The Washington Spirit made their second appearance at Audi Field on Saturday, but in many ways, it felt like the club was in new territory. A factual statement about the game says it all: 19,871 people packed into a stadium in the District to watch an NWSL regular-season match. Even the news that USWNT stars Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh, and Alex Morgan would all miss the game due to injury seemed to have no impact on a historic day for the Spirit, and for the National Women’s Soccer League writ large.
Last year, the Spirit’s first-ever game on Buzzard Point saw 7,976 show up to see a struggling team fight hard, but fall 1-0 to the Portland Thorns. The Spirit took the field that night having just fired head coach Jim Gabarra days before the match. They were on the back of nine straight losses, and had gone 604 minutes without a goal. Given the size of the team’s staff at the time, the crowd was an admirable achievement, easily the brightest spot in what is otherwise among the worst seasons in professional women’s soccer history.
It’s safe to say things are different these days. The Spirit kept themselves in the playoff race — with six games to play, they’re three points out of the last playoff spot — with their 2-1 victory over the Orlando Pride. A change in ownership has seen increased investment throughout the organization, happier players, and a substantially larger base of sponsors. The timing couldn’t have been better, putting the Spirit in position to capitalize on the swell of interest in women’s soccer following the World Cup.
All of those factors combined into a perfect storm Saturday, allowing Washington to more than double their record attendance. It’s a wonderful milestone, but in talking to the club’s majority owner Steve Baldwin, it’s also just the beginning.
“I think our league, I think our club, have to think so much bigger,” Baldwin told reporters following the match. “I think if we promote the league properly, if we market the league differently, and better, and I think if we bring in the types of corporate sponsors to engage with us and help unleash the incredible women of this league to impact the lives of kids, I think we can do this over and over and over again.”
Last year, the Spirit were pleased with how things went business-wise at D.C. United’s home stadium, but took a measured approach to consistently playing more games there. While Baldwin did not give specifics about what benchmarks have to be met to make playing at Audi Field viable, he referred to the Maryland SoccerPlex and D.C. United as “two wonderful partners” when it comes to venues. “I’m thinking bigger. Bigger and bigger and bigger, so we’ll see what happens.”
Team captain Andi Sullivan said that the club has made it clear that they want this sort of occasion to become a regular thing rather than a one-off. “This is something that our new ownership came in and wanted to do, and wants to make this the norm.”
Still, as with Baldwin, Sullivan pointed out that the Spirit still enjoy playing at the cozier SoccerPlex, where a 5,500 crowd is a sell-out. “We love the Plex, and we love the intimate environment it has,” said Sullivan. “I hope [the fans] can come back and join us on September 14th, and at other games at the Plex.”
On the field, the Spirit were relieved to break a four-game winless run. As in a 4-3 loss to the Pride in Orlando, the Spirit got off to a good start by taking a 1-0 lead before the 10th minute, but this time they were able to get the job done and take a critical three points. Crystal Thomas scored the early goal this time, pressuring goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris into a moment of hesitation before sliding in to poke the ball into the unguarded net.
Thomas and head coach Richie Burke confirmed that the goal was related to the team’s choice to apply high pressure to Orlando’s defense. “We had worked on a press, and she [Harris] was a part of the press,” said Burke. “We were gonna press [Ali] Krieger and [Shelina] Zadorsky, and if they went back to Ashlyn we were gonna try and poach on that.”
“I knew that my teammates were behind me, and we were pressing together. Our coaches did a good job on the scouting report, and that was by design,” said Thomas before adding with a laugh “So at that point, just tried to kick the ball in!”
The Spirit particularly savored the fact that they dug deep to get the win in what was their third game in eight days. “If I had five more Tori Husters and three more Andi Sullivans and Paige Nielsens,” said Burke with a chuckle. “They’re walking wounded, they’ve played maximum minutes in three matches in eight days... We were a little bit under the weather, and we managed to pull through.”
Sullivan said she was “feeling good,” but noted that she was probably going to take a couple of days to recuperate. “I’m hanging in there. I mean, a lot of teams are at that point right now in the season. It’s just a tough season, and you’re seeing it across the board. There are lots of injuries, not just on our team, but every team.”
Despite all that, there was still a vibe that the Spirit saw room for improvement in a game that could have gone either way. In the final minutes, Orlando hit the crossbar through Marta, and Washington needed the combined efforts of Aubrey Bledsoe and Paige Nielsen to prevent a stoppage-time equalizer from Rachel Hill.
“It wasn’t our best football, it wasn’t as crisp as I like it to be, but that’s what you expect in three matches so close together like that. It’s tough for those players, but very proud of them,” said Burke. “From a technical perspective, I think we can do a little bit better. I think Hatchie [Ashley Hatch] was a little bit annoyed with herself that she missed a couple of headers in the first half that might have changed the game a little bit. Thank God Marta hit the crossbar at the end, it would have spoiled the party.”
For her part, Hatch was delighted to have nodded in Huster’s cross for what turned out to be the game-winner. “It’s a goalscorer’s dream! I mean, it’s so fun to have such a huge crowd and have all their energy,” said Washington’s leading goalscorer (5 goals). “I think it was not only an exciting goal for me, but for all of us because it was such a team effort.”
Burke, in the end, paid tribute to the crowd’s energy playing a factor. “When you get a crowd in a stadium like that, it’s very difficult for players to not really feed off that energy. I think you saw it at the end, we were hanging by a thread! But we fought through, and battled.”
Despite the fatigue and the parts of their performance they’d like to improve, in the end the Spirit couldn’t help but revel in what was one of the best nights the club has ever had. Sullivan summed things up for the club as a whole: “We want this to be the standard. That’s what we’re gonna push for.”