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Washington Spirit treat end of NWSL season as a new era

Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch (33) scores the game winning goal on a penalty kick in extra time during action against the San Diego Wave at Audi Field. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Between overtime thrillers, nail-biting draws and transitional battles, the Washington Spirit have seen it all this year.

The 2021 NWSL champions are notorious for putting on a show. And that’s exactly how they plan to finish their season.

After finishing as runners-up in the Challenge Cup in May, Washington entered the 2022 regular season with high expectations of repeat success. But a number of conflating factors — including scheduling conflicts, officiating issues and former coach Kris Ward’s deteriorating relationships with players — turned their season upside down, ending their hopes for another playoff run.

Even if the Spirit win out and everything else goes their way through the end of the regular season, they would finish in a tie for points with OL Reign, who would advantage on a tiebreaker with a better goal differential.

Last Saturday, the Spirit defeated the San Diego Wave 4-3 in extra time for their first win since May. As they head into their final four matches of the regular season, beginning with a matchup against Gotham FC on Friday, they want to fight to the end, with a little extra flair.

“If anything, we want to entertain,” said interim head coach Albertin Montoya.

Their win over the Wave set the bar. The Spirit scored three in a row to lead 3-1 at the half before their opponents tied it in the second. Forward Ashley Hatch notched Washington’s fourth goal in extra time on a penalty kick, marking the latest game-winner in league history.

“It was a little bit too entertaining for my heart, to tell you the truth,” Montoya said. “I’d rather not have it go that way, but right now the mindset is, ‘Hey, let’s play an attractive game, let’s go forward, let’s create chances, and let’s make sure we tighten it up in the back.’”

The Spirit hadn’t won since their first regular season game on May 1, but from the Audi Field sideline as they took on the Wave, Montoya could feel belief radiating from his players. That energy then carried over into training during the week.

“There’s just a different energy from what I’ve been told,” said Montoya, who joined the team two weeks ago after Ward’s firing. “Obviously it’s a talented team, but there was something missing and hopefully we can continue with that same energy and then also now hopefully play a little bit better football.”

Not that self-belief was entirely absent before. The sense of positivity leading up to the game manifested everywhere — in their training sessions, locker room and front office.

That mentality has been what’s impressed Montoya the most.

“Obviously they’ve had a difficult year, but if you were to come in from the outside, not knowing, you would have never really expected that they were at the bottom of the table because the attitude has been outstanding,” he said.

The Spirit play at home again on Saturday, with their focus on building chemistry on the field, keeping possession and creating opportunities. They’ll follow with matches against Angel City FC, the Kansas City Current and the Houston Dash to close out the regular season.

For Montoya, it’s an exciting time even if the playoffs are mathematically out of reach for the team, because the players are eager to improve and be challenged.

“The approach is, ‘Let’s just make it the best season that we can to finish it off strong on a positive note,’ which means getting some results but also providing a good product out there in the game,” he said.

Get ready for two more weeks of entertainment.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.