The Washington Spirit won their season home opener for the first time in team history, downing the defending NWSL champion FC Kansas City, 3-1, on two goals from Christine Nairn and one from Crystal Dunn before a packed crowd of 4,136.
It didn’t start well for the home team, with Heather O’Reilly in just the sixth minute doing a quick give-and-take with Lauren Holiday in the box and managing to bloop the ball over Ashlyn Harris from a tough angle.
The lead lasted only about three minutes, though, as Tori Huster intercepted a Kansas City pass forward, tipped it to Angela Salem, who one-touched it to Nairn. The midfielder from Annapolis, MD, took one touch and, with space and the ball on her favored left foot, fired an absolute bullet from a good 35 yards out past a leaping Nicole Barnhart and inside the right post.
The rest of the half belonged to Ashlyn Harris, who despite a barrage of fourteen shots and nine corner kicks kept a clean sheet. She was only credited with three saves, but it seemed more like twenty. Both coaches raved about her after the match. “Some of her saves were unreal,” said KC head coach Vlatko Andonovski. “She did an amazing job, an unbelievable job.”
Said Spirit head coach Mark Parsons: “There’ll be enough saves in that performance that would make up any other goalkeeper’s season highlight reel.”
But Washington is a second-half team, and they proved it once again. Just thirty seconds after the restart, Crystal Dunn stole the ball from Jen Buczkowski in the center circle and drove in on goal. Covered by three defenders, she passed the ball off to the right to Laura del Rio. Del Rio’s shot possibly glanced off goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart and definitely bounced off the post, but Dunn continued her run and crashed the ball and herself into the goal. If they still gave second assists, Dunn could have been given credit for the goal and the assist on the same play. It was perhaps a message to national team head coach Jill Ellis, who was in attendance on the evening after having left Dunn off the World Cup roster.
“I don’t know how she doesn’t go,” said Parsons. “She can change games in split seconds. She can help save games in split seconds. Her pace, energy, fight, desire going forward, her quality, her one-v-one dribbling, her creativity. I think she’s a game-changer going forward and a game-changer going back, and every team, every country needs that.”
Dunn also deserves some credit for the Spirit’s third goal. Getting the ball from Nairn in the 65th minute, she charged in hard toward the box and was taken down hard just outside it by Amy LePeilbet. Nairn took the ensuing free kick and fired it in over the wall, off the underside of the crossbar, and in. Kansas City’s Heather O’Reilly was impressed: “Christine Nairn played lights-out tonight with those two goals. I mean, those were world-class goals.”
Perhaps Nairn also made a case for herself to get called back up to the national team – after this World Cup round, of course – after a brief look in 2009 when she scored a goal in her first appearance.
The most recent signee for the Spirit, Nigerian striker Francisca Ordega, appeared in a match for the first time when she came on for Estefania Banini in the 60th minute. She didn’t score but showed considerable potential, giving Becky Sauerbrunn fits several times when she had the ball on the attack. “It’s a great experience,” said Ordega after the match. “It was always my dream to play in America.”
Parsons had good words about the second-half performance of his back line, particularly rookie Megan Oyster. “Watch the second half with Megan Oyster, A-Rod was in her back pocket. Hopefully, Megan’s let her out so she can do her cool-down, but that performance was out of this world. And that’s just the beginning for her. I thought Estelle Johnson, who’s coming from eighteen months out, was exceptional. I thought Katherine and Alex and Crystal at the end, that gives us the platform to do the other stuff.”
If the Spirit have something to work on, it’s coming up with a way to play in the first half the way they play in the second. “I wish I knew that answer,” said Parsons. “It’s every game at home. I think 50% of it is the fans because – I say it all the time – they get into it, and they get so loud, and the connection is real, and we can feel it. And sometimes I think in the first half we’re trying to find out the game, how’s it look. Second half, we did it all last year. Tell me a team that had the better of us in the second half last year. There isn’t a team. There’s one team that scored more goals, but they didn’t have the better of us.”
The Spirit next play three straight matches on the road – Sky Blue on April 26, Seattle Reign on May 2, and the Portland Thorns on May 9 – before returning home on Saturday, May 16, to play Sky Blue. The May 2 game will be the last one with the national teamers until after the World Cup.
FC Kansas City has a quick turnaround to go back home and host Seattle on Thursday, April 23, followed by road matches against Houston (May 2) and Western New York (May 8).