A late first-half flurry by the Washington Spirit allowed the hosts to take control and thump the Orlando Pride 4-1 at Audi Field. The Pride (0-3-1, 1 point) had at least played solid defense to this point in the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup, but near the end of the first half, that came to a screeching halt as the Spirit (1-0-3, 6 points) ran unchecked through the Orlando penalty area for much of the rest of the game.
Ashley Sanchez, Andi Sullivan, Ashley Hatch, and Trinity Rodman provided the home team’s fireworks.
With the loss, the Pride were officially eliminated from contention in the Challenge Cup, but beyond that, it’s a worrying sign from a team that has struggled to score but at least has limited clear-cut opposition scoring chances. As a consolation prize, Gunny Jonsdottir’s second-half strike gave the team its first goal under Head Coach Amanda Cromwell and snapped the club’s 501-minute scoreless streak in competitive action.
“I thought it was going to be nil-nil and then kind of the wheels came off there the last five minutes of the (first) half,” Cromwell said after the match. “Going forward, we just have to be better.”
Cromwell started Anna Moorhouse for the second straight game, behind a back line of Carrie Lawrence, Megan Montefusco, Amy Turner, and Courtney Petersen. The midfield was made up of Angharad James, Jonsdottir, and Meggie Dougherty Howard. Sydney Leroux missed the match with a leg injury, so the attacking line consisted of Darian Jenkins, Mikayla Cluff, and Erika Tymrak.
Both teams came out pressing and counter-pressing in the early going. Orlando had some early success creating some turnovers and playing through the Spirit’s press. The Pride fashioned the first shot of the match, with Jonsdottir firing a shot just over the crossbar in the third minute.
The Spirit’s first opportunity came on a ball sprayed out wide to Anna Heilferty. She crossed it into the box and Rodman flicked it toward goal but it was right at Moorhouse for the easy save in the ninth minute.
The first big save of the game came in the 16th minute when a back-post ball was sent from right to left for Heilferty. Lawrence did well to head it away at the last second but it didn’t go far. Taylor Aylmer got to it first and her shot was met by a charging Moorhouse, who made a crucial save.
As the first half wore on, Orlando started to make mistakes against the Spirit press. In the 22nd minute, Dougherty Howard took too long on the ball and had her pass blocked by Rodman, but Moorhouse was able to collect the ball before it became a problem. A minute later, Kelley O’Hara fizzed a shot just wide of goal from outside the area after Washington won the ball back in a good spot.
The Pride nearly got Jonsdottir in behind in the 24th minute but her pace allowed the defender to catch up. The Icelandic international had her run cut off by a defender, but before she could try a shot or flick the ball into an area for a teammate, the whistle went for a foul that was shockingly called on Jonsdottir, who appeared to have done nothing to warrant it.
The Spirit should have scored in the 28th minute when Sanchez found Hatch in transition after what appeared to be an obvious foul on the other end went uncalled and instead was a Pride turnover. Hatch’s shot deflected and was nearly put in but Lawrence cleared it off the line.
Cluff had a shot blocked from the top of the area in the 31st minute, and another Pride shot from the scrum got blocked on the ensuing corner as the Pride continued to struggle getting clean looks at goal.
The Spirit broke through just before halftime with a pair of goals just two minutes apart as the Pride defense fell apart. Rodman crossed in from the right flank and Hatch dummied the ball through the area. No one was tracking Sanchez’s run and she had no trouble slotting home to make it 1-0 in the 43rd minute.
“The first one, cross and finish, just a lack of marking when we had numbers back to mark. We just didn’t pick up runners,” Cromwell said. “And we’ve been really good about that thus far. So, that was surprising.”
Things got worse in the 45th minute when a ball came in from Rodman — on the left this time — and nobody bothered staying with Sullivan, who was the only Spirit player in front of goal. Sullivan had time to collect the ball, turn and fire the second goal past Moorhouse. (Try to ignore the overzealous NWSL Twitter admin.)
“The second one was definitely momentum crushing because it was from a restart,” Cromwell said. “And one of the keys to our game was just the awareness on restarts, making sure we slow them down, and we’re very defensive-minded in those instances to get back and get organized. Another cross. We had numbers in the box to mark up. So, those were two disappointing goals very quickly right before half. That definitely changed a bit of the momentum going in.”
The Pride generated a couple of late set pieces in stoppage time but did nothing with them and the Spirit took their seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead to the locker room as the Pride rode a 492-minute scoreless streak dating back to Oct. 16, 2021.
The Spirit led in shots (7-5), shots on goal (6-0), possession (53.1%-46.9%), and passing accuracy (79.6%-71.7%). The Pride had more corner kicks (4-2).
The Spirit needed only four minutes after the break to add to their lead. Camryn Biegalski took the ball on the left and found Hatch in front completely unmarked for the easy third goal in the 49th minute.
“Giving up that third goal early...we said that next goal is going to make a big difference,” Cromwell said.
Orlando finally got its first goal of 2022 in the 54th minute. Jenkins took the ball down the right flank in transition and crossed into the box. Jonsdottir took a lunging, sliding shot and beat former Pride goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury, who didn’t start but had subbed on at the half.
Jonsdottir’s goal was the Pride’s first since Jodie Taylor scored in the third minute at Racing Louisville last October in the team’s penultimate game of the 2021 season.
“I’m proud of Gunny for getting the goal,” Cromwell said. “(She’s) A really hard worker.”
Cromwell sent some subs into the match but the Pride seemed much more likely to concede a fourth than to score a second through much of the second half, turning the ball over while trying to connect longer passes into the attack. Washington had no trouble intercepting them and turning them into transition opportunities. The Spirit nearly had a fourth when Rodman put the ball in the net but was ruled offside in the 79th minute.
Jonsdottir had a chance for a brace in the 83rd minute but couldn’t get her spinning shot attempt on frame off a deflected set piece that fell a bit behind her.
A minute later, Petersen gave the ball away cheaply in her own end and Rodman’s cross deflected off second-half sub Toni Pressley on what could have been another Washington scoring chance.
Rodman got her goal in the 87th minute, beating Montefusco in the air and heading an O’Hara cross inside the right post. Moorhouse appeared to have a chance to stop it but was frozen and couldn’t dive over to make an attempt on it.
Washington led in most of the statistical categories, as the score would suggest, leading in shots (24-9), shots on target (13-2), possession (51.4%48.6%), and passing accuracy (75.1%-71.1%). Orlando held a slim edge in corner kicks (7-6).
“It was a tough loss,” Montefusco said. “You never want to get scored on that many times. But I think there were a lot of positives too, a lot of good takeaways. You know, we had a couple of good stretches of play and a lot of people battled hard. So, I think we’re going to take this game and just learn and grow from it. That’s all we can do.”
The Pride are out of contention, but they have a couple of weeks to regroup before resuming their Challenge Cup campaign on Saturday, April 16, when they host the North Carolina Courage at 7 p.m.