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FC Kansas City Edges Spirit, Pugh Makes Historic NWSL Debut

Well, FC Kansas City certainly knows how to knock the wind out of a team’s sails. With the Washington Spirit’s sizable home crowd seemingly brimming with anticipation of recently signed 19-year-old rising U.S. Women’s National team star Mallory Pugh’s historic National Women’s Soccer League debut, the Blues clinched their first-ever victory in Maryland, 1-0. Pugh, the third youngest player—and youngest American—in NWSL history, did enter the game in the 54th minute and made an immediate impact; she took her first NWSL shot on goal in the 75th minute.

But the night belonged to FC Kansas City, which won for the first time since its season opener. Midfielder Alexa Newfield—who played an extremely smart game, overall—scored the game winner in the 39th minute for her first-ever NWSL goal. The assist went to U.S. Women’s national team forward Sydney Leroux, whose bicycle attempt landed at Newfield’s feet with space and the time to set up and rocket a shot far post.

Washington entered Saturday’s game with four wins in the teams’ previous six meetings but left with its third one-goal defeat at home in 2017. The Blues improved to 2-2-2 with Saturday’s win, while the Spirit, looking to rebound from last week’s lopsided 6-2 effort against Seattle, fell to 1-4-1.

While scoring has been an issue for the FC Kansas City—it’s tied with Chicago Red Stars for fewest goals in the league with four—the Blues’ defense ranks among the NWSL’s best. Anchored by stalwart USWNT central defender Becky Sauerbrunn and stingy goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, FC Kansas City’s backline—which also saw excellent play from defenders Christina Gibbons, Yael Averbuch and Brittany Taylor on Saturday—has only allowed three goals in six games this spring. Saturday marked Barnhart’s third shutout of 2017 and extended her NWSL record to 35 since the league’s inception; no other NWSL goalkeeper has more than 14.

Possession was virtually split evenly Saturday and both teams created some nice combinations. But Washington’s defense, which coach Jim Gabarra acknowledged earlier this week is trying to gel, has given up 13 goals in six games and though it’s scored seven goals this season, the team is still struggling to find those final touches in the offensive third.

Led by Francisca Ordega, Cheyna Williams and Kristie Mewis, Washington actually had the advantage in shots on goal, 6-4—both teams tallied 11 total shots. But Barnhart came up with six crucial saves—and Sauerbrunn deflected a well-placed free kick from Mewis the dropped behind the wall and was headed toward the frame with pace.

The teams will see each other again in one week, with their second match of the season scheduled for Saturday in Kansas City.

 

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