Cheyna WilliamsGame Day CoverageMallory PughStephanie Labbe

After three straight losses, the Washington Spirit found themselves on the winning side of things Saturday evening at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Goals from Cheyna Williams and Mallory Pugh coupled with a strong performance from goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé helped Washington get by the Houston Dash 2-0 in front of 3096 fans.

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
Starting XI: Labbé; Johnson, Church, Zadorsky, Kleiner; Solaun, Dougherty Howard, Mewis; Williams, Ship, Pugh

For the second straight week, the Spirit picked up an early goal to take a 1-0 advantage. Washington took the lead in the 3rd minute after a well timed through ball from midfielder Havana Solaun found Williams for her first goal of the season.

“It just happened really quick,” Williams said. “We talked about how we just wanted to attack today, we wanted to come out explosive. Havana played a great ball and I was like shoot, all I have to do is finish it. I know it’s early but just finish on one play at a time and that’s kinda what it was like.”

Unlike the game in Kansas City the week before, the Spirit were able to hold on to the lead heading into halftime. Strong performances from all parts of the field played a big part in holding the lead. While the team made adjustments from last week to improve in this area of their game, head coach Jim Gabarra stills wants his side to do a better job at maintaining a lead.

“I thought we probably could have put the game away in the first ten or fifteen minutes but we kind of let them in it so it’s something we are going to address and kind of a little bit of a killer instinct, continue to attack and score even if you’re ahead,” Gabarra said after the game. “After you score a goal, you should have energy and you should actually try and get a second goal right away, rather than kind of relax and take a rest and a pause. It’s definitely better than it has been in the last Kansas City game and it’s also an area that we can improve upon.”

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
Kristie Mewis and Mallory Pugh embrace after Pugh’s first professional goal.

The Spirit would double the lead in the 69th minute when Mallory Pugh scored her first professional goal. Pugh’s goal came after a well-organized passing sequence saw six different players make a pass before the 19-year-old slotted the shot through Dash goalkeeper Lydia Williams’ legs. With her goal, Pugh became the youngest player to ever score in the NWSL.

“It’s cool, especially against this intense team and in this league,” Pugh said. “There’s great players and to be able to score in this league, it’s super special. In practice, we were working on those types of shots, when it comes across your body and you want to place it back where it came from. I was hoping for it to go, just curl it into the back post, but it went through her legs and went in.”

For the Spirit, the shutout was the first of the season. After giving up 13 goals in the last four games, it appeared as if a shutout would not be coming. However, the Washington backline came together with Labbé to put in the group’s best overall performance of the season.

“I’m really happy right now. Getting a shutout feels really good,” Labbé said. “As a goalkeeper and part of a backline that’s what you strive every day to get. Getting that is a big relief. Just like all year, we just keep trucking and keep working. I think defensively today we were much tighter and seemed to have better connection within the full team. I think that’s what led to that shutout.”

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
One of Stephanie Labbé’s eight saves in her first shutout of the year.

The league will now go on break as many national teams are participating in friendly matches during this week’s FIFA window. Labbé, midfielder Lindsey Agnew and defender Shelina Zadorsky have been called up to the Canadian National team for two matches vs. Costa Rica on June 8 and 11. Pugh has also been called up to represent her national team as the United States will travel to Scandinavia to take on Sweden and Norway on June 8 and 11, respectively.

“For me, I’m just excited to get back with that team and that environment,” Labbé said of the upcoming friendlies. “Those girls are some of my best friends and I’ve been on that team for so long. So just to get back with that group of girls and enjoy it for what it is and just kind of be present when I’m there and take it all in and then come back with the Spirit.”

Washington will return to action on June 17 when they travel to Chicago to take on the Red Stars. That match is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET and can be found on Lifetime as part of the Game of the Week series. The Spirit will then return to the Maryland SoccerPlex on June 24 as they host Allie Long and the Portland Thorns.

Jim GabarraMallory Pugh

Three weeks ago, Mallory Pugh became an official member of the Washington Spirit. In that time, she has played in two games, starting in one. A couple of unanswered question remain- How has Pugh adjusted to the league? Has she saved the Spirit from a perceived downward spiral that so many had anticipated following highly publicized personnel moves during the offseason?

Considering she did not play in any official NCAA games, it’s hard to tell how she has made the transition to the professional game. From looking at her play, especially in this past weekend’s game vs. FC Kansas City, it is apparent that Pugh does not lack confidence and is not afraid to take anyone on.

“As far as kind of adjusting, it’s a whole ‘nother level,” Pugh said after the 3-2 loss to FCKC. “The ball moves faster, girls are stronger, it’s more competitive. It’s just a whole step up.”

In her first two games as a professional, she has had to go against her national team teammate, Becky Sauerbrunn. One word to sum up that experience for Pugh?

“Weird,” Pugh said. “It’s been super weird. I’m playing against Becky when we’re playing small sided or something, but not in an actual game. It’s been weird.”

