Washington Spirit fans packed Audi Field on Sept. 14 Credit: Seth Vertelney

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When Washington Spirit midfielder Chloe Logarzo scored a dramatic 90th-minute goal on Saturday, it looked like the team had secured a massive late-season win at Audi Field. But the euphoria would not last.

Reign FC forward Ifeoma Onumonu struck back with a goal just minutes later, deflating a near-sellout crowd of 17,418 as the match ended in a 2-2 draw.

“This is worse than a loss emotionally,” Spirit forward Mallory Pugh said after the game. 

A win would’ve given the Spirit a huge boost in its chase for a playoff spot. Instead, the draw left the team with a mountain to climb.

Still, it was hard to view the evening as a failure for the Spirit, not when considering how drastically things have changed for the franchise in just the last year. 

The Spirit played its first game at brand-new Audi Field in August 2018. The result, a loss, wasn’t surprising considering the team won just two of its 24 games last season. The attendance of 7,976 set a new club record, mainly because the Spirit normally plays at the 5,200-capacity Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.

It would be hard to predict at the time that a year later, the Spirit would obliterate that record by drawing a sellout crowd of 19,871 at Audi Field in a game played last month.

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The team’s turnaround began immediately after the bleak 2018 campaign ended. Steve Baldwin took over as majority owner and hired Richie Burke as head coach. A sunny outlook replaced the gloomy atmosphere and what followed has been a season that’s seen the Spirit exceed expectations both on and off the field.

“This year has been so exciting,” Spirit midfielder Rose Lavelle says. “I think Steve has been incredible, I don’t have enough good things to say about him.”

The Spirit has attracted a growing number of sponsors under Baldwin’s leadership and buoyed by the increased attention of a World Cup year, the Spirit’s two games at Audi Field have averaged 18,645 fans. 

“We are the best league in the world, we have the best players in the world and I think when we sell our product that way, we can pack a house like we’ve done a couple times here,” Baldwin says.

While the first crowd was impressive the second was arguably more significant given the novelty of seeing the Spirit play for the first time since the World Cup had worn off. In addition to giving the team a much larger, more modern venue, playing at Audi Field allows the Spirit to access a different fan base than they do in suburban Maryland. As last month and Saturday’s games showed, D.C. can come out in force to support women’s soccer.

“I feel like that could just be a normal game here,” Reign FC and U.S. national team star Megan Rapinoe said after Saturday’s match. “It wasn’t like it was the only game they were going to play here, it wasn’t the championship match or anythingjust kind of a normal game in the league.”

The Spirit plays just two of its 12 home games at Audi Field in 2019. As the team looks toward 2020 the question may not be whether that number increases, but by how much. 

“I am hoping we can play every single match here. I really do,” Burke says. “The atmosphere is fantastic.”

With the Spirit and normal occupants D.C. United not sharing a common ownership group, the Spirit does have to pay United to rent out the facility for games. There’s also a concern that playing too many games in D.C. could alienate the suburban fan base that the club has worked several years to cultivate. 

But it’s become clear that if the Spirit want to continue their upward trajectory, playing more games at Audi Field will be a big part of the equation. 

“I think there’s a great market here for soccer,” Baldwin says. “We are interested in playing a lot more games at Audi. We’ll see where that goes with our conversations with D.C. United, who has been a great partner with us.”

If nothing else, the team has proven in 2019 that it’s begun to outgrow its current home. Rapinoe, who has visited the SoccerPlex for years, knows that a change may be in the best interest of all concerned.

“It’s a great soccer-specific stadium,” Rapinoe said of Audi Field. “I hope that they get to play here all the time. I think they deserve that. The Plex was good when it was good and we’re ready to move on now.”

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