Cheyna Williams had spent the past three months trying to flush the blown opportunity from her memory bank. At Sky Blue FC on April 24, in the Washington Spirit’s second game of the season, Williams entered in the second half and saw the ball fall invitingly to her feet inside the six-yard box. She whiffed.
Williams was not about to make the same mistake Sunday in her fourth start of the season. Again facing Sky Blue — this time at Maryland SoccerPlex — the Spirit’s second-youngest player experienced a flash of deja vu when teammate Caprice Dydasco fed her a cross from the end line six minutes from halftime. This time, Williams calmly placed her shot into the far corner from 10 yards to record her first career goal and put Washington ahead.
Midfielder Estefania Banini also scored, and defender Alyssa Kleiner added an emphatic insurance goal in the final minute of stoppage time to secure a 3-1 victory before 2,930 in Boyds.
“I think it’s kind of funny that I found myself in the same situation,” said Williams, a 22-year-old rookie. “I wanted to put it away this time.”
Sunday’s win moved the Spirit (9-3-2, 29 points) into a tie with the Portland Thorns (8-2-5, 29 points) for first place in the 10-team National Women’s Soccer League with a game in hand. Washington now enters the Olympic break and won’t return to action until its Aug. 18 match at the Houston Dash. The Spirit, which boasts the league’s best home mark at 6-1-1, won’t return to Maryland SoccerPlex until Sept. 3 against the Western New York Flash.
Spirit forward Katie Stengel’s hustle helped put Washington ahead of New Jersey-based Sky Blue (6-5-4) in the 27th minute Sunday. Stengel took off from midfield to chase down a long ball, barely reaching it on the end line before slipping a diagonal pass to Joanna Lohman inside the box. Lohman laid it off for Banini, who slotted her close-range shot near-post for her team-leading fifth goal of the season.
Banini, an Argentine international who signed with the Spirit last year, has scored all of her goals in the team’s past seven games.
“I think she’s always been one of our most dynamic and creative players,” Spirit Coach Jim Gabarra said. “She’s been good in front of goal, and it’s great to see her get rewarded for her hard work because we’ve asked her to do things that are outside of her comfort zone.”
Sky Blue forward Tasha Kai equalized on a breakaway just seconds after a 32nd-minute water break, but Williams’s effort provided Washington a halftime cushion. Kleiner notched her first career goal with a dipping, left-footed blast from distance deep into the second half.
Thunderstorms pushed Saturday night’s match between these teams to an 11 a.m. Sunday start. Sunny skies greeted a sparse crowd that was well below the team’s 3,903 attendance average.
Sky Blue captain and former U.S. national team mainstay Christie Rampone said her team woke up at 7 a.m. for its pregame meal. It was the first time the 41-year-old veteran has experienced a morning kickoff in her professional career.
“Both teams had to deal with the same thing: lack of sleep, trying to get motivated again,” Rampone said. “I thought we had a good warmup, but we started to slack, and we were just a step behind today.”