GERMANTOWN, Md. — The Washington Spirit set one record Saturday night, but failed to improve on another.
The new professional women’s soccer team packed a sell-out crowd of 5,011 fans into the Maryland SoccerPlex for the visit of Portland Thorns FC, but could not complete a late comeback effort to improve on their season points total as Portland won 2-1.
Despite the SoccerPlex stadium’s published capacity of only 4,500 spectators, the Spirit were able to squeeze 5,011 fans into some standing-room-only and general admission areas Saturday, setting a new record for attendance for a women’s professional game at the intimate suburban stadium. The previous mark of 4,809 was set by former SoccerPlex tenants the Washington Freedom.
The match also drew 6,073 unique viewers via the NWSL’s YouTube.com live stream, for a combined total live audience of 11,084.
Those 11,000-plus fans were treated to a fast-paced and sometimes feisty affair between the hometown Spirit and the league-leading, star-studded visitors from Portland. Thorns FC went ahead 1-0 in the 12th minute when U.S. Women’s National Team star Alex Morgan converted from the penalty spot after being brought down on the edge of the box by Domenica Hodak, who was making her first start and fourth appearance of the young season.
Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris earned a yellow card caution from referee Christina Unkel for dissent on the PK call, charging well outside her area as the teams prepared for the restart.
Despite effectively managing the league’s most dangerous duo of Morgan and Canadian National Team legend Christine Sinclair during the run of play, the Spirit were undone by the rookie mistake of challenging the striker while she was dribbling away from goal.
But it would be a veteran mistake that led to DC going down 2-0 in the 51st minute when Ali Krieger had a pass in her defensive third picked off by Portland’s Nikki Washington just 30 yards from goal.
Washington easily settled, set herself and curled a low skidding shot just inside the far post for what would prove to be the game winner. Harris narrowly missed pushing the shot wide, but appeared to be screened and got a late jump on what would normally have been an easy stop for the U.S. National Team ’keeper.
A halftime substitution and formation change by Spirit coach Mike Jorden certainly changed the game in the First Ladies’ favor. Tiffany McCarty entered the match at halftime and joined fellow rookie striker Caroline Miller up top, who had earned her first start in of the season in McCarty’s place. Leading scorer Diana Matheson slotted to the right midfield, but continued to enjoy a somewhat free role, roaming end to end and seemingly always being in more than one place at the same time.
The Spirit dominated the second-half stats, outpacing the Cascadian crew in shots (9-5), shot on goal (6-2) and forcing goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc into five saves while Harris was called on just once outside of the Nikki Washington goal – pushing a strong long-distance bid by Sinclair over the bar.
The pressure paid off eventually, with Matheson earning an 85th-minute penalty of her own when she was brought down making a strong surge into the right side of the box.
The Canadian international faced the one player in the world who likely knows her tendencies more than any other in her compatriot, but calmly fired to the left side of goal as LeBlanc dived in the opposite direction. It was a team-leading third goal on the year for Matheson, who is quickly earning a public reputation as one of the best players in league to go with what most in the inner circles of the women’s global game have known to be true for years.
The Spirit would threaten again late, with a long-distance effort from Robyn Gayle deflecting out for a corner in stoppage time, and McCarty heading just over the bar on the ensuing corner. Portland managed the remainder of the clock off the ensuing goal kick to secure the 2-1 road win and solidify their top spot in the league on 10 points.
The road result gives Thorns FC a three-point lead on the second-place Boston Breakers, who will travel to Maryland next weekend to face the Spirit in Washington’s last home game at the SoccerPlex until June 15.
Next Saturday’s game will be the second in a planned doubleheader as the Washington Spirit Reserves kick off the inaugural game of the 2013 season W-League season against New York Magic – F.A. Euro at 4 p.m. ET, followed by Spirit vs. Breakers at 7 p.m.
Fans wishing to attend the W-League game may do so with their NWSL ticket, but will not be permitted to leave and then re-enter the stadium between games. Visit washingtonspirit.com for more information.