GERMANTOWN – Behind goalkeeper Ashlynn Harris’ nine saves and two goals from Christine Nairn, the Washington Spirit came back from a 1-0 deficit to beat FC Kansas City 3-1 in the team’s home opener Saturday night at the Maryland Soccerplex.
Kansas City outshot the Spirit 21-10 in the match, including a 10-5 advantage in shots on goal, but Harris made nine saves, including five in the first half, to keep her team in the game.
Kansas City head coach Vlatko Andonovski called some of Harris’ saves “unreal” while Spirit head coach Mark Parsons said he made sure to speak to U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis after the match.
“I was glad Jill Ellis was here because she got to see what I see every single day and every game,” Parson said. “I just walked up and said to Jill two words: Ashlynn Harris. That performance there, there will be enough saves in that performance that would make up any other goalkeeper’s season highlight reel. That first-half performance, we were basically watching Kansas City do what they do, and she pulled us out of trouble five or six times.”
Early on Kansas City appeared to have the advantage, controlling the ball in Washington’s half of the field and attacking the goal. The team took a 1-0 lead in the sixth minute on a give-and-go between midfielder Heather O’Reilly and forward Lauren Holiday, culminating in a chip into the back of the of the net by O’Reilly that Harris could not reach.
Nairn, a midfielder, tied the match three minutes later when she fired a shot from more than 30 yards out, throwing her hands up in celebration when the ball hit the net.
“I took a touch and looked up and I like my chances at that angle. It was on my left foot, so why not?” Nairn said. “Mark has given me the green light all season to shoot from distance and I took a chance and it went in.”
Despite giving up the equalizer, Kansas City continued to look like the better team, testing Harris repeatedly. But every time, Harris came up with an answer.
In the 15th minute KC almost regained the lead, but Harris made a save on a shot attempt by O’Reilly. In the 27th minute Harris made yet another save, this time on a shot by Amy Rodriguez. Then, in the 44th minute, Rodriguez almost put KC up right before halftime, but her header attempt went wide left.
“(Harris) did an amazing job. The one on A-Rod where she got beat and recovered to make a save – I don’t think I’ve seen a save like that in a long time,” Andonovski said. “All I can say is good job. She is in great form at the right time, right before the World Cup.”
In the second half the Spirit took control of the match, a characteristic of the team last season that gave them a run to the National Women’s Soccer League semifinals.
Crystal Dunn put the Spirit up 2-1 in the first minute of the second half when she knocked a rebound back into the net. In the 65th minute Kansas City defender Amy LePeilbet received a yellow card for a tackle right outside of the penalty box. Nairn took advantage of the mistake, banging in the free kick for her second goal to put the Spirit up 3-1.
Before the game, Spirit defender Tiffany Weimer predicted in a post on her Twitter account Nairn would score a goal. After the match, Nairn said, laughing, Weimer took credit for both goals.
“Tiffany is a great person, great player and she has stayed after practice helping me with my shot so I can give her credit,” Nairn said. “She is a great role model. She’s a Penn-Stater so I’ve got to give her some love. That one is for you Tiff.”
The loss perpetuates a streak of hard luck for Kansas City when visiting the Soccerplex, marking their third consecutive loss on the road against the Spirit. Captain Becky Sauerbrunn said she could not explain why her team struggles against the Spirit, but she said the team had spacing problems.
“We haven’t really gotten to play on big grass fields a lot during preseason, so I don’t think we were quite used to the space,” Sauerbrunn said. “I don’t know. They’re just good at home. Maybe it’s just one of those things where we don’t match up very well against them.”
Parsons said his Spirit team had a strong week of training, which resulted in a strong second-half performance and a win.
“We had a great feeling about training because everyone, no matter what their role was, training was really high class,” Parsons said. “That was a team performance as a result of a high-class training environment. It takes 26 players to create that. To put in a performance like that off a great training performance is great.”