Fresh off her two-goal performance in the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 5-3 win over Australia on April 7, American soccer star Mallory Pugh led the Washington Spirit to a 2-0, National Women’s Soccer League season-opening victory over New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC on April 13 at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
While Washington is now unbeaten in eight matches against Sky Blue, the victory was its first in four meetings after three consecutive 1-1 draws, and the hometown crowd of 2,373 spectators witnessed Spirit domination. Washington, which now sits atop the NWSL standings alongside Portland Thorns FC with three points, controlled possession for the majority of the contest, racking up 15 shots to Sky Blue’s seven.
After several near attempts—three spearheaded by Pugh midway through the first half—it was Spirit rookie defender Sam Staab who scored the game winner in the 59th minute with her first NWSL goal. Staab collected the ball near the penalty spot and rocketed a left-footed shot through a crowd of players just inside the right post.
Megan Crosson scored the insurance goal in stoppage time, finishing Pugh’s wellplaced cross into the box with a header into the upper right corner of the net. Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, who was twice named NWSL Player of the Week and tallied a regular season record 108 saves last season, her first with the Spirit, picked up her fifth clean sheet dating back to the start of 2018.
This is an important year for the NWSL and women’s soccer in this country. The third installment of a women’s professional league, it is the first to surpass the three-season mark—and averaged a league record 6,024 fans per game in 2018. The nine-team league provides the unique accessibility to some of the sport’s biggest stars—the Sky Blue brought two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time FIFA Player of the Year Carli Lloyd to the SoccerPlex.
But questions regarding its long-term stability still remain and were heightened in February when the NWSL and A+E Networks announced an “amicable end to their partnership … with one year remaining in their three-year broadcast agreement.” But with the upcoming World Cup—slated to kick off in France this June—women’s soccer will once again be on the main stage.
The NWSL noted piqued interest and an increase in ticket sales following the USWNT’s World Cup win in 2015 and this year’s tournament is sure to provide more exposure, not only for USWNT players but the NWSL’s internationals as well.
For now, Washington Spirit fans can watch the rise of American soccer’s next generation of superstars with Pugh, who has scored three goals for the UWSNT in 2019 and 12 overall in 43 national team appearances, and crafty midfielder Rose Lavelle (six goals in 20 USWNT appearances).
“I believe that owning a professional sports team, especially a women’s professional team, is a privilege and in these times carries with it a greater calling,” wrote Steve Baldwin, a new member of the Washington Spirit Ownership Group, in a statement on the team’s website. “Our women are the best in the world at their craft. They are world-class athletes and play in the best league in the world. For women’s professional soccer, the NWSL is akin to the NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLB. The best players in the world play here and top to bottom, our league is the most competitive in the world.”