BOYDS – The Washington Spirit hosted the Chicago Red Stars on Aug. 10 at Maureen Hendricks Field at the Maryland SoccerPlex. The Red Stars came into the game riding high, on a four-game winning streak.
When Washington took the field in front of a sell-out, standing-room only crowd of 5,300 fans, several key players were missing from the lineup.
In the end, it came down to one big play by Chicago forward Yuki Nagasato in the 65th minute to extend Chicago’s winning streak and give the Spirit their third consecutive loss at home by a final score of 1-0.
Five Washington players missed the game, including injured defender Tegan McGrady and forward Paige Nielsen, who served a one-game suspension after receiving a red card and getting ejected in a loss against the North Carolina Courage on Aug. 2. U.S. Women’s National Team player and Spirit striker Mallory Pugh was out due to a hip injury.
Meanwhile, the Red Stars (9-5-2) sat in first place in the National Women’s Soccer League standings. Even though Chicago lost to the Spirit at home 2-0 back in May, it was the 2-1 loss against the Sky Blue on July 6 that mobilized the Red Stars and led to their current winning streak.
“I think it was pride, a little bit. We have a lot of players that have been here for a long time,” said Chicago Head Coach Rory Dames. “We were disappointed with the Sky Blue game. We kind of rallied ourselves together, and we’ve put a good little run together, but I think the biggest change has been the individual players took a step back and asked themselves some hard questions. In fairness to them, they’ve been better.”
That motivation and sense of pride were on full display when Red Stars defender Casey Short set up Nagasato’s header into the net for the only goal of the game. The Spirit (6-6-3), despite their reputation as a second-half team, could not respond.
It was not for lack of effort though. Washington midfielder and World Cup star Rose Lavelle attempted a goal at the 60th minute, which caused Chicago goalie Alyssa Naeher to jump into the air to block it. Forward Ashley Hatch dribbled easily past a Red Stars defender, but her goal attempt went wide right.
Washington goalie Aubrey Bledsoe, fresh off of her third Save of the Week award for her performance against the North Carolina Courage, remained a formidable force in the box. Bledsoe stymied most of Chicago’s open shots; Nagasato’s goal managed to slip in at the top-right corner of the net.
“It’s always good when you’re creating chances. That’s the hardest part is the final product,” said Spirit defender and captain Andi Sullivan. “I think we’ve been building and working on that. We’ve kind of struggled with that recently, but I think we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
The Spirit also managed to contain Lavelle’s World Cup teammate and Chicago midfielder Julie Ertz. Bledsoe made sure Ertz’s open shots missed their mark, while forward Arielle Ship forced Ertz to change direction mid-dribble in an attempt to move down the field.
First-year Washington Head Coach Richie Burke stated that the game plan against Chicago included a different mindset and a more-tactical setup than in previous games, and the Spirit delivered: Dames said it was “the most-tactical game (Chicago) has been in all year.”
However, the Washington offense stalled, as Chicago employed a high press for much of the game. The Spirit have now lost five of their last six games and travel to play the third-place Portland Thorns (16-7) on Aug.17.
“We were on the wrong end of a one-goal defeat; it’s the sixth time we’ve lost by a goal,” said Burke. “It’s definitely disappointing, but I think the group is still tight, and still very much together. We just have to lift them up and go again. We’ve got a tough one in Portland next week.”
Burke praised Washington’s effort and tactical skill, but he also expressed frustration that even his team’s best efforts didn’t translate into a win.
“This is a good group of footballers. I’m not sure if we’ve got bad luck or no luck,” said Burke. “It’s disappointing to face your players when you know they’ve given everything. You touch them at the end of the match, and they’re soaking wet from the effort and work. I just think we need to be a little bit better in the final third.”