Cheyna Williams and Christine Nairn scored to lead the Washington Spirit over the Orlando Pride, 2-1 in the first regularly-scheduled NWSL match since the Olympic break. The win assures the Spirit of taking the Shield lead into September and gives them a chance to clinch a playoff berth on Saturday if other team’s cooperate. The Pride dropped their fourth straight and saw their already dim playoff hopes take another hit.
The Pride lost their entire back four and goalkeeper to the Olympics, but only keeper Ashlyn Harris returned to the XI. Steph Catley and Laura Alleway came back injured and neither Josee Belanger nor Monica started just a week after contesting the bronze medal match–though Monica made an appearance as a sub. The missing defenders may have been a factor in the Pride conceding their goals. Both goals were also products of beautiful soccer execution by the Spirit.
The first, in the 36th minute, began when Tori Huster and Joanna Lohman won possession in the midfield and the referee played an advantage to the Spirit on a foul. Caprice Dydasco made an overlapping rub up the left flank and ran onto a well-weighted pass. Dydasco caught a double team from rookies Sam Witteman and Dani Weatherholt but managed to lift a ball in between them that found Williams in the box. Williams took a suave touch between Kaylyn Kyle’s legs, ran onto it on the other side and beat a stunned Harris with a near-perfect finish.
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Jim Gabarra inserted Katie Stengel at halftime and she assisted on the second goal, but the 55th minute tally was about far more than the final pass. The entire possession spanned the defensive left corner, where Dydasco won the ball clean off Kristen Edmonds, to the attacking right corner where Ali Krieger fed Stengel who calmly held the ball long enough to catch Nairn wide open. As the Spirit attacked up the right the Pride overcompensated in their shape and Nairn had enough time on receiving the pass that she was able to settle it and get the exact shot she wanted. It was Nairn’s third goal of the season with the first two coming last week in Houston.
The Pride pulled one back through a substitute of their own, Sarah Hagen. Dydasco stepped toward midfield to challenge Jasmyne Spencer but the ball squirted to the space she vacated giving Pride right back Cami Levin enough time and space to set up the play. Meanwhile Hagen was making a smart run through the center of the box and Levin picked her out with a perfect cross. The one-touch finish made it 2-1 in the 71st minute.
The Pride though, could do no better than halving the lead. In truth their best chances came earlier, twice when Spirit keeper Kelsey Wys made errors that she was not made to pay for, and shortly before the opening goal when Wys stoned Alex Morgan on a close-range header.
The Spirit (11-3-2, 35 pts) have now won two away matches out of the break and three straight overall. A win on Saturday, September 3 at home against the Flash will officially punch the Spirit’s ticket to the postseason. They may not have to wait that long though. If Sky Blue lose on Saturday and the Reign do not win it will be a done deal. The Spirit lead the Shield race by six points over the Thorns who have a match in hand. The Pride (6-10-0, 18 pts) likely need to win their last four, beginning September 3 in Houston. Even that would require help from around the league.