The Washington Spirit broke a five-game winless rut with a 1-0 victory over Sky Blue FC, disappointing a sellout crowd of 5,003 in New Jersey. Ashley Hatch’s goal early in the second half made the difference on a night that saw Rose Lavelle and Carli Lloyd make their return to NWSL play after winning the World Cup with the USWNT.
An energetic start from both sides saw the game flying from end to end early. Rose Lavelle had two shots blocked (one by a sliding tackle from former Spirit defender Estelle Johnson) early, and the right-sided trio of Lavelle (in her first start of the year), Mallory Pugh, and Tori Huster seeing plenty of the ball. At the other end, a turnover saw Lloyd swing the ball right to Raquel Rodriguez, who cut inside of Amy Harrison in the 14th minute but fired just over the bar.
Pugh’s 21st minute cross from deep evaded Hatch by inches, but found Lavelle just before it went out. The USWNT star’s low shot back across goal was just barely deflected away by Kailen Sheridan, who got her shin on the ball to keep it scoreless.
After Sky Blue got a handle on the tempo of the game for a few minutes, the Spirit regained their control. Hatch was unable to get a foot on Lavelle’s rolling 34th minute cross after the latter had nutmegged Imani Dorsey. Pugh then had two nearly identical shots go just barely wide, once cutting inside of Johnson and the other coming after a winding run through a crowd of defenders.
The half ended with an exchange of good chances. Lloyd played a clever pass for Dydasco overlapping on the left, and the former Spirit fullback’s cross picked out Julie Doyle, who may have done better than heading right at Bledsoe. Right up to the other end, the Spirit broke through, but Hatch’s shot on the turn curled wide with Sheridan rooted to her line.
Sky Blue went even closer in first half stoppage time, with Lloyd again pulling the strings. This time, she sent Monaghan in behind the defense, and Monaghan cut the ball back for Dorsey. The 2018 Rookie of the Year’s shot may have been heading for the upper corner, but Huster produced a timely block.
The Spirit, perhaps using halftime to adjust, finally got their breakthrough by mixing in a bit of direct play. A long, curling pass from Harrison was right on the money, with Hatch sprinting between the Sky Blue center backs to control the ball. In alone, Hatch carried the ball into the box before calmly rolling it past Sheridan, giving Washington a 1-0 lead.
Sky Blue seemed stunned, and the Spirit looked to put the game away in short order. Harrison’s 30-yarder was blocked, and the home side had to scramble to prevent the rebound from becoming another scoring chance.
Cheyna Matthews, with her first touches after entering the game in the 70th minute, created what should have been the second goal. Sam Staab’s pinpoint ball over the top caught Sky Blue out, and Matthews found her self on the ball in the box. Matthews evaded a tackle from Gina Lewandowski to lay the ball back for the onrushing Hatch, but her one-time shot went right to Sheridan.
Washington couldn’t get the elusive second goal, but they were able to largely manage the tempo in the final stages, piling up possession while Sky Blue was unwilling to press high in search of an equalizer. Matthews was involved on all of their major looks, but Johnson foiled her in pursuit of another pinpoint Staab long ball, while Matthews couldn’t shape her foot around the ball to put Lavelle’s 87th minute pass on frame.
Bledsoe did have to make a smart late save, denying Erica Skroski’s 88th minute shot as the home side finally started to get numbers forward. Bledsoe also had to do well to claim a 90th minute corner in heavy traffic, but ultimately the Spirit eased to victory despite the narrow scoreline.
Washington has the weekend off, and will return to action Friday, August 2, with a daunting trip to face the North Carolina Courage at Sahlen’s Stadium.
NWSL Regular Season (Game 13)
Sky Blue FC 0
Washington Spirit 1 (Hatch 54)
NJ (433): Kailen Sheridan; Erica Skroski, Gina Lewandowski, Estelle Johnson, Caprice Dydasco; Sarah Killion, Julie Doyle, Raquel Rodriguez (Jen Hoy 79); Paige Monaghan (Elizabeth Eddy 57), Carli Lloyd (C), Imani Dorsey
Spirit (433): Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Amy Harrison (Dorian Bailey 66); Rose Lavelle, Andi Sullivan (C), Jordan DiBiasi (Cheyna Matthews 70); Mallory Pugh, Ashley Hatch, Chloe Logarzo (Elise Kellond-Knight 66)
NJ - Doyle 50
Spirit - Huster 92+