Before a club-record crowd of 19,871, the Washington Spirit produced a strong performance en route to a 2-1 victory over the Orlando Pride at Audi Field tonight. Crystal Thomas and Ashley Hatch scored goals in either half for the Spirit, which was just enough to overcome a 31st minute strike from Marta.
After a tepid opening, the Spirit took the lead in bizarre circumstances. Ashlyn Harris lingered over possession under apparently no danger, but she apparently underestimated Thomas’s speed. The Spirit forward dove in with a slide tackle, poking the ball away from Harris and over the line, giving Washington a stunning 9th minute advantage.
The Spirit began confidently controlling possession from there, though it wasn’t until a 26th minute cross from Sullivan that they created another chance. The ball in from the left was inch-perfect, finding Ashley Hatch in between the center backs, but Hatch’s header was not quite in the bottom corner, allowing Harris to make a diving save.
However, much as the Spirit took the lead out of nothing, Orlando got level in similar fashion in the 31st minute. A turnover at midfield suddenly left the Spirit exposed at the back, with Rachel Hill and Marta running a 2v2 against Sam Staab and Paige Nielsen. With time and space, Hill drew the defense before laying the ball off to Marta, who had a tap-in just a split second before Tori Huster could arrive.
The Spirit closed the half with two good looks, as Hatch nodded Meggie Dougherty Howard’s tantalizing cross just over the bar in the 42nd minute. Cali Farquharson went even closer in the 45th minute, curling a shot from the left side of the box that missed the back post (as well as two Spirit runners) by inches.
Washington continued knocking on the door after halftime, with Hatch scooping their best look of the game so far over the goal. Sullivan’s initial pass was only deflected by Erin Greening, giving Thomas a chance to cross low. Ali Krieger couldn’t get much contact on a falling clearance attempt, but with the goal at her mercy, Hatch leaned back, lifting the ball over the bar.
Finally, just before the hour mark, Washington made their pressure pay off. In acres of space on the right, Tori Huster had plenty of targets to choose from when she fired in a deep cross, and the ball arced right to Hatch. This time, the Spirit striker made no mistake, thumping her header past Harris from close range.
Washington went close again shortly afterward, but Orlando had the game’s next big chance. Krieger, despite playing center back on the night, stormed up the right flank as the Spirit were forced into a defensive posture. In space, she served in a perfect ball for Rachel Hill. Hill seemed destined to score, but was denied by Bledsoe, who somehow got her left arm back behind herself to just barely keep the ball out.
The game had opened up, and both teams hit the woodwork in the minutes that followed. First, substitute Cheyna Matthews escaped Krieger before bending a shot from the left side of the box that curled around Harris only to bounce off the far post. Sullivan got a second chance from the rebound, but her 20 yard rocket was saved well by Harris.
At the other end, another cross from the right flank pinged around the Spirit box before falling to Marta. The Brazilian legend has been a nightmare for the Spirit in the past, but her powerful shot glanced off of Nielsen and crashed against the underside of the bar in the 81st minute.
The end-to-end play continued, with substitute Bayley Feist doing very well to shake free of Shelina Zadorsky. Harris, though, was equal to the challenge, saving the rookie’s 85th minute shot at full stretch. The same scenario played out in the 88th minute, as Feist left Camila for dead only to again be denied by Harris.
The Spirit still had to survive intense pressure late on, as a Pride free kick caused chaos in the box. Hill popped up to head in what looked like a dramatic equalizer, but Bledsoe clawed the ball off the line, and Nielsen slid in to hack it clear of danger, preserving a crucial win.
The Spirit, temporarily into 6th place pending the result of the Houston Dash’s game tonight, are back within three points of the playoff places. Next week, they head south to take on this same Pride side in Florida on Saturday, August 31.
Highlights will be added when they are made available.
NWSL Regular Season (Game 18)
Washington Spirit 2 (Thomas 9, Hatch 59)
Orlando Pride 1 (Marta 31)
Spirit (4312): Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Dorian Bailey; Meggie Dougherty Howard, Andi Sullivan (C), Cali Farquharson (Cheyna Matthews 62); Jordan DiBiasi (Bayley Feist 69); Ashley Hatch (Amy Harrison 87), Crystal Thomas
Pride (433): Ashlyn Harris (C); Erin Greening (Abby Elinsky 72), Ali Krieger, Shelina Zadorsky, Kristen Edmonds; Marisa Viggiano (Camila 76), Dani Weatherholt, Joanna Boyles; Rachel Hill, Marta, Carson Pickett (Claire Emslie 60)
Spirit - Nielsen 39, Feist 90
Pride - Emslie 90