Spirit win before record crowd on Dunn hat trick

Perhaps the Washington Spirit should start advertising games at the Soccerplex as “The Crystal Dunn Show.” Tonight she put on a clinic before a record crowd of 5,418, scoring a hat trick before halftime – including a header – to lead her team to a 3-1 win over the Houston Dash.

She regained the league scoring lead (twelve total) after Beverly Yanez briefly caught up to her earlier in the day. (Incidentally, how many minutes do those two have with the USWNT this year? Twelve – the sum total of Dunn’s playing time in 2015.)

The first goal was the most spectacular. In the 28th minute just outside the center circle she collected a ball sent forward by Megan Oyster and turned for goal. With five defenders around her, including Ella Masar on her shoulder most of the way, she got into the box and slipped the ball past goalkeeper Erin McLeod.

Dunn and McLeod collided after the play. McLeod suffered a skin laceration as a result and was removed from the game to get stitched up. Bianca Henninger took over in goal.

It took just eight minutes for Dunn to strike again. Diana Matheson brought the ball down the right sideline and chipped it into what looked like a crowd, but Dunn somehow collected it, dodged to the left, and found herself wide open in the box. Henninger came out to challenge low, but Dunn sent it over her and in.

She got the hat trick in surprising fashion in first-half stoppage time. Christine Nairn took a corner kick from the right and sent it to the near post. Dunn – tied for the second-shortest player on the field with Meghan Klingenberg – rose above everyone and headed it into the net. It was the first header goal for the Spirit this season.

Houston would get one back in the 74th minute. Kealia Ohai sent a high cross in from deep on the left that Jess McDonald ran onto and headed in. They’d have two late chances on corner kicks, but Estelle Johnson got in the way of one shot, and the other was blocked by goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.

In the Dash’s defense, they were clearly a tired team. Head coach Randy Waldrum: “We’ve played four games in twelve days in three cities, and I think it was just a little bit out of gas.”

His counterpart Mark Parsons wanted to point out Ali Krieger’s defensive effort more than Dunn’s offensive one, as well as answer some of his critics. “I’ve gotten a bit of stick for ‘playing the best right back in midfield.’ I’m not playing the best right back in midfield. I’m playing one of our best players. And we need our best players in key positions. She’s had two excellent games in positions she hasn’t played for a long time. Tonight I thought she was absolutely exceptional. Carli Lloyd didn’t have a second to breathe. ”

After three straight home games with a week between them, Washington’s schedule gets a lot tougher: on the road against Boston Saturday, back home against Western New York on Wednesday, then to Chicago for the make-up game on Sunday. There’s then a bit of a break until Thursday, August 27th, when they face FC Kansas City away followed closely on Sunday the 30th with a game at Portland. Their regular season then ends at home on Saturday, September 5, against Seattle.

“Yes, it’s brutal, what’s coming up,” said Parsons. “We had that last year. I remember we played Kansas on a Wednesday. We won. We played Chicago on a Saturday. We won. We’ve been there, seen it, and we’ve got the personnel, the deep squad that can handle it. And we’ve also got the expert staff who can take care of their bodies and get quick recovery. And we have very mature players who are committed to being their best every game. So I think it’s going to be brutal, but we’ve shown in the past that we can handle it.”

I noted that the team’s record last year was solid, with as many away wins as home wins. This year, though, they’ve only won once away from the Soccerplex. “New York away, Portland away, we tied,” said Parsons. “Those two games we should have won. We win them, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Then there’s been Kansas away, horrific, Houston away, horrific. Eliminate those two games, and I think we look okay. Performancewise, it’s been all right. We’ve got to respect that we’ve had that travel and be a bit more boring and grind a result out. We did that last year.”

Tonight’s match was the last for 30-year-old veteran defender Niki Cross of the Houston Dash, whose peripatetic career led her to play for nine different teams post-college, with five American ones including the Washington Spirit last year. Before the match, there was a brief ceremony where Harris gave her a bouquet of flowers and a big hug. After the match, Harris had this to say: “She was the first person I met when I came into [professional soccer]. I started my journey with her. She was my best friend at first sight when I came into St. Louis. She took me under her wing. So many people come in and out of my life with this job, but she’s one who’s always stuck and stayed, had my back through good times and bad. And pushed me to excel and get me to the place where I am today. I owe a lot of credit to her. It’s an emotional ride for us. For her to play her last game here, it was an emotional moment for us. I know that she’s going to be incredible no matter what she does. She’s an incredible human being. I’m so honored to be able to share a field with her and a team from last year with her. The game lost a very good person, and I only wish her a life long of happiness and good health. Same to her family.”

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