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Washington Spirit, Sky Blue FC battle to scoreless draw

Andi Sullivan’s penalty kick miss haunted the Spirit in an eventful second half

Courtesy of Washington Spirit

A missed penalty kick in the 79th minute haunted the Washington Spirit on Saturday night who settled for a 0-0 draw against last place Sky Blue FC. A low-key first half gave way to a frenetic but ineffective second half that offered plenty of opportunities for both sides, yet the two teams were agonizingly unable to capitalize. For the Spirit, tonight was a chance to pick up points against the worst team in the league but a combination of injuries and poor play derailed that opportunity.

With four international absentees and a sudden burst of injuries, Jim Gabarra had to get creative with his lineup. The Spirit stayed in their normal 433, but with some unusual sights. Morgan Proffitt and Tiffany Weimer made their first starts of the season, with Proffitt at the base of the midfield and Weimer — normally more of a winger — playing as a center forward. Veteran defensive midfielder Tori Huster ended up starting as a right forward, reflecting how short-handed the Spirit are at the moment.

With Sky Blue in a similarly rough spot due to unavailable players, the game took on a predictably choppy nature. At times both sides were able to charge through or around their opponent’s midfield with ease, but the final product at both ends was lacking. Estefania Banini, wide on the left, was able to win some free kicks while Shea Groom was at the center of nearly every Sky Blue attack.

A set piece created Washington’s best chance of the half, with a knockdown from Proffitt finding Whitney Church open in front of goal. Unfortunately, Church was unable to really snap the ball down, and Kailen Sheridan ended up with an easy save.

As the half wore on, though, the home team took charge. Estelle Johnson made a crucial last-ditch tackle on Imani Dorsey around the 30th minute, and a controversial foul call on Groom halted what could have been a potential breakaway for Sky Blue. Groom then did get in behind late in the half, but inexplicably opted not to shoot from inside the six after getting past Johnson and Church. Groom opted to pass, which still caused danger, but despite McKenzie Meehan’s pass falling to Katie Johnson on the doorstep, the game stayed 0-0 as Aubrey Bledsoe produced a huge save.

The Spirit’s injury problems appeared compounded in the 24th minute when Taylor Smith went down with an apparent back injury. Despite indications that she would be replaced, Smith returned to play. At halftime, rather than sub her off, Gabarra moved her into a center forward role, with Meggie Dougherty Howard moving to right back and Banini dropping into the midfield in the shuffle.

Sky Blue started the second half off with a near goal, as Meehan nutmegged Proffitt and fed Madison Tiernan. She beat Dougherty Howard and Johnson before passing it across the goalmouth, but Sky Blue couldn’t convert the sitter.

In contrast to the first half, the second half offered constant near-goals, with both teams wasting plenty of good looks. The teams were playing with an energy and desperation that suggested several goals would be scored but the ineffectiveness inside the box made it feel at times the game could go on for several more hours without a shot actually going in.

Washington had a good chance in the 70th minute when Proffitt headed a Spirit corner kick on towards the back post. Huster turned into a shot but Gibbons, stationed on the line, ultimately denied the Spirit a lead, blocking Huster’s effort wide for another corner that was cleared.

Michaela Abam replaced Dorsey moments later and made an immediate impact. Abam fed Groom, whose run through the channel put her into a great spot. Johnson’s challenge did just enough to keep Groom from shooting on frame, and in the aftermath Groom needed several minutes of treatment with what appeared to be an ankle injury.

In the 79th minute, the Spirit earned a questionable penalty kick after Tiernan was called for a foul on Banini that was a bit unjustified judging by the replays. Andi Sullivan stepped up, but her low shot wasn’t close to the corner, and Sheridan got down to make the save.

The final ten minutes still felt like a game on the brink of something. Desperation characterized the closing stages, but neither team had the means to score. Groom came closest, but was frustrated three separate times. First, she forced a save from Bledsoe in a moment where she probably should have passed to Katie Johnson instead. In stoppage time, Groom tried to chip Bledsoe from about 40 yards out only for it to float wide, and then a minute later a well-timed tackle from Estelle Johnson saved the result for Washington.

The draw leaves the Spirit is in eighth place on nine points, five points adrift of Utah and Houston. Washington returns to action next Saturday, when they’ll host Seattle Reign FC.