The 2020 NWSL season has been nothing if not strange, and under unusual circumstances, the Washington Spirit fell 2-1 to Sky Blue FC amid late drama at both ends in the league’s Fall Series opener. Adding to the strange nature of the day, the defeat broke a ten-game unbeaten streak (9W-1D-0L) between the Spirit and their rivals from New Jersey.
With no fan presence inside the venue — though the Spirit Squadron, socially distanced in the parking lot, chanted throughout the match — a first half goal from Ifeoma Onumonu appeared set to stand up as the game-winner, but an 89th minute penalty kick from Paige Nielsen brought the Spirit level. However, an attempt to push to win the game went awry, and Midge Purce scored deep into second-half stoppage time.
After establishing their typical possession-oriented style at the start, the Spirit entered a brief, sloppy phase and Sky Blue pounced. Aubrey Bledsoe had to make a difficult close-range stop on Purce five minutes before Onumonu put the visitors up 1-0 in the 18th minute. Sam Staab was caught in possession, with Onumonu stealing the ball off of her, racing into the box, and thumping a shot past Bledsoe from 12 yards.
The Spirit had their first half chances. Kumi Yokoyama and Ashley Hatch both fired wide as the half wore on, while Ashley Sanchez had a penalty claim turned down by referee Danielle Chesky. At the other end, Sky Blue had an even stronger claim rejected after Midge Purce and Staab collided just as Purce looked to shoot from close range.
Purce went closer in first half stoppage time, thumping a low shot off the post as New Jersey created another chance on the break.
A poor half-clearance from a Sky Blue set piece seconds into the half nearly made it 2-0, with Bledsoe’s punch only going to Domi Richardson. With the goal empty, Richardson had to react quickly, but her shot mercifully went high. The Spirit pounced on a sloppy attempt to play out of the back moments later, but were undone by an offside call as Hatch tried to turn and shoot.
Making the odd circumstances just a bit stranger, former Spirit attacker Mallory Pugh, who missed the Challenge Cup through injury, made her first appearance in a Sky Blue shirt, subbing in for Domi Richardson in the 61st minute. Pugh would go on to play a crucial role in the game, getting an assist on Purce’s goal at the death.
The Spirit probed for an equalizer, putting Sky Blue under spells of pressure, but in truth Kailen Sheridan had few genuine saves to make as the second half wore down. However, just as Washington’s hopes dwindles, Jessie Scarpa — on her Spirit debut — was tackled in the box. This time, Chesky did see enough to award a penalty kick. Paige Nielsen came up from the back, and after a brief delay as Sheridan received treatment, Nielsen deposited the spot kick into the bottom corner, leveling the score.
Washington showed urgency to re-start play and pursue a winner, but they ended up paying for it in stoppage time. Sky Blue countered, and Pugh found space between the lines before playing a perfect through ball for Purce, who sprinted in alone before calmly dispatching the chance past Bledsoe to give Sky Blue a victory.
The Spirit will continue the Fall Series next Saturday, as they host the Chicago Red Stars.
NWSL Fall Series - Game 1
Washington Spirit 1 (Nielsen 89pen)
Sky Blue FC 2 (Onumonu 18, Purce 91+)
Spirit (433): Aubrey Bledsoe (C); Brooke Hendrix (Jaye Boissiere 59), Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Natalie Jacobs; Bayley Feist, Meggie Dougherty Howard (Jessie Scarpa 84), Dorian Bailey; Kumi Yokoyama (Katie McClure 80), Ashley Hatch (Averie Collins 80), Ashley Sanchez (Meghan McCool 46)
NJ (433): Kailen Sheridan; Sabrina Flores, Gina Lewandowski, Mandy Freeman (Erica Skroski 46), Imani Dorsey; Jennifer Cudjoe (Nicole Baxter 70), Sarah Woldmoe, Domi Richardson (Mal Pugh 61); Midge Purce, Ifeoma Onumonu, Paige Monaghan
Spirit - Hendrix 41
NJ - None