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Diana Matheson haunts Washington Spirit in 2-0 loss at Utah Royals FC

The Spirit’s all-time leading scorer, now with Utah, was involved on both goals as the NWSL’s newest club sunk the Spirit

Nikita Taparia

Utah Royals FC earned their first-ever franchise win in Saturday night’s 2-0 victory over the Washington Spirit. Kelley O’Hara scored an early goal for the Royals and then in the second half former Spirit midfielder Diana Matheson, who was the architect of the first goal, added an insurance goal after forcing a turnover in the Spirit half.

Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra started the same lineup that he did in the past two games with Tori Huster, Andi Sullivan, and Meggie Dougherty Howard in the midfiled and Ashley Hatch between Mallory Pugh and Francisca Ordega up top.

Utah controlled the early exchanges, with O’Hara making the early pressure pay off in the 7th minute. Matheson won the ball on Utah’s right flank following a Spirit throw-in before looping a pass ball to Amy Rodriguez near the top of the area. Drawing three defenders, Rodriguez played a clever pass to O’Hara, whose slashing run took her past Taylor Smith before the USWNT veteran thumped a first-time shot past Bledsoe.

Washington improved, getting more of the ball and applying more pressure. The Spirit got close to a goal in the 18th minute when Ordega forced a turnover from Gunnhildur Jonsdottir. Utah goalkeeper Abby Smith came off her line to reach the loose ball before Ordega at the edge of the box, but her tackle only sent the ball straight to Hatch. With Smith down and the goal open, Hatch hurried to shoot under pressure, sending the ball wide from about 30 yards out.

While the Spirit pushed for an equalizer, Utah had the occasional look of their own, with Katrina Gorry’s service to the back post picking out O’Hara, who this time drifted off of Smith’s back shoulder. O’Hara opted for an awkward volley that nonetheless barely skipped wide of Bledsoe’s left-hand post on the half hour mark.

In the 37th minute, Rebecca Quinn replaced Tori Huster — who didn’t appear injured — in the midfield, with Andi Sullivan moving into Huster’s spot further upfield while Quinn played as the defensive midfielder. Moments after the sub, O’Hara ran at Smith to get into the box before firing a contested shot that Bledsoe did just enough to tip wide of goal. The Spirit had one last push in first-half stoppage time, but both Ordega’s cross and Sullivan’s long-range shot were blocked.

Washington were stronger to start the second half. The backline moved a bit higher, signalling an intent to press higher up the field. Ordega stripped Elby of the ball deep in the Royals half, with Elby bringing her down along the endline in the 48th minute. Abby Smith punched Sullivan’s service away, and Utah defended a series of crosses without Washington managing a shot.

While the Spirit’s attack was improved, including dangerous crosses forcing Smith to work and a quick shot from Hatch in the 58th minute, but Washington still wasn’t able to carve out many truly good looks. In an effort to boost his attack, Gabarra brought Estefania Banini in for Meggie Dougherty Howard just after the hour mark.

Instead, it was Utah grabbing a second in the 65th minute. After some pinball at midfield, Smith telegraphed a square pass to Estelle Johnson. Matheson got a jump on it, sliding in to win the ball before clipping a shot over the charging Bledsoe that bounced its way into the empty net.

Hatch replied with a shot on the turn from 19 yards after some good work on the run, but at the other end Taylor Smith was booked for a foul on O’Hara, who wanted a red card as she tried to break into the box.

The Spirit moved to three in the back in the 81st minute, bringing Cali Farquharson in for Caprice Dydasco, and had their best chance of the night two minutes later. Whitney Church’s corner kick found Johnson at the back post, and the Spirit captain nodded the ball down and back across goal. Sullivan arrived at the near post, but reaching back against her own momentum, her attempt ended up floating parallel to the goal rather than going in.

At the start of stoppage time, Washington produced their best soccer of the night. Banini and Pugh started the rush, with the former feeding Hatch to the right. Hatch picked out Ordega, who was kept onside by Brooke Elby, just 8 yards out. Ordega took a touch, set her feet, and blasted a shot on frame, but Smith made a great save to preserve the clean sheet, ensuring a third loss of the season for Washington.

The loss dropped the Spirit to 1W-2D-3L on the season and 7th place in the standings. Next weekend won’t be easier for the Spirit, who travel south to face the first place North Carolina Courage on May 12 at 7:00pm.