The San Diego Spirit started strong, scoring two goals in the first 18 minutes, then let the lead slip away and were forced to settle for a 2-2 tie with the Washington Freedom in front of a sell-out crowd of 6,155 fans at Torero Stadium in the first week-night home game of the season.
The Spirit moved to 6-7-5 (23 points) on the year while the Freedom notched just their third tie and leaves San Diego at 6-10-3 (21 points). San Diego faces a crucial two-game road swing at Boston (Aug. 5) and Philadelphia (Aug. 9) before finishing the regular season on Aug. 12 at home against Carolina.
Desperately needing a win to stay within reach of the fourth and final playoff spot, and coming off wins over the top two teams in the league, the Spirit started quickly against the Freedom, dominating the first 30 minutes.
Forward Shannon Mac-Millan became just the third WUSA player to hit double-figures in goals when she got her 10th of the season in the 12th minute. Left back Margaret Tietjen stepped in front of a Freedom player to clean up a loose ball and dribbled down left flank before bending pass behind Freedom defender Emmy Barr to MacMillan, who took a touch and then roofed her shot over Mullinix from a seemingly impossible angle about two yards off the end line.
Just six minutes later, Tara Koleski scored her second goal of the year off a brilliant diving header to give the Spirit a 2-0 lead. Once again Tietjen was the catalyst, running down a pass on the left flank to strike a curling cross just before the ball reached the end line. Koleski knifed through the middle and beat Jacqui Little to the ball, throwing her body to send a bullet header past a helpless Mullinix.
"We were playing well at the beginning of the game, but we dominated so much that we slowed the game down," said Spirit head coach Juarez. "We didn't play forward at pace. We played too many passes side-to-side."
The Freedom found its legs in the last 15 minutes of the first half and turned the momentum into a goal. Mia Hamm sent Bai Jie down right flank with a perfect one-touch pass and the cross from the Chinese international found Michelle French, whose sent a header that Spirit goalkeeper Jaime Pagliarulo knocked down with a brilliant reaction save, but couldn't corral. Justi Baumgardt pounded the rebound into the open net from one yard out for her first goal of the year.
The Spirit had several chances to put the game away early. In the 11th minute, Mercy Akide turned the corner in the right side of the penalty area, but her shot was cleared for a corner kick by a retreating defender. Akide had a header in the 23rd minute that threatened to loop over Mullinix, but she back-pedaled to snag it.
In the 37th minute, Akide got loose and penetrated up the middle, drawing a defender before playing Jen Mascaro in right side of penalty area, but her shot skipped just wide left of post as Mullinix fully extended on her dive.
"We need to learn to finish a team off," added Juarez. "It is just a lack of experience and it's something we will get better at, but we just ran out of gas a bit tonight."
The Freedom had its share of chances in the first half as well. In the 30th minute, Spirit defender Fan Yunjie swung and missed at a clearance attempt on the left flank, leaving Hamm alone to drive to goal on a two-on-one with Monica Gerardo with only Wen Lirong in their way. Wen played the pass well, and got a toe on the ball to force a corner kick. On the corner kick, Lindsay Stoecker took a swipe at a bouncing ball, skipping it between Hamm and Pagliarulo, who darted out to smother.
Washington got its equalizer in the 60th minute after Baumgardt played a long ball over the Spirit defense. Fan misjudged the bounce and it skidded by her clear attempt, leaving Hamm all alone in the penalty area. The world's all-time leading international goal scorer finished sharply from 15 yards, sticking the ball in the left corner past the diving Pagliarulo.
"It's frustrating to lose a lead like that," said Spirit captain Julie Foudy. "We walk away knowing we should have had three points."
Both teams had chances at the end to get a winning goal, but a MacMillan free-kick from distance skipped off the turf dangerously before being gobbled up by Mullinix in the 82nd minute. In the 84th minute, Mascaro struck a shot that Mullinix save solidly with a dive to her left and then in the 89th minute, Foudy had a golden chance off a corner kick, but sent her header into the side netting.
In stoppage time, substitute Pretinha nearly won the game for Washington as Tracy Milburn's cross from the right flank found her amazing open, but the Brazilian sent her header just past the right post.
"It's not how you start, it's how you finish and we are still in contention for the playoffs," said MacMillan. "We still have momentum and we just have to do our part and hope for some help from other teams."
With the tie, the Spirit clinched the season series at 2-0-1, earning the edge in the first tie-breaker should the teams tie for the final player spot.
"In the first half, our spacing wasn't good and one pass was beating two or three defenders," said Hamm. "In the second half our defense picked up and the intensity of the back four fed the rest of us. Really, both of us needed a win and the only team that got help tonight was Boston."
Both of the upcoming Spirit road games can be seen live as the Breakers match on Aug. 5 is on CNN/SI (3 p.m. PT) and the Aug. 9 match at the Charge on Channel 4 San Diego. (4 p.m. PT)