Boyds, Md. — The Washington Spirit fell to the Chicago Red Stars 1-0 in front of a sellout crowd at the Maryland SoccerPlex. With the victory, the Red Stars extended their winning streak to five games.
Despite the loss, the Spirit succeeded in shutting down league-leading scorer Sam Kerr thanks to rookie defender Sam Staab and versatile captain Andi Sullivan. Staab was without her typical centerback partner, Paige Nielsen, due to a red card suspension. Sullivan played in Neilsen’s spot, commanding the team from the back line instead of her normal defensive midfield position for just the second time this season. The pair had to defend a Red Stars team that played in a high-press from the opening whistle.
“As prepared as I could be, that is how I felt,” Sullivan said. “To see you’re going to play 90 minutes against one of the best forwards in the world, it is a little nerve-wracking. At the same time, it was a great opportunity.”
In the opening minutes, Staab was called upon to bail her teammates out of danger. She slid into the box to keep a close-range Chicago shot out of the net.
On the other side of the pitch, the Red Stars (9-5-2, 29 points) locked down the Spirit (6-6-3, 21 points), who missed the final touch throughout the match. The Red Stars have now conceded one goal in the last five games and scored 10.
Chicago outshot Washington 12 goals to nine. The teams were even for shots on target with three.
“We knocked and knocked on the door, but didn’t get it done. They nicked one in at the other end,” coach Richie Burke said. “Movement, timing, quality of service — there are a lot of different things that we have looked at.”
After the match, Red Stars coach Rory Dames said that Saturday was the most tactically challenging game of the season for his team.
The Spirit had a string of attacking plays before Chicago found a decent offensive run in the first half.
Then in the 27th minute, Red Stars forward Yuki Nagasato fed the ball to Sam Kerr just in front of the Spirit’s back line. Kerr made a one-touch cross to Arin Wright, who was wide open on the right side of the box. Wright hit a close-range shot at goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, who made a heroic kick save that bounced out of the box. She then stood up and saved a 30-yard rocket from Julie Ertz to keep the game scoreless going into halftime.
— Washington Spirit (@WashSpirit) August 10, 2019
Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had an acrobatic save of her own in the second half, when the Spirit opened up the flanks to allow more runs in by midfielder Rose Lavelle. The U.S. national team star received a ball in the final third and launched it toward goal, but Naeher twisted in the air to punch the shot away.
“They have a great midfield,” Lavelle said. “I struggled a little getting on the ball, so that is definitely something I am going to have to look at and see where I can exploit other teams and find other pockets. I just wasn’t on it today.
Lavelle spent most of the night attempting to create offense from the midfield that fizzled in the final third. While defending a Chicago counter, Lavelle committed a costly foul on midfielder Danielle Colaprico.
With the ball in their attacking third, the Red Stars took advantage of a throw-in to move into dangerous range. In the 65th minute, defender Casey Short put a long ball into the box. Nagasato dove and headed the ball to redirect the shot past Bledsoe.
“I don’t know if they necessarily frustrated us,” Lavelle said. “I think we definitely came into this game a little more defensive-minded, so we had to capitalize on the opportunities that we did have.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) August 11, 2019
The Spirit almost found an equalizer minutes later when Lavelle went on a breakaway. She laid a ball off for Ashley Hatch to the left of goal. Hatch faked out her defender, but her shot was wide of the net.
In the final minutes of the game, the Spirit shifted into a more attacking formation with three in the back and substitute Cali Farquharson and Jordan DiBiasi running things on the wing.
“This is a very tactically adept group,” Burke said. “They just took to it like a duck to water. Today, we thought about chasing the game and going to a back three. It is something we thought about a couple times this year.”
This is the second game in a row that the team has had to make mid-game tactical changes.
“I think that speaks loads to the players we have and how bought in we are as a team,” Sullivan said. “That is not something that happens over night. That is something that happens over years of development.”
Chicago countered by putting its strongest defensive player, Ertz, on the backline of five defenders.
During stoppage time, Farquharson had a chance on goal, but her shot went wide in what was the last clear opportunity of the night. With the loss to Chicago, the Spirit falls to 1-5-0 in its last six games.
“Again, we were on the wrong end of a one-goal defeat,” Burke said. “That is the sixth one now that we lost by a goal. It is disappointing, but I think the group is still tight and very much together.”