WASHINGTON — Deafening cheers rang throughout Audi Field during the Washington Spirit’s 2-1 victory Saturday against the Orlando Pride. The announced sellout crowd of 19,871 smashed the team’s previous record.
“We don’t want it to be that absurd. We want this to be the standard,” Spirit captain Andi Sullivan said after the game. “We love our Spirit Squadron, who is always there.”
Washington’s Spirit Squadron supporters group led the chants for most of the game with the loudest noise contained to the Northeast corner of the Major League Soccer venue.
That is until Spirit forward Ashley Hatch notched the eventual game-winner in the 59th minute. With a long cross from defender Tori Huster, Hatch rose into the air above the six yard box and headed in the goal. It came with great satisfaction for Hatch, who had been desperately trying to find the back of the net.
Orlando refused to let up pressure. The cheers filled Audi Field again in the final 20 minutes of play following a close call from Pride forward Marta when her shot rang off the crossbar. The Brazilian international tallied the only goal for Orlando earlier in the game.
“Thank god Marta hit the crossbar at the end,” Spirit coach Richie Burke said. “It would have spoiled the party.”
Feeling the pressure of a potential equalizer, the crowd joined together in an attempt to will its team to victory.
Let’s go Spirit. Let’s go Spirit. Let’s go Spirit.
“When you get a crowd in a stadium like that, it is very difficult for the players not to feed off that energy,” Burke said. “I think you saw in the end we were hanging on by a thread, but they fought through and battled.”
— Emily Olsen (@EmilyTOlsen) August 25, 2019
During the eruption of cheers, substitute Cheyna Matthews found herself in the Spirit’s attacking half. Working her way through the defense, the Jamaica national team forward hit a hard shot that was blocked by an Orlando defender. Forward Crystal Thomas, who scored the opening goal from a high press, followed up Matthews’ shot. This time, Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris blocked it.
With momentum swinging much more freely than it did the first half, the Spirit relied on the energy surrounding them to hang on to the victory.
“Having a crowd that big, it just feels like you have almost an extra player on the field,” Hatch said. “There is so much more energy and self belief out there.”
When the official sellout attendance was announced over the loudspeakers, the crowd seized an opportunity to break into a different chant.
Equal pay. Equal pay. Equal pay.
It was a reference to the U.S. women’s national team’s public fight with U.S. Soccer over fair and equitable pay. The dispute came to the forefront this summer while the US played its way to a fourth World Cup title.
Although the Spirit’s U.S. national team players, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh, were left off the roster Saturday due to injury, Burke said he hoped the performance and turnout inspired “the next generation of Rose Lavelles, Mal Pughs, Andi Sullivans.”
The 2019 Spirit debut at Audi Field was not without its hiccups. It took awhile for the stadium to fill in. There were noticeable empty seats during the opening minutes because some fans were stuck in long security lines.
“We learned we need to open the gates a little earlier because we are going to pack the house.” Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin said. “It takes a little bit to get 19,000-plus people in the venue, but we will get that better next time.”
With another game at Audi Field Sept. 14 against Reign FC, the Spirit will look to improve on Saturday’s entry issues. Right now, there are no public plans to continue to regularly play Spirit games at the stadium, but the established relationship could lead the way to more games inside city limits.
“I am very fortunate right now,” Baldwin said. “We have two wonderful partners. I have a wonderful partnership with the Maryland SoccerPlex. I have a great partnership with D.C. United. I am thinking bigger and bigger and bigger.”
All week, the team’s front office staff kept a list of predictions for Saturday’s attendance numbers. Baldwin predicted a sellout. The crowd of 19,871 more than doubled the team’s previous record of 7,976 earned last year at Audi Field. With the stadium seats full at 19,400, the Spirit had to open up standing room only tickets.
“If we promote the league properly, if we market the league differently and better and if we bring in the type of corporate sponsors to engage with us and help unleash the incredible women of this league to help impact more lives of kids, I think we can do this over and over and over again,” Baldwin said.
The players think so, too, and hope the large sellout crowd becomes the norm, not the exception.
“This is something that our new ownership came in and wanted to do,” Sullivan said. “I felt in the game and in the flow, which was an awesome way to feel to not be shaken up by that environment. After, when we were thanking the fans, that was when it was like, ‘oh my gosh this just happened.’”