The Washington Spirit kicked off their first NWSL regular season opener since 2019 with a match away at the Orlando Pride. All looked to be going well as Ashley Hatch looked to have secured the all three points, but a late equalizer from USWNT star forward Alex Morgan rescued a point for the Pride.
Due to a slight back injury, usual starter and today’s goalscorer, Ashley Hatch, began the match on the bench, allowing Burke to move Saori Takarada — who played center back all Challenge Cup — into the forward line with Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman. Paige Nielsen and Sam Staab returned as the center back pairing, Kelley O’Hara slotted in at left back, and Emily Sonnett anchored the midfield with Dorian Bailey and Andi Sullivan ahead of her. The Spirit eventually reverted to their more comfortable 433 after beginning the match in a 4222.
Orlando lined up in a 433 with the same personnel as their Challenge Cup contest with the Spirit with the exceptions of Courtney Peterson replacing Ali Riley at left back and former Spirit player Meggie Dougherty-Howard in midfield for Jade Moore.
In the fifth minute, Trinity Rodman and Tori Huster combined to create what would be the Spirit’s best chance of the half. Rodman pressured Marisa Viggiano into a turnover at the top of the Pride’s final third, and Huster pounced on the loose ball. Rodman made a good lateral run in front of space to stay onside, then terrorized Viggiano again with a filthy cutback before lining up her shot, which was unfortunately with her weaker left foot and Ashlyn Harris made the save.
As expected, the Spirit had the bulk of the possession in the half, but when the ball was lost the combination of Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Taylor Kornieck presented steady problems for the back line. Leroux was caught offside on a couple of opportunities, forced a save from Bledsoe and had a long range shot deflected out for a corner. Leroux’s best chance was a thirteenth minute run off Nielsen’s back shoulder after being played in behind by Kornieck, which was inches away from becoming a carbon copy of her goal against the Spirit in last month’s Challenge Cup.
The match continued along the pattern of the Spirit trying to break the deadlock through buildup play and manipulation of the defense while the Pride looked to pounce on transition opportunities. In the fortieth minute the Spirit had their second best chance of the match as Takarada and Dorian Bailey did good work to get the former a chance to deliver a cross to the far post. The Japan international weighted it perfectly with Kelley O’Hara crashing in unmarked, but the USWNT defender couldn’t get her shot on target from close range.
To start the second half, Burke replaced Takarada with Ashley Hatch, who moved into her natural central role while Rodman shifted wide right and Sanchez split a bit wider on the left. The move helped the Spirit make the ball stick a bit more in the final third, allowing Sanchez some of the good moments on the ball that were missing in the first half.
However, five minutes after halftime the Pride had their best chance to that point, with Marta breaking lines on the dribble and releasing Sydney Leroux. The Spirit did well to collapse and not allow Leroux a clean strike, but the shot still looked to be headed goalward until the final moment it spun wide of the post.
The next threat of the match came via the aforementioned Ashley Sanchez, who stood her defender up then cut inside and hit a shot that unfortunately went straight at Ashlyn Harris. Moments later Sanchez had the ball on her foot again, evaded her defender again and tried to find Hatch in the box, but the linkup was broken up by Marta.
The Pride then worked another chance with some lightning quick transition play with Leroux sending Morgan in behind Staab. Morgan was able to round Bledsoe but was off balance and her lifted shot flew over the bar.
During the week Richie Burke noted that Kelley O’Hara was still feeling some discomfort from a knee bruise picked up in the Challenge Cup, so Tegan McGrady replaced O’Hara at left back in the 65th minute. Six minutes later Jordan DiBiasi made her return after recovering from a hip injury, replacing Dorian Bailey, and Orlando brought on Chelsee Washington for Dougherty-Howard.
Ashley Hatch was shown a yellow card in the 74th minute after a tussle with Sydney Leroux, but two minutes later the former BYU star would get some revenge in the form of a goal. After a great penetrating dribble from Sanchez, she laid the ball off to Tori Huster in space on the right side of the box. Huster clipped in a good cross and Hatch rose to meet it, giving the Spirit a 1-0 lead with a perfectly timed bullet header that left Harris rooted to her spot.
In search of an equalizer, Orlando brought on another former Spirit player in forward Crystal Thomas, who replaced Marisa Viggiano in the 83rd minute. A minute later they got what they were looking for via Alex Morgan, who got in behind the defense after a route one punt down the center of the pitch. Morgan raced onto the ball and clipped it beyond Bledsoe, who got fingertips to the shot but couldn’t get enough contact to deflect it away from goal.
Perhaps trying to preserve the point, Burke opted to hold onto the point rather than push for a second at the risk of losing the match. In the 87th minute he subbed off Sanchez and Rodman for Swedish international Julia Roddar and former USC star Tara McKeown, the latter making her NWSL debut after signing a two-year deal and joining the Spirit last week. The switch saw the Spirit shift into a narrow 442 to solidify midfield and play more direct in attack to put pressure on the Pride’s central defense. The change created some moments that called on Ashlyn Harris to be first to the ball, but wasn’t tested with another shot before the full time whistle blew.
Washington’s 2021 regular season opens with the Spirit taking a point out of Orlando after a 1-1 draw. The Spirit’s next match is Friday, May 21 at 7:30 away at Racing Louisville, and will be available to watch on Twitch.
NWSL Regular Season - Game 1
Orlando Pride 1 (Morgan 84)
Washington Spirit 1 (Hatch 76)
Pride (4231): Ashlyn Harris; Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir, Ali Krieger, Phoebe McClernon, Courtney Petersen; Meggie Dougherty Howard (Chelsee Washington 72), Marisa Viggiano (Crystal Thomas 83); Taylor Kornieck, Marta, Sydney Leroux; Alex Morgan
Spirit (433): Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Kelley O’Hara (Tegan McGrady 66); Andi Sullivan (C), Emily Sonnett, Dorian Bailey (Jordan DiBiasi 71); Saori Takarada (Ashley Hatch 46), Trinity Rodman (Julia Roddar 87), Ashley Sanchez (Tara McKeown 87)
Pride - None
Spirit - Hatch 73