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Sky Blue eliminated after 2-1 loss to Spirit

Mallory Pugh scored a late game-winner to give the Spirit a 2-1 win over Sky Blue. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

The Washington Spirit proved to be Sky Blue FC’s kryptonite, scoring two late second-half goals to defeat the New Jersey-based club, 2-1. Maya Hayes struck first for the home team, but Whitney Church and Mallory Pugh each got singles to give the Spirit the win. The loss eliminates Sky Blue from the playoff hunt.

Although the Spirit have struggled this season, spending much of it at the bottom of the table before being one of the first two teams eliminated, Sky Blue has been the one opponent they have handled remarkably well. In the teams’ first meeting on May 6, the Spirit eked out a 4-3 win thanks to a Player of the Week-winning performance by Francisca Ordega. The Spirit then won their first trip of the season to New Jersey, 4-1, after another Player of the Week performance, this time by rookie Arielle Ship, who tallied two goals and an assist. Tonight, Whitney Church and Mallory Pugh both scored goals to secure the come-from-behind win for the Spirit, sweeping the series between the two teams.

But to win, the Spirit had to overcome a one-goal deficit thanks to a goal by Maya Hayes late in the first half. Hayes started the goal-scoring play by heading a goal kick from Spirit keeper DiDi Haracic towards goal. Sam Kerr beat Spirit defender Kassey Kallman to the ball before one-timing it back over to Hayes, but Haracic came off her line and deflected Hayes’ shot as the two players collided and fell to the pitch. Haracic’s deflection rolled over to Kerr, who had also fallen following a collision, but the resilient striker attempted a shot from the ground. Alyssa Kleiner went to clear the ball, but she sent it right back to Hayes, who had climbed back to her feet although Haracic stayed down on the play. No whistle was blown to stop the action on the field, allowing Hayes ample time to take a couple steps around the Spirit defense and send a shot in for the game’s opening goal.

The second half was a scoreless affair up until the 75th minute, when the Spirit got on the board. O’Hara slide tackled the ball away from Meggie Dougherty Howard, resulting in a Spirit corner kick. Shelina Zadorsky took the kick, sending in textbook service directly to Whitney Church’s head, setting her up perfectly for the Spirit equalizer and the first goal of the defender’s NWSL career. Mallory Pugh, who entered the game shortly after the hour mark, then gave the Spirit the win with five minutes of regulation time remaining when she danced around Nikki Stanton and fired off a shot from outside the area that went into the lower left corner for the game-winning goal.

Sky Blue had an insane sequence in front of goal in the final seconds of the match, putting three consecutive shots on target in attempts of stealing a point back from the Spirit. The play started when O’Hara drove the ball towards goal and maneuvered around Haracic, who had come off her line in attempts of beating her to the long ball. O’Hara took a few more touches to get a solid look on goal, but by the time she got off a shot, Church had gotten in front of it. O’Hara settled the deflection and passed it back to Daphne Corboz, who was making a run on goal, but the substitute’s shot was stopped by Haracic. O’Hara attempted to send the rebound from that save in, but Haracic was once again equal to the task before her backline cleared the ball from danger, ending Sky Blue’s dangerous attempt at a last-minute equalizer.

Unfortunately for Sky Blue, it was not destined to be another night of Sam Kerr magic, as Haracic and the Spirit defense prevented the star striker from getting on the scoresheet for the second game in a row. Kerr is currently tied for the NWSL single-season goal record at 16, but the record-setting 17th has proven to be quite elusive. There are now just two games remaining in the season to try to take sole possession of the record.

But first for the two teams is a week-long break in observation of the FIFA international window. Kerr, O’Hara, and Pugh will report to the Australian and US national teams, respectively, for the teams’ scheduled friendlies before returning to their clubs. The Spirit return home to take on the Boston Breakers, who they just overtook on the table with tonight’s results, on Saturday, September 23. Sky Blue takes on the table-topping North Carolina Courage for their home finale on Sunday, September 24.

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