The Washington Spirit kicked off the 2019 NWSL season by ending a 15-game winless streak, with a commanding 2-0 victory over Sky Blue FC at the Maryland SoccerPlex on Saturday night. With the win, the Spirit moved to the top of the NWSL table.
In the second half, Spirit rookie defender Samantha Staab recorded the first goal of her NWSL career and gave the Spirit a 1-0 in the 59th minute after a scramble following a corner ended with the ball at Staab’s feet. Staab, from near the penalty spot, struck a low left-footed shot through a cluster of players and found the bottom right corner of the net.
The Spirit nearly grabbed an early lead in the 13th minute after forward Mallory Pugh gathered the ball up-field and found Cheyna Matthews on the left side of the six-yard box. Matthews’ attempt was saved by the keeper but pushed into the path of Ashley Hatch who finished the chance, only for it to be called offside.
The Spirit continued to move forward through Pugh as she cut inside from left to right at the top of the box and sent a bending ball just over the bar in the 21st minute. The ball found Pugh inside the box again one minute later, and she split through two defenders after quick dribbling, but her shot was blocked.
The Spirit’s best chance of the half came in the 25th minute after the ball found midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard at the top of the box. Dougherty Howard connected cleanly with the ball on a volley, but the drive whipped just over the bar.
After the first half, the Spirit had a firm grip on the game. Washington boasted 62 percent possession and a passing accuracy of 85 percent to Sky Blue’s 71 percent. Maintaining possession was one of the aspects of the game that new Spirit Head Coach Richie Burke wanted to improve.
“Ball retention is a big factor for me,” told Germantown Pulse, at the Spirit’s media day on Thursday. “I want to keep the ball. I want our team to have the ball more than our opponent every single game. I want us to enjoy the ball. We have a lot of players who are better in possession than out of possession so the more we have the ball — the more we keep it — the more opportunities we have to get our players to grow in confidence, try things and be creative on the football. That is a big change for us. Looking at some of the game tapes from last year I don’t think we were anywhere near where we want to be with possession statistics. So this year everything we have done has been encouraging our players to try to retain the football more, be patient and build chances for us.”
In Saturday’s game the Spirit’s new backline, lead by Tori Huster, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady and Paige Nielsen, did not allow a single shot on target during the first half, and managed to frustrate Sky Blue in the second as they continued to possess and change the field with the ball while maintaining possession.
In addition, the Spirit outshot Sky Blue by a margin of eight to three. The young Spirit defense featuring Huster, Staab, McGrady, and Nielsen operated as a unit throughout the night, stymying Sky Blue attackers for the full 90 minutes. Nielsen led the team in tackles and clearances with four and seven respectively. The first-round draft picks Staab, and McGrady both caused six turnovers on the night. The veteran Huster, playing right back, leads the team with four interceptions.
Sky Blue’s best chance of the game came during the 74th minute after Sky Blue midfielder Carli Lloyd connected on a header off a corner, only to be met by a fingertip save by Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe who pushed it over the crossbar.
In stoppage time, the Spirit erased all hope of a Sky Blue comeback when Pugh found herself in a pocket of space on the right wing. Pugh was able to send a bending cross into the box and connected with the head of Megan Crosson, who drilled the header towards the keeper’s near post and into the upper-right corner of the net to make it 2-0 to the Spirit.
The Spirit will travel to Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah next week to face off against Utah Royals FC on Saturday, April 20. Kick-off is set for 9:00 pm.
Top: Spirit rookie defender Sam Staab (3) celebrates after scoring her first professional goal to give the Spirit a 1-0 lead over Sky Blue FC in the 59th minute.
Next: Spirit forward Cheyna Mathews (20).
Next: Spirit and USWNT forward Mallory Pugh (11) hit a cross into the Sky Blue FC box, which would be headed by Megan Crosson for the Spirit’s second goal.
Next: Spirit forward Megan Crosson (5) heads the Mallory Pugh crossed ball into the goal. She for her first professional goal and seals Spirit victory in extra time on Saturday night in Boyds.
Next: The 2019 Spirit players celebrate Crosson's goal and the first victory of the season.
Photos by Germantown Pulse