Leesburg, Va. — After grabbing the momentum at the very end of the first half, the Washington Spirit made four personnel changes to open the second half, and those subs paid off immediately as rookie forward Tara McKeown scored less than 11 seconds into the second half to put her team up 2-1.
The Spirit were able to hold onto that lead for the remaining 45 minutes to earn three points over Kansas City on September 26 in Leesburg.
“[Tara] has been great, and with more consistent time, she’ll just continue to get better,” Washington captain Andi Sullivan said. “She’s a great threat up top, she works super hard, and she’s a great teammate.”
McKeown’s goal to open the second half was part of a one-two scoring punch which Sullivan started late in the first half. Already two minutes into stoppage time, Washington forward Kelley O’Hara earned a penalty inside the Kansas City box, and Sullivan made them pay as she buried the PK to even the score at 1-1 heading into the half.
“To get the PK at the end of the first half was superb, and everyone else just came out and did their job,” Washington interim head coach Kris Ward said. “Definitely a good way to start [after a long layoff].”
The Spirit returned to action for the first time since August 29, forfeiting a couple games due to the league’s medical protocols. In addition, the Spirit have gone through a tumultuous few weeks after the dismissal of former head coach Richie Burke pending an investigation into alleged emotional and verbal abuse of players and team staff.
“It was great to be back on the field with everybody and to get three points after all this is pretty uplifting,” Sullivan said. “I’m so inspired by this team’s resilience. To be able to pull off that kind of performance with very difficult preparation is awesome, so imagine how good we’re going to be when we get to train together every day.”
That training will be focused on coming back together and preparing for future strategic adjustments like they had to make in the win over Kansas City. Since stepping in as acting head coach, Ward and co. have already had to make schematic adjustments in each of their first four games as teams continue to pepper the Spirit with new formations and personnel.
“We’ve really had to adjust to what teams are trying to throw at us, and in the first half, we struggled to adjust,” Ward said. “You have to give Kansas City credit with how intelligent they were with how they moved and how they played.”
Fortunately, the Spirit were able to make the adjustments they needed at the half to give them the advantage to hold off Kansas City.
With the win, the Spirit (7-7-5) currently sit in sixth place in the NWSL with five games remaining, including road matches against No. 2 OL Reign (11-7-2) and No. 3 NC Courage (8-6-5). Despite sitting in sixth place, Washington is just three points out of third place and can easily make up that ground down the stretch.
“Kelley O’Hara said it best when I was talking to her the other day. She said, ‘Look, we’re in the playoffs now. The playoffs don’t start for us in five weeks; they start for us now,’” Ward said. “That’s the position we’re in, and our team truly believes we can pick up all the points over this next stretch. It’s just a matter of going out and executing.”
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