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After playing in front of an average of 18,645 fans at Audi Field the last two matches, the Washington Spirit returned to its suburban home Saturday evening for its regular season home finale at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
The venue doesn’t provide the same big stadium environment that players crave, but 5,200 fans packed the SoccerPlex and watched World Cup stars Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh lead the Spirit over the league-leading North Carolina Courage, 2-1, in its third to last regular season game.
Now the team must decide where to claim as its future home.
“The SoccerPlex is a very special place,” Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin told City Paper after the game. “My relationship here is a very special relationship. You saw the environment tonight. It was electric. The energy in both places has been crazy good. I think we have an opportunity, one of the things that we think about as a club is that we serve a large geography: northern Virginia, Maryland, D.C., we got into Pennsylvania. So we have to be mindful of all our fans and how we best serve the fans and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Baldwin, who has helped rejuvenate a franchise that won only two games last season after taking over this spring, added that any decision will be made after the regular season is over.
The Spirit has two games remaining and is in the hunt for the fourth and final playoff spot. If Seattle’s Reign FC beats Portland Thorns FC today, the Spirit will officially be eliminated from the postseason.
“We’re gonna make a decision that’s in the best interest of the club, focused on the players, and focused on the fans,” Baldwin said. “We feel we’ll come up with a decision that makes sense for us, is the right business decision, is the right professional decision for the players and the fans. It’s what my job is right now to figure that out.”
After the match, which saw Lavelle score her first goal in a Spirit uniform, Baldwin told the season ticket holders he planned to make the Spirit the “best club in the world,” before a fan interrupted with a question:
“How many games at Audi Field?”
“We are very, very fortunate to have great partners in the SoccerPlex and D.C. United, and we will see what happens next year,” he replied. “This is a very special place to us.”
The SoccerPlex has felt like home to midfielder Tori Huster, who joined the Spirit in 2013 and has spent her entire NWSL career with the team.
“I come up here even when we don’t have practice,” Huster says. “I play with my dog here. It’s just a beautiful space to be in and around and it has been my home. It’s always such a pleasure to play on this field and they take great care of the field and great care of us and we’re really lucky to be here.”
But even with her affinity for the SoccerPlex and love for the atmosphere created by the fans, Huster believes it would be a “great move” for the club to make Audi Field its permanent home.
The stadium holds about four times as many fans and is more easily accessible by public transportation, potentially opening up the franchise to more fans from D.C.
“I think with the direction that women’s soccer is going, Audi would make the most sense,” Huster says. “I don’t know if that will be next year or the next year after that, but I would love to see the club be taken there … I think to be in venues like that is where the direction of our league needs to go.”
Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe agrees, saying she prefers to compete at Audi Field.
“I want to play in front of the biggest crowd possible so I would say Audi,” she says, “but this stadium, the pitch is incredible and I’m happy to play wherever I can, but of course we want to fill up the biggest venues possible.”
Baldwin knows the attention for his club is at an all-time high due to the World Cup, and said that he hopes “there are more Audi games next year.”
But he added that Saturday’s game would not be the team’s last match at the SoccerPlex, even if the Spirit fails to reach the playoffs. By the sounds of it, the team will likely get best of both worlds next season.
“We just kinda have to be mindful of what’s special about both places, what’s special about both partners, because I can’t say enough good things about D.C. United and I can’t say enough good things about the Maryland SoccerPlex,” he said. “They’re both wonderful organizations and great for us.”