Jordan Small | Follow Your Spirit

After coming on as a substitute in her first professional match, Pugh got the start on the road vs. FCKC. She started out on the wing in a 4-3-3 formation, a spot head coach Jim Gabarra alluded to in Pugh’s introductory press conference. Pugh is one of the speediest young players in the league but the fastest way for her to get accustomed to NWSL play is to get game minutes with the Spirit.

“She’s very dangerous and she has good pace,” Gabarra said. “I think we need to give her some more time to get used to how we play and give her minutes in the game so that she can learn what the league is about but also learn about how we want to play.”

While this is the beginning of Pugh’s professional career, she is no stranger to the level of competition. Because of her national team experience, the high standards of this league are nothing new to Pugh.

“The national team you’re obviously representing your country, which is something very special,” Pugh said. “On the national team, you have high expectations as a team. For me here, I just have to keep myself at a high expectation and keep the standards high.”

Jordan Small | Follow Your Spirit

Many people have high expectations for Pugh coming into the league. One of the biggest expectations for her coming to Washington specifically is that she will somehow save this team. As a 19-year-old with no professional experience, this is a daunting task. Two weeks in, saving the Spirit is not something Pugh can check off her list, and that’s okay. She is starting to heat up now and a goal feels very likely in the next few weeks. No matter what she does on the field, there is no saving, only helping. The Spirit will need more than just a 19-year-old wonder kid to save this season. It’s important to remember that adjusting to this level of play takes time and that’s okay for Pugh and Washington.

“It’s important that we not have too high expectations for Mallory,” Gabarra said during Pugh’s introductory press conference on May 16. “This is a long process whether it’s a 19-year-old or a 30-year-old international that hasn’t played in our league. It takes almost a year of games to really feel comfortable and to figure it out. It’s important that we let Mal enjoy the process and really be free to just learn and develop and not to say she’s coming in here to lift this team up. We have to remind ourselves that she’s 19 and we try to treat her like any other player on our roster.”

Arielle ShipGame Day CoverageJim GabarraKristie MewisLine Sigvardsen JensenMallory PughMeggie Dougherty HowardStephanie Labbe

On Saturday evening, the Maryland SoccerPlex was buzzing, not because of the game between FC Kansas City and the Washington Spirit that was set to take place, but because of who was set to make her debut. Mallory Pugh earned her first professional minutes in a 1-0 loss for the Spirit.

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
Starting XI: Labbé; Johnson, Church, Zadorsky, Kleiner; Dougherty Howard, Sigvardsen, Mewis; Williams, Ordega, Ship

In the 54th minute, Pugh entered the match for Arielle Ship. When Pugh stepped on the field, she became the youngest American-born player to appear in the NWSL at just 19-years-old. With US Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis in attendance for the match, Pugh played primarily as a left forward, a position she has become familiar with on the national team.

“I think that’s where she’s most comfortable and that’s where she best fits our style of play and our system,” Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said when talking to the media after the game. “It’s probably the easiest transition for her, rather than playing in the midfield where there’s tactically some different things that she’s got to get used to.”

Both teams had numerous chances to score throughout the game, but it was not until the 39th minute that either side broke through. Kansas City forward Sydney Leroux flicked on a ball to midfielder Alexa Newfield who buried the ball past goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé. The Spirit had chances of their own but failed to deposit any of their opportunities.

“The times we attacked the flanks, which was the game plan, we created scoring chances,” Gabarra said. “I think if we get a goal out of what we created in the first 20-30 minutes, I think we walk out of here with an easy three points, but that didn’t happen. That’s kind of been the theme for three of our four home games.”

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
Shelina Zadorsky covers FCKC forward Sydney Leroux in the second half.

Despite the ongoing offensive struggles for the Spirit, the defense bounced back from a 6-2 defeat the week before in Seattle. This marks the third time this season that Washington has lost 1-0 at the Plex.

“Defensively we did much better limiting their chances and not really giving them any big scoring chances other than the goal obviously,” Labbé said post game. “I think with that, it’s just continuing to build on the offense. That’s where were going to win games. We need to start scoring goals. I think keep pushing towards that and building our confidence with that is where we need to go.”

The midfield saw the biggest change this week. Tori Huster was out with a quad strain and Kassey Kallman did not see action for the first time in over three years. The play of Line Sigvardsen, Meggie Dougherty Howard and Kristie Mewis did a better job of connecting between the backline and the forwards than in previous weeks.

“It was organized and I think they worked really hard, but you can’t replace Tori. I’ve said all along, when you don’t see her out there, you really have a good appreciation of how much she does,” Gabarra said. “Her mobility and winning of balls and change the point of attack was something we really missed, even though the three of them, Line and Meggie and Kristie did a very good job.”

Kelley Piper | Follow Your Spirit
Meggie Dougherty Howard fights for the ball against FCKC’s Becca Moros.

The Spirit will travel to Kansas City next week for the second half of a home and away series with the Blues. Kickoff for next week’s matchup will be at 8 p.m. ET.