A tactical battle between the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars came down to one play, and the visitors ended up coming out on top of a 1-0 decision. In front of a sell-out crowd at the Maryland SoccerPlex, Yuki Nagasato’s 65th minute header was good enough to send the Red Stars to the top of the NWSL standings.
The Spirit, despite the absences of regular starters Mallory Pugh, Paige Nielsen, Tori Huster, and Chloe Logarzo, fielded a very aggressive lineup. Captain Andi Sullivan dropped back from her normal spot in the midfield to fill in for Nielsen at center back, while Richie Burke opted for two attacking midfielders in Rose Lavelle and Jordan DiBiasi.
The lack of familiarity showed early, as the Red Stars took control from kickoff. Sam Staab produced a key block in the 6th minute after a loose ball pinged off Elise Kellond-Knight and fell to Arin Wright on the doorstep. Within the next ten minutes, Sam Kerr and Nagasato both could have perhaps done better from decent chances of their own.
At the other end, Washington couldn’t seem to solve Chicago’s well-drilled back four, with Casey Short in particular squelching several attacks all on her own. The Spirit finally attempted their first shot in the 22nd minute, but Sullivan couldn’t guide Kellond-Knight’s corner on frame.
The Spirit were having their best spell of the game, but a blown offside trap in the 27th minute handed Chicago a major chance. Meggie Dougherty Howard dropped as the back four stepped up, and Chicago got the ball out to Arin Wright. From the right side of the box, Wright fired low across goal, but Aubrey Bledsoe produced a kick save. Julie Ertz launched a long-range bid from the rebound, but missed wide.
Rose Lavelle started to find the game more and more as the half wore on, and manufactured the Spirit’s best look of the first half just before the break. Ashley Hatch held Short off for a moment, allowing Lavelle to pick up a loose ball and take off down the left. Lavelle fired in a cross that no one from Chicago could get clear, and Amy Harrison arrived at the back post. Harrison could only get a thigh onto the ball after a tricky hop, but couldn’t put it past Alyssa Naeher.
The second half began with physical play from both sides, with referee Ekaterina Koroleva having to call numerous fouls and multiple players staying down momentarily after hard challenges. Neither team could offer much going forward, with Hatch sending Lavelle’s sublime long ball over the bar early and Wright flicking a Chicago corner high and wide in the 58th minute.
The game felt finely poised, and it was the visitors who pounced to take the lead in the 65th minute. A throw-in from the right flank seemed innocuous at first, but Short’s cross to the back post was perfect for Nagasato, who did very well to beat Dorian Bailey to the ball and nod it past Bledsoe.
The Spirit went close twice quickly after the goal, with Hatch curling one just wide and a trio of Washington players unable to get a foot to a loose ball in the area after it was served back in in the 70th minute.
Chicago were expertly running out the clock, but some fight from halftime substitute Arielle Ship gave the Spirit a golden chance in the 80th minute. Fighting through two challenges at midfield, Ship somehow emerged with the ball, sending Hatch in behind Sarah Gorden. Gorden went in for a tackle, but Hatch retained the ball, trying to feed runners in the goalmouth. The ball evaded Naeher, but somehow didn’t end up in the back of the net.
The Red Stars had a miss of their own just moments later, as some wonderful one-touch combination play between Kerr and Savannah McCaskill unlocked the Spirit defense. McCaskill over-cooked her pass to Julie Ertz, though, and the USWNT veteran’s lunging chance skewed just wide.
Both coaches made moves: Richie Burke removed Kellond-Knight for Cali Farquharson, moving into a 343. Rory Dames responded by going defensive, adding Brooke Elby in the midfield, dropping Ertz back, and shifting into a 541.
Washington’s attempts to get an equalizer became desperate. A long ball into the area in stoppage time from Staab was dropped under pressure by Naeher, but Ship had too much ground to cover to get to the loose ball, allowing Chicago to hack it clear.
However, the Red Stars — who came into the game on the back of four straight wins, giving up just one goal in the process — defended admirably, and the Spirit were forced to settle for their fourth loss in their last five games.
The schedule doesn’t get easier for the Spirit — now in sixth place, on 21 points — who face a cross-country trip to face the high-flying Portland Thorns next Saturday night.
NWSL Regular Season (Game 16)
Washington Spirit 0
Chicago Red Stars 1 (Nagasato 65)
Spirit (433): Aubrey Bledsoe; Dorian Bailey, Andi Sullivan (C), Sam Staab, Elise Kellond-Knight (Cali Farquharson 84); Rose Lavelle, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Jordan DiBiasi; Amy Harrison (Arielle Ship 46), Cheyna Matthews (Megan Crosson 70), Ashley Hatch
Red Stars (4231): Alyssa Naeher; Casey Short, Katie Naughton, Sarah Gorden, Tierna Davidson (Savannah McCaskill 72); Julie Ertz (C), Danielle Colaprico; Arin Wright, Vanessa DiBernardo (Nikki Stanton 95+), Yuki Nagasato (Brooke Elby 85); Sam Kerr
Spirit - Sullivan 13, Lavelle 64
Red Stars - Colaprico 46