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Washington Spirit’s long night ends in a 2-1 loss to Houston Dash

BOYDS, Md. — The Washington Spirit fell to the Houston Dash 2-1 Saturday in front of a sellout crowd at Maryland SoccerPlex. On a night meant to honor its six World Cup players, the Spirit could not find the finishing touches to get a point out of the game.

The visiting Dash started on the front foot, pressuring the Spirit’s young backline, but bunkered when Washington went on the attack. Houston forward Kealia Ohai received back-to-back dangerous balls behind the defense at the beginning of the game, but failed to notch a goal.

Houston almost claimed the lead in the 33rd minute with a free kick goal, but referee Karen Abt jogged over to her assistant referee, who had raised her offside flag. Abt had a quick conversation before confirming the call and ruling the ball offside.

The Dash continued to put numbers in front of goal on defense and took advantage of the many restarts of the game. In her first game back from winning the World Cup with the U.S. national team, forward Mallory Pugh sent a corner into the six-yard box. Midfielder Andi Sullivan got a clean volley on the ball, but it hit off of the crossbar. 

“It is an exercise in frustration, but I love all of my players,” Spirit coach Richie Burke said. “This is the way we play and it is very difficult to face them all of the time and say, ‘keep playing this way, keep playing this way, keep playing this way,’ when results don’t go our way.”

The Spirit play in a high-pressing system with an aim to score as many goals as possible. While that style of play worked in the first half of the season, Washington is now winless in the last five matches under the same style. 

“I have to believe we are going to progress on this. It is a long project and we are a short time into it,” Burke said. “To have gotten the immediate success that we got was great, but now if we are going to stay with this methodology and principles of play, we have to do a little bit of a better job in the final third.” 

The start of the game Saturday was pushed back an hour due to extreme heat in the area, but it was not the only delay of the evening. During halftime, the SoccerPlex’s infamous lightning horn sounded, indicating a weather delay which lasted over an hour. Players returned to play the second half just after 10 p.m. ET.

Although the crowd size dwindled following the extended half time, the Spirit came out with more energy at the restart. Forward Cheyna Matthews opened with a dribble through the Houston defense and a hard shot deflected by goalkeeper Jane Campbell. 

Houston striker Rachel Daly returned the pressure five minutes later with a turn around defender Tori Huster and a high shot off target. 

With the offensive momentum, the Spirit won a throw-in inside the offensive third. Washington’s long-throw expert, Sam Staab, launched a ball from the sideline over the Houston defense and to the back post for Jordan DiBiasi. The midfielder scored her fourth goal of the season.

“It is really nice to have Sam and the asset of the long throw,” DiBiasi said. “I made the near post run and it worked out today.”

The Spirit’s lead did not last long. Houston lobbed a lucky long ball up the field moments later on a counter attack. Daly collected the pass and sprinted toward goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. She back-heeled a pass to Sofia Huerta, who assisted Kristie Mewis for the equalizer.

With the game knotted at one goal a piece, Pugh challenged midfielder Sophie Schmidt. Abt whistled for a foul.

Houston again took advantage of the stoppage. Midfielder Christine Nairn perfectly placed the free kick into the path of defender Amber Brooks, who convert the set piece and claim the lead. 

“I said to the referee at half time that this is a team that lives and dies on restarts and they are buying free kicks left, right and center,” Burke said of the opponent. “They bought that one, but as a young team we have to understand that is part of professional football and they have to understand that is what teams do to us sometimes.” 

With the Spirit desperately trying for an equalizer, chaos ensued in the final five minutes of the game. Nairn walked off the field injured, but sprinted back into play to receive a breakaway pass. Huster pulled Nairn down by the collar, but the referee showed the yellow card to Nairn for entering the game early.

During stoppage time, Sullivan earned a penalty kick after getting pulled down in the box. In her first game back following the U.S. World Cup victory, Pugh stepped up to take the kick. Her shot went left of center and was saved by Campbell. The Houston bench erupted in celebrations. 

“The past few games we have been struggling in the final third, and it makes sense with people coming back into the fold,” Sullivan said. “In this league, if you give anyone the opportunity, they are going to score. So, I just think [we need] tightening up defensively.” 

After the game, Burke said he may have kept Pugh in too long. She played a full 90 minutes.

“I feel really bad for Mal,” Burke said. “Her achilles is niggling her a little bit, but she is such a special player and such a creative player for us. We sort of rolled the dices a little bit. Now in retrospect, I think that it is possibly a mistake on my part.” 

The Spirit’s other World Cup champion, Rose Lavelle, did not dress against Houston due to a lingering hamstring injury. If all goes as planned, she could be available as soon as the road game against Sky Blue FC on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

“She wants to play anywhere, anytime,” Burke said of Lavelle. “But we have to be careful with how vulnerable her hamstring is. If she says to me, ‘I’m playing Wednesday,’ then I am saying she’s playing Wednesday.”

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