Credit: Kelyn Soong

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The Washington Spirit had multiple scoring opportunities early in the second half of its match against NJ/NY Gotham FC at Audi Field Tuesday night. Spirit captain Andi Sullivan went on the attack in the 49th minute and had a shot attempt blocked after a pass from rookie Trinity Rodman. Seconds later, forward Ashley Hatch kept the possession alive and had her shot saved by Gotham FC goalkeeper DiDi Haracic. Hatch nearly scored again on a header that hit the crossbar in the 50th minute, and Sullivan’s shot in the 56th minute grazed the fingers of Haracic, who also punched away a Rodman header less than a minute later.

Asked about the missed chances after the match resulted in a 0-0 draw, Sullivan let out a sigh of frustration.

“Ugh,” she said with a laugh. “I mean, the one that I struck that DiDi saved, I thought was going in for sure. So that was a great save from her … For me, I’m always just saying, like, next one is in and that’s what I was trying to say to my teammates: Next one is in. Next one is in. I had a coach tell me … it takes 10 shots to make a goal. So in the back of my mind, that’s always a part of my attitude is I’m just getting closer to scoring. So it’s frustrating we didn’t get there, but soon the floodgates will open, I’m sure.”

The Spirit finished the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup with one win, two losses, and one draw, which places them fourth out of five teams in the East Division. The top team from each division will compete in a final on May 8.

Spirit coach Richie Burke said he took “a lot of positives” from the game and praised his players after the match for their effort. He was especially pleased with how they forced Gotham FC to adjust their tactics in the second half, even if it did take an “animated” halftime talk from Burke to get his players into the game against an opponent they’ve had close matches against recently.

“We never moved them east and west enough and I was a little bit animated halftime,” Burke explained. “I think in the second half, we did an awful lot of that. And they were doing a lot more chasing than they wanted to do. Around about the 65th minute or so they end up playing the 4-3-3 [formation] because they realized we were torturing that diamond shape of theirs in midfield especially on a big wide pitch like that … So when teams have to tactically adjust against you, it’s a good sign.”

Burke added that while the Spirit has shown promise, he expects to see marked improvements in the next few weeks. Washington will begin its regular season on May 16 in Orlando against the Orlando Pride and home matches will be split between Audi Field in D.C. and Segra Field in Leesburg. He reminded his team that by then, several key players like Kelley O’Hara and Paige Nielsen will return to the field, and that playing time and roles in the club “are going to be based on the ultimate meritocracy.”

“We are good, but we are way better than what we’re showing right now,” Burke said when asked how close he felt the team is to where he wants it to be. “We are playing like we’re four games into a very long preseason and in need of a little recalibration. When they come back, I expect them to be firing on all cylinders, ready to go, rested enough, and then we as a technical staff have to get things a little bit right.”

Tuesday’s match also marked the first time in over a year that the Spirit hosted the general public. Vendors roamed the stadium and an announced crowd of 2,039 fans out of a pandemic-limited capacity of 4,500 could be heard cheering throughout the contest on the warm spring evening. Among them were Sullivan’s two best friends from South County High School in Lorton, her brother, her husband, and her 93-year-old grandfather, who had not seen his granddaughter play at Audi Field since 2019.

“It’s so special,” Sullivan said. “Because they were so influential into getting me here, and so for them to get to see me at Audi Field is so special. I really wanted to put on a good show for them tonight.”

Their presence made a difference for Sullivan. So did seeing a line of young kids in matching Lee Mount Vernon and Bethesda Soccer Club jerseys and hearing the fans chant, “Let’s go Spirit!” late in the game.

“It makes my voice quaver a little bit,” she said. “I love it so much. So it was just really special to get to play in front of fans, and we hope that soon more and more can come safely.”