. The rebound caused chaos, but Washington couldn’t punch it home.
Banini made up for the miss shortly afterwards. Pugh played the ball back to Quinn, who switched play to Smith on the Spirit’s right flank. Smith surged forward and crossed it to Banini, wide open a few yards from goal with Houston anticipating a near-post service. Banini measured up her opportunity, placing it to the back post for her first goal of the season.
Washington’s improvement was equal parts a commitment to pressing higher up the field and generally connecting their passes more regularly. Gabarra made his final two substitutions of the game midway through the half. Dydasco and Rose Lavelle entered for Eubanks and Quinn, respectively, with Dougherty Howard moving to the right wing and Lavelle playing a more attacking midfield role than Quinn had held.
In the 78th minute, though, the Spirit’s comeback hopes took a huge hit. Estelle Johnson turned the ball over in the midfield to Motlhalo just as Washington had every one of their field players in the Houston half to attack. Motlhalo split Johnson and Sullivan with a quick pass to send Prince and Daly in behind everyone. With no hope of anyone catching the Dash attackers, Bledsoe charged up nearly to midfield to make an interception, but she was a beat too late, and Prince found Daly, who practically walked the ball into the net.
It nearly got worse for the Spirit in the 84th minute. Campbell played a ball from the Dash’s own box that somehow beat the Spirit defense, landing at Daly’s feet. Daly carried it most of the way before passing to Tembi Kgatlana, who had an easy look as only Johnson was able to get back to defend in time. Kgatlana scored, but referee Katja Koroleva eventually waved it off after calling Daly offside on the original punt forward.
Washington seemed down and out, with Pugh leaving the game due to an apparent injury in the final minutes, but despite finishing the game with 10 they still added a stoppage time goal thanks to a horrific giveaway from the Dash. A terrible backpass from Hanson to Campbell simply didn’t have much on it, and Hatch ran onto it, rolling a 91st minute shot past Campbell to make it 3-2.
That was all they could muster, though, and a great chance for the Spirit to work their way back up the table fell to the wayside. Next week, the Spirit face the Chicago Red Stars at the Maryland SoccerPlex, a test of depth for both teams as many players will be away with the USWNT.