The capacity crowd at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds erupted when Canadian Women's National Team midfielder Diana Matheson converted on a penalty kick awarded in the 87th minute of the Washington Spirit's home opener against the Western New York Flash.
The goal clinched a 1-1 tie, Washington's second straight to start the National Women's Soccer League's inaugural season.
But the fans weren't shy about their love for Flash forward and reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach, either. Wambach spent two stints with the Washington Freedom, from 2002-03 in the Women's United Soccer Association and Women's Professional Soccer in 2009-10.
Appreciation for women's professional soccer was in the air Saturday, on a historical night. It was the first NWSL game played on the pristine SoccerPlex field.
Though the facility's capacity is listed at 4,500, 4.569 spectators piled in for Saturday's game — there are areas for fans to gather without assigned seating. And they were treated to a highly entertaining and competitive contest.
“It was an exciting game. This is the beginning of the Spirit, as far as being home. And we're getting soccer back into [Washington] D.C.,” Spirit coach Mike Jorden said.
Added Flash coach Aaran Lines: “I was very impressed with the tournament. To sell out, for a brand new franchise, it's great for the league and incredible for the women's game.”
The Spirit (0-0-2) picked up their second point of the season after tying Boston by the same score in last week's season opener. It was the Flash's (0-1-1) first.
The NWSL is an eight-team league organized and administered by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Heading into Saturday's contest, Washington was among six teams tied for second place behind the Sky Blue FC (New York/New Jersey), which earned three points in a season opening win.
Washington took initiative early and controlled play for first 20 minutes of Saturday's contest. The Spirit were awarded five corner kicks to the Flash's none in the first half.
Matheson and former Freedom midfielder Lori Lindsey combined well in the middle, and with Laurel native Tiffany McCarty up top. the Spirit created some scoring chances. Jorden said quicker feeds and speedier play in the final third might have helped capitalize on some of those opportunities.
After a high-energy start, the Spirit slowed toward the end of the first half and the Flash brought momentum into the second. After pressuring much of the second half, Western New York capitalized in the 85th minute on a restart at midfield. Samantha Kerr snuck a header near post to break open a game that seemed destined to end in a scoreless tie.
New York finished with 12 shots, five on goal. Washington tallied five of its seven shots in the first half.
Jorden made some alterations to his lineup Saturday to accommodate the size, strength and athleticism of Wambach. Midfielder Tori Huster was moved to the central defense. Jorden commended her ability to manage Wambach.
Huster credited her fellow defenders — USWNT offensive-minded back Ali Krieger, Robyn Gayle and Kika Toulouse — with supporting her mission.
“It was a little scary, I guess. [Wambach] is the best player in the world in the box. But I know the girls around me would cover me. If I went up and didn't win a ball and she flicked it the other way, the girls were there to help me,” Huster said. It was a counterattack following Kerr's goal that led to Washington's penalty kick. Brittany Taylor tackled Spirit forward Jasmyn Spencer, who came off the bench in the second half, before she could get a shot off in the box.
Matheson rocked a right-footed kick inside the left post to secure the tie.
Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was a main reason Washington was in a position to tie Saturday. She came up with four incredible saves on close-range shots, one off the foot of Wambach.
Washington will next play against Sky Blue FC on Saturday at the SoccerPlex.
“I think [the crowd] surpassed our expectations. All the teams are trying to figure out who they are and find their identities. Every game is going to be tough until the teams settle in and that's true for us, too,” Matheson said.
Walter Johnson High School graduate Caroline Miller entered the game as a substitute.