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Washington Spirit fall 1-0 to high-pressing Utah Royals FC

The Washington Spirit (1-1-0, 3 points) could not find an answer to the high-pressing Utah Royals FC (1-0-0, 3 points) Saturday. Utah took down the Spirit 1-0 in front of an announced crowd of 18,015 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

The Royals — with more experience on the roster than the Spirit’s week 1 opponent, Sky Blue FC — weren’t afraid to come out pressing high. In the first five minutes, Utah had two close chances.

Striker Christen Press had a good shot in the first minute, but it soared over the net. Another Utah shot seconds later forced Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe to make a diving save. 

Using its speed, Utah took advantage of a stretched Spirit defense.

Running up the left side, Press caused trouble for Washington all night. In the 10th minute, she stole the ball from Spirit centerback Paige Nielsen. Press made Nielsen pay for the mistake and weaved through the Spirit’s defense before getting an assist off to teammate Lo’eau LaBonta for the opening goal. 

The Spirit’s first close chance came from a play started by midfielder Amy Harrison. Forward Mallory Pugh received the pass and took a shot that was easily saved by Royals’ goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. Despite having most of the possession in the first half, the Spirit could not connect with each other or the back of the net.

Offensively, the Spirit remained mature but struggled in two areas. First, the Royals pressured high into the Spirit’s defensive third and forced turnovers. Second, Washington only got a few meaningly opportunities in front goal. Specifically, Utah was able to silence the dominating presence of forward Cheyna Matthews. 

In the second half, midfielder Rose Lavelle made her first NWSL appearance of the season, returning from a foot injury. Lavelle replaced Matthews and played primarily the right side. The USWNT regular created chances in the second half, but the finishing just wasn’t there. 

In the 74th minute, defender Royals Becky Sauerbrunn and Spirit rookie Jordan DiBiasi collided, which gave the Spirit a free kick just feet outside the 18-yard box. Lavelle’s shot posed no danger to Barnhart. 

Pugh made a late pressing effort in the 84th minute after connecting with a pass from Lavelle, but Barnhart was again there to spoil the shot. 

Despite the early goal, Bledsoe held strong to keep Washington in the game. During stoppage time, Bledsoe held off a late push from forward Katie Stengel. Bledsoe finished the night with a total of three crucial saves. 

The Spirit managed the game after conceding the early goal, but could not connect crucial passes in the final third to find an equalizer. Next up, they have another tough test hosting Reign FC at Maryland SoccerPlex at 7 p.m. ET May 4.

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