The Washington Spirit finally returned to home soil for the first time this season on Sunday afternoon, dropping to third place in the table after drawing league-leaders Orlando Pride in front of 5,199 at DC’s Audi Field. Washington were the first to open their accounts for the match thanks to an Ashley Hatch goal in the 64th minute before quickly conceding to produce the 1-1 result.
“I would say this feels more like a loss than a tie, but at the same time, early in the season I’m really proud of the way we played,” said Spirit defender and US international Kelley O’Hara. “I’m excited for what we’re building here and I can’t speak highly enough of the players on the field with me.”
The Spirit and the Pride battled out the tie in sweltering conditions, with the heat index approaching the 100s during the match. Though the heat certainly became an increasing factor as the game wore on past the second half hydration break, it did not dampen the early goings as the match got off to a frenetic, end-to-end start. The two teams exchanged scoring chances in an open first ten minutes, the first of which came from Washington when Trinity Rodman dribbled into open space on the right wing and chipped a cross to Hatch in the center of the box. Hatch’s right-footed shot went just wide of the net.
Washington had the better of the play in Orlando’s half throughout the match, creating 21 shots to Orlando’s 9. The Spirit possessed the ball 52.2% of the match, and played the ball well to each other up front, resulting in an 83.6 passing accuracy percentage. Rodman and Ashley Sanchez were able to shake loose the Orlando defense in possession to create several chances, though Orlando’s back line did well to force the Spirit attack wide and make them settle for attempted crosses that were dealt with by Pride keeper Ashlynn Harris and the rest of the back line. Burke was impressed by his three rookie forwards, specifically Rodman and Sanchez who continued their solid runs of form with strong performances against Orlando.
“I was very, very pleased,” said Burke. “Rodman was fantastic, Sanchez was lightning again and, you know, McKeown’s learning her way in this game. So, happy, happy days.”
The forwards weren’t the only ones contributing offensively. The Spirit’s defenders also got involved in the action on the other side of the pitch, with O’Hara and Sonnett sending incisive balls through to the forwards to spur Washington’s attack.
O’Hara was particularly brilliant in this regard, and was responsible for creating Washington’s only goal. After knocking on the door from the early goings but unable to find the clinical finish they needed in the final three, the Spirit earned a free kick outside the box in the 64th minute. O’Hara sent in a perfect cross into the box and onto the waiting head of Hatch, who steered it past Harris to break the deadlock. Burke praised O’Hara, who will join with the US Women’s National Team this week for a slate of friendlies ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, after the match.
“I love her at this football club, she’s been a blessing,” said Burke. “She keeps performing like that, then hopefully she’ll often win a gold medal for the U.S., but while we’ve got this football club it’s an absolute blessing for us.”
Washington conceded quickly after Hatch’s goal, with the equalizer coming in sloppy fashion in the 67th minute. Spirit keeper Aubrey Bledsoe sent an errant pass onto the feet of Orlando’s Taylor Kornieck, who found herself open with no defenders challenging her. Kornieck drove a low shot out of Bledsoe’s reach into the corner of the net.
Despite the mistake, Burke was also impressed with his back four, who had the considerable challenge of shutting down Orlando’s high-powered attack led by May’s Player of the Month Alex Morgan, Kornieck and Marta. Sam Staab and Emily Sonnett held the fort at center back, limiting Orlando to just two shots on goal.
“I think Sonnett and Staab did a great job,” said Burke of his centerbacks “A couple of iffy moments here and there where we looked a little bit sixes and sevens, but I think the back four — Sonnett was brilliant today, I mean Sonnett wasn’t just brilliant defensively today. When she got on the football, she played really good too.”
As the full time whistle blew, the Spirit found themselves in a similar position as they did when these two teams met in matchweek one: managing a 1-1 draw in a game which Washington may feel they did enough to win.
“It’s like you’re in a time loop,” said Burke. “Same match against them down there where, you know, they get a little bit of a gift from us, which we’re kicking ourselves about and I think we’d obviously probably have that one back and not throw it out. But it is what it is, you know, it’s game number five in a long season.”
Spirit captain Andi Sullivan was back in the lineup after serving a one-game suspension from a previous red card. Sullivan stressed the areas in which she felt the Spirit can improve after five matches played, but noted that the NWSL season is long and that there are a lot of positives to take out of their performance thus far.
“There are a lot of factors that played into it, I think it was [Orlando’s] organization as well as the heat and elements, but I think we have to be able to make adjustments quicker on the fly and that’s on me to organize and communicate,” said Sullivan. “Not the best start, but [I’m] proud of how we improved a little bit. We’ll look at it, I will get better and I’ll fix it, so I’m not too concerned.”
Sullivan appreciated the reunion with the team’s fans after playing an entire month’s worth of matches on the road to start the season, saying that the fans brought an energy to the Spirit that they’d been missing.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had that [energy from the fans] to that degree so it was just really fun,” said Sullivan. The fan engagement with the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs,’ it gives you momentum and it gives you a boost and that is definitely something we needed on a day where you’re feeling very physically drained.”
O’Hara also relished the opportunity to play in front of friendly fans.
“I was buzzing this morning heading to Audi Field,” said O’Hara. “Just to be able to finally be able to play in front of our fans is incredible. It was an awesome turnout and I can’t wait until we’re able to get the whole thing packed.”
The Spirit now get a week off as the NWSL observes the FIFA international window. O’Hara, Sonnet and Sullivan will be with the national team as they face off against Jamaica, Portugal and Nigeria to prepare for the Olympics. Washington will play next on June 19 in a road match against the Chicago Red Stars.
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Image courtesy of Washington Spirit twitter.