By CAITLIN MURRAY
A lead and frenetic challenge from the Washington Spirit looked to be an upset in progress against the top-seeded Seattle Reign Sunday night.
But late flashes of individual brilliance from Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe brought the Reign to a playoff win over Spirit, 2-1, and a spot in next week’s National Women’s Soccer League championship.
With the match tied at a goal each, the momentum shift came in the 78th minute. A handling call against the Reign gave the Spirit a chance to regain the lead on a penalty kick. Diana Matheson aimed to Solo’s right upper 90 but Solo guessed correctly, knocking the well-struck ball off the crossbar and out, keeping the score deadlocked.
Four minutes later, Rapinoe gave the Reign their first lead of the match, which would hold to the whistle. In the Spirit’s end, Rapinoe charged at Toni Pressley with a strong challenge and the Spirit defender hit the turf, but Rapinoe played on. She took a few touches into the box before launching a shot past a diving goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.
It’s a tough loss for the Spirit, as they took the lead on a neat passing sequence in the box before letting the Reign equalize with a penalty kick for a strict-seeming handling call. The Spirit’s lead ended up lasting just six minutes.
Sub Veronica Perez opened scoring in the 66th minute, scoring her first of the year. Christine Nairn slipped a through ball to Matheson running along the edge of the goal area. Matheson pulled it back to Perez in the center of the box, who took one touch and fired it into the roof.
Reign equalized in 72nd minute with the handling call on Pressley. NWSL Golden Boot winner Kim Little easily put away the PK twice after the first attempt was waived off for a redo.
The Spirit came into the match as underdogs against a Reign team that lost just two games in 23 during the regular season. The Reign led the league with the high in goals scored and the low in goals allowed.
The match opened with a lively back-and-forth pace that seemed to scarcely let up. Harris, who returned Sunday from a two-week break due to concussion, made five saves in the first half and seemed to single-handedly keep the Spirit alive by halftime.
The Spirit offense struggled to move the ball through the midfield and, after two on-target shots within the first couple minutes, had precious few chances from the box other than Perez’s goal. A diving Solo denied Kerstin Garefrekes in the 2nd minute and made a second diving save when Jodie Taylor took a shot off the rebound.
The Reign uncharacteristically struggled to finish a bevy of chances, either sending them straight to Harris or off-frame. In the 45th minute, a long Rapinoe cross grazed past the feet of Keelin Winters, who was unable to pull the trigger quickly enough. In the 76th minute, Little threaded a ball to Sydney Leroux, who had space but fired over the crossbar.
Seattle out-shot Washington, 17 to 10, but both teams ended with eight on goal.
The Reign will host FC Kansas City for the championship at 3 pm ET Sunday after Kansas City knocked out the Portland Thorns on Saturday. The NWSL championship will air on ESPN2.