By Kevin O’Rourke
For a while on Saturday at the SoccerPlex in Germantown it seemed like déjà vu. The Spirit gave up the first goal and went to half-time down 1-0, came of the locker room, scored in quick-order and continued to apply the pressure on their way to a 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars. It was very similar to the game played earlier in the week on Wednesday.
But the stakes were much higher.
On Saturday, the Spirit hosted the Chicago Red Stars in a clash of clubs with expectations of making one of the National Women’s Soccer League’s four playoff spots. The Spirit entered the match in third place with 31 points while the Red Stars were in fifth place with 28 points. The match had major playoff implications for both sides, with an outright win giving one team a six point swing in the standings.
On Saturday the game went right down the wire, with the Spirit’s Yael Averbuch burying the game winner in the back of the goal late the 94th minute of stoppage time.
The scoring started early as Red Stars forwards Christen Press and Melissa Tancredi combined on two passes to find Lori Chalupny, who put the ball in the low corner past Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.
The Spirit were able to mount attacks in the half and came close to scoring including opportunities, by Lisa DeVanna and Kerstin Garefrekes, which saw Garefrekes with the ball in front of a keeperless goal, but the shot was stopped by Chicago’s center back Abby Erceg at the last minute. Another saw Ali Krieger hit a free kick into the box that went just wide off the head of the Spirit’s Niki Cross, in the last 30 seconds of the half.
Less than three minutes into second half, the Spirit got the equalizer off the foot of Christine Narin, who took a pass from Diana Matheson and deflected it off Chicago goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. Nain scored in the 48th minute.
The Spirit got a scare a few minutes later, when goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris collided with the Red Star’s Jackie Santacatarina while attempting to stop corner kick attempt. She remained on the ground and was attended to for a few minutes, but stayed in the game despite getting banged up.
In the 89th minute, many of the 3,102 fans in attendance thought the Red Stars were going to tie the game on a header, but Ashlyn Harris had other plans. Chicago substitute midfielder Adriana Leon worked the ball up field to Tancredi who took a touch towards the left endline and put in a high cross. Her pass went directly to the head of Press who got the header shot off from point-blank range. But Harris made one of the saves of the year coming out of nowhere to block the it and keep the ball out of the goal.
Regulation ended with the score tied 1-1, but due to the Harris injury time officials added four minutes of stoppage time. And the Spirit needed every second to get the winning goal off Averbuch’s foot.
Averbuch, a second half substitute received a pass from Lisa DeVanna near the top of the 18-yard-box with just seconds remaining in the match. She blasted a low shot that weaved through the Red Stars defense to seal the game-winner for Washington in the final seconds.
The victory keeps the Spirit in third place with 34 points with a record of 10-8-4, However, the Portland Thorns beat the Houston Dash 1-0 on Sunday night, in a game televised on ESPN2, moving Portland to the fourth playoff spot, one point behind the Spirit. Chicago remains in fifth place, on the outside looking into the playoffs with 28 points.
The Spirit travel to Seattle to take on the league leading Seattle Reign next Saturday, Aug. 9 and complete the regular season back home at the SoccerPlex in Germantown against Sky Blue FC on August 16.
Caption: Spirit players Christine Narin and Lisa Devanna celebrate with Yael Averbuch after Averbuch scored the game winning goal in final seconds of Saturday's game against the Chicago Red Stars.
Photo Credit: Diana Barceló