Sam Staab’s equalizer earns draw for Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars

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Five days after settling for a draw that felt like two points lost, the Washington Spirit snatched a stalemate that felt like a point gained.

Facing the Chicago Red Stars for the first time since triumphing in November’s NWSL championship game, the Spirit conceded an early goal before Sam Staab’s late equalizer earned Washington a 1-1 draw on a steamy Wednesday night at Segra Field in Leesburg.

“We didn’t lose,” Staab said, “so that’s a good thing.”

The draw didn’t end Washington’s seven-game winless skid, which includes Friday’s deflating 2-2 draw at the Orlando Pride, in which the Spirit conceded a pair of goals in second-half stoppage time. And the point in the standings Wednesday only provided a minimal boost: The eighth-place Spirit (1-1-4) squandered a chance to leapfrog the fifth-place Red Stars (2-1-2).

“I think we did enough to get all three points tonight,” Spirit Coach Kris Ward said. “We hit the post a couple of times, had a couple [shots] blocked down, things didn’t fall our way. That happens sometimes, and unfortunately it’s happening in a run of games for us right now.”

Spirit captain Andi Sullivan, who recently returned from a calf injury, began on the bench as Washington continued to navigate a stretch of five games in 16 days. U.S. national team veteran Kelley O’Hara sat out her second consecutive match with a hamstring injury.

Chicago needed nine minutes to take the lead. After Rachel Hill kept play alive in the corner, walking a tightrope between the end line and Washington defender Anna Heilferty, she teed up Sarah Griffith at the top of the box. Swinging in a left-footed cross, Griffith picked out Ella Stevens for a point-blank header.

“The first 10 minutes [are] too timid, too reactive,” Ward said. “I hate the fact that a goal goes in and people are holding their hands up and looking around as if they’re confused as to why a cross happened.”

The Red Stars nearly doubled the advantage two minutes later, when Hill slipped behind the Spirit back line and curled a shot toward the far post that was tipped away by lunging Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury.

The Spirit had the better of the chances the rest of the half, as playmaker Ashley Sanchez dropped into midfield to collect the ball and create danger off the dribble while winger Trinity Rodman made slaloming runs down the right flank. In the 18th minute, Sanchez set up Ashley Hatch for a tap-in that was waved offside. A minute later, Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher charged out to foil Rodman. Seconds before halftime, Sanchez floated a ball into traffic that took a deflection off the crossbar.

“Going down early is never ideal,” midfielder Taylor Aylmer said. “The team response was everything you could’ve asked for.”

Both teams added reinforcements at halftime, with Washington swapping Sullivan for Aylmer and Chicago bringing on former Spirit star Mallory Pugh, league assist leader Ava Cook and veteran midfielder Danny Colaprico.

Seconds into the half, the Spirit struck the woodwork again — this time off Sanchez’s bid from the top of the box. But as the Spirit continued to forge forward, it was the Red Stars who created more clear-cut chances, with Kingsbury doing well to corral Pugh’s stinging shot and Cook’s close-range blast. Chicago’s best opportunity to ice the game came in the 82nd minute, when Sarah Luebbert missed the mark after being expertly set up by Pugh.

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In the 86th minute, the Spirit grabbed its equalizer. After Hatch won a free kick 23 yards from goal, Staab battled through traffic to connect with Sullivan’s swerving set piece and place a drifting header beyond Naeher’s reach.

“Somehow I miss open headers and I score headers against three people,” Staab said. “I don’t know why I make it so hard on myself.”

Riding the momentum from that equalizer, the Spirit furiously pushed for a winner before the final whistle ensured Washington’s most recent victory would remain its May 1 regular season opener against OL Reign. Since then, the Spirit has played to a draw with Reign in the Challenge Cup semifinals (advancing via a shootout), dropped the Challenge Cup final to the North Carolina Courage and gone 0-1-4 in league play.

“I do think the momentum was building and we could’ve gotten another goal back there,” Staab said. “All in all, with the heat and everything — this schedule that we’ve had is insane — I think it was just a good fight.”

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