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Mallory Pugh’s return not enough for Washington Spirit in 2-0 defeat at Seattle Reign FC

The Spirit were held scoreless for the 11th time this season

Nikita Taparia

Mallory Pugh made her return to play for the Washington Spirit against the Seattle Reign on Sunday night, but her second half entrance wasn’t enough to change the tides of the Spirit’s offensive woes. Seattle had several chances before Jasmyne Spencer scored at the end of the first half, and then Jodie Taylor finished the game off in the 71st minute on a goal that started from a quick throw-in, condemning the Spirit to another loss.

Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra made significant changes to the lineup ahead of Sunday’s game. Estefania Banini, out with a right MCL sprain suffered just before the team left for Seattle, was replaced by Havana Solaun. DiDi Haracic started in goal in place of Aubrey Bledsoe, and Whitney Church was given a start in the midfield over Andi Sullivan. Gabarra did maintain the 3412 that he fielded in Washington’s last match, a 1-0 defeat against the Houston Dash.

At the outset, the two teams were pretty evenly matched, but after the first ten minutes the Reign took control. Megan Rapinoe was given too much room to work, and Rebecca Quinn often had little help in defending the USWNT starter.

Seattle’s ability to switch the point of attack and the countless crosses and set pieces they had made a goal start to feel inevitable. In the 21st minute, Spencer sent a cross in from the right. Haracic came for it but didn’t get a touch, and Taylor Smith’s attempt to clear fell to Rapinoe. Rapinoe paused before trying to find Jess Fishlock at the near post, but between Estelle Johnson and Haracic, the ball went out for a corner.

That became a theme. Another corner kick from the Reign just four minutes later was threatening when Rapinoe’s near-post delivery was knocked down to an open Fishlock, who shot right at Haracic from a good spot.

The Spirit weren’t giving away too many huge chances, but with Seattle having 60% of the possession and getting into plenty of dangerous spots, it didn’t feel like a huge shock when former Spirit forward Jasmyne Spencer scored in the 44th minute. Despite the Spirit’s struggles throughout the first half, the goal wasn’t really an indictment of the Spirit as much as it was the culmination of really good work for the Reign. Spencer started the attack, and eventually Allie Long served a precise long ball over the top of the Spirit’s backline. Spencer’s run from deep split Quinn and Tori Huster, and after a delicate first touch she hammered the ball past Haracic from close range.

The second half saw the Spirit improve. Ashley Hatch started the half off with two strong shots. The first came after a poor giveaway from Seattle, with Hatch forcing Lydia Williams into her first action of the game. Shortly thereafter, the second shot had power on it, but went over the crossbar.

The Spirit’s passing accuracy which was dreadful in the first half (around 62 percent) improved remarkably, but the Spirit still had trouble carving out chances in close. Washington were a bit over-reliant on Seattle giveaways instead of creating their own build-ups, though they were at least forcing some of those turnovers.

Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan both entered right after the hour mark, replacing Francisca Ordega and Havana Solaun. Lavelle ended up in a second forward role, while Sullivan took over Solaun’s spot in the midfield. The shift gave the Spirit a slightly different look, but Seattle was still looking comfortable.

Gabarra made his final change in the 68th minute, bringing Pugh in for her first minutes since spraining her knee against Houston at the end of May, though rather surprisingly she replaced Hatch, leaving the Spirit with no out-and-out strikers on the field. Pugh and Lavelle, considered the potential centerpieces of the attack, have barely played together this season, with the 22 minutes they got in this game increasing their season total to a minuscule 61 minutes on the year.

Seattle remained the more dangerous team, though, and in the 71st minute Jodie Taylor—another former Washington player—more or less ended the Spirit’s hopes. A quick throw-in from Rapinoe caught the Spirit off-guard, and Taylor took advantage of being able to be behind the Spirit’s backline to calmly climp the ball over Haracic and in.

Seattle seemed interested in a third, but the Spirit had their best chances of the game in the final minutes. First, right after the goal, Taylor Smith’s cross from the endline just barely missed Pugh, with Caprice Dydasco’s back-post attempt looping barely over the crossbar. Then, in the 80th minute, another Smith cross deflected, and after former Spirit defender Megan Oyster whiffed on a clearance, it reached Dydasco, who forced an incredible save out of Williams.

Pugh nearly marked her return with a late goal as well. A Spirit corner was cleared, but Dydasco, who had a good game despite the result, sent a well-weighted ball back in. Seattle’s offside trap was too late to catch Pugh, but the ball got caught under her feet, preventing any kind of shot.

Despite these chances, the Spirit couldn’t break a now 334 minute scoreless run, which comes on the heels of a 476 minute scoreless run on the other side of their most recent goal. The Spirit have been shut out in 11 of their 19 games this season.

This Wednesday, the west coast road trip continues for the Spirit, as they face the Utah Royals at 10:00pm Eastern.