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NWSL Week 18 preview: Washington Spirit can capture the Shield on Sunday

Four years ago, the Washington Spirit was the league’s worst team. Now they’re on the brink of winning the NWSL Shield.

Derek Leung/Getty Images

There was a game -- or two moments in a game -- where the Washington Spirit announced themselves as a team that had turned it around. Things had been going in a better direction for a little while, but better is really the only place you can go when the starting point is last place.

It was Aug. 2, 2014, a summer Saturday somewhere outside Washington D.C. The season then was where it is now, heading into the homestretch. The Spirit would have just two more games to play after this one, and while they'd climbed out of the basement, the playoffs were hardly a sure thing. Yet.

In the 89th minute, with Washington locked in a 1-1 tie with Chicago, Ashlyn Harris, then a member of the Spirit, makes a point-blank save on Christen Press to keep the score even. That's the first moment. Then, the game goes into stoppage time, still tied. Soon, it's the 94th minute. And then there's this sequence, the second moment and the one that's Washington officially announcing itself. Diana Matheson to Lisa De Vanna to Yael Averbuch. Averbuch fires a left-footed shot from some 25 yards that beats Red Stars goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. The Spirit takes a 2-1 lead. The game ends, and suddenly this Washington team, a year removed from what is still one of the worst finishes in league history, is on the brink of a postseason berth. Two weeks later, Washington officially booked its spot in the playoffs.

The conclusion of that game against Chicago marked a point in the season that's the same one we're at now: two more games to play. And while that win, and then making it to the playoffs, were big moments in the Spirit's short history, the one the team finds itself standing on the precipice of now is even bigger. Washington will play Seattle on Sunday night, and if the Spirit can beat the Reign then they'll win the NWSL Shield.

The Spirit has the advantage of its game being the last one of the weekend, but it doesn't matter much. None of the other games matter, not really. There are a few routes that Washington could take to win the Shield. A Portland loss, or Portland draw combined with a Washington draw being two of them. But really, the Spirit controls its own destiny now. Washington currently has a four-point lead on the second place Thorns, and if the Spirit win on Sunday it will be impossible for Portland -- or anyone else -- to catch up. Even if all the other teams in the top four were to win this weekend, three points for Washington gives them the regular-season title.

The Spirit will head to Seattle on Sunday night having already defeated the Reign once this week. Washington beat Seattle 2-1 on Wednesday night, with goals from Crystal Dunn and Cheyna Williams and a three-save performance from Kelsey Wys. That win clinched a home playoff game for Washington for the first time ever. The Spirit's two previous playoff appearances have been as the fourth-place team.

Losing head coach Mark Parsons, who's now got the same job in Portland, was supposed to be a big blow for the Spirit. But Washington brought in Jim Gabarra, formerly of Sky Blue, and with a history in D.C. that goes back to the WUSA days. Under Gabarra, Washington's made a quick climb from those fourth-place finishes. The Spirit has been at or near the top of the table since Week 1 of the season, starting with three straight wins and going unbeaten in the first five. Now, after 18 games, Washington has still lost only three times.

Unlike a season ago, when Crystal Dunn carried the team on her back for a large chunk of the season, this year's Spirit is also much more complete. In 2015, seven players combined for all 31 of the Spirit's goals. Dunn alone scored 15 of them. This year, 11 players have scored Washington's 29 goals, and there are still two games to play.

Even without leading scorer Estefania Banini, who's missed the last four games due to injury, Washington is unbeaten. Banini had knee surgery in mid-August, and Washington then put her recovery time at 4-6 weeks. Banini, also a member of the Argentina WNT, came to the Spirit for the 2015 season, but ended up playing only four games before a knee injury ended her season. This year, Banini registered five goals and one assist in 12 appearances.

Behind Banini, three players -- Matheson, Katie Stengel and Joanna Lohman -- have four goals each for the Spirit. Christine Nairn has three. Dunn has only scored once in 2015, but she's got five assists and she, Matheson, Ali Krieger, Shelina Zadorsky and goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe all missed significant time due to the Olympics.

Matheson, a Canadian international, was allocated to the Spirit in 2013. She's spent her entire NWSL career in Washington, and is one of just three players left from the original Spirit team. She's also the club's all-time leading scorer, with 23 career goals. Lohman, a Maryland native, played in D.C. in the first year of WPS, but has played for several clubs in both the U.S. and Europe since. She spent the first two seasons of her NWSL career in Boston before joining the Spirit last season. Stengel was one of the new additions Washington made ahead of this season, joining the Spirit after a stint in the Frauen-Bundesliga with Bayern Munich.

But it's not just offense that's led to Washington's success this season. The goalkeeping tandem of Wys and Labbe is one of the NWSL's best. Washington has allowed just 16 goals this season, Labbe is tied for the league lead in shutouts with five, and Wys has the best save percentage of any goalkeeper in the league.

In front of Wys and Labbe, Washington's defense has been incredibly stingy. Even in the previous two seasons when Washington made the playoffs, the Spirit had some of the worst goals against numbers in the league. This year, they are tied with the Thorns for the best. Even getting only limited time from Krieger, the Spirit defense has allowed just 200 shots. Only three teams have allowed fewer. And of those 200 shots, 83 have been on goal. There are only three teams with better numbers in that category, too.

Washington also picked up a pair of very strong players in the 2016 college draft. Williams and Cali Farquharson were both selected by the Spirit in January, and both have made significant contributions in their rookie seasons. Williams' goal on Wednesday was her third of the season, despite more than half of her 15 appearances coming off the bench. Farquharson suffered an ACL injury on Wednesday that ended her rookie year prematurely, but in 16 appearances, she was effective as a go-to for some late-game spark for the Spirit.

The Spirit, unfortunately, has been in the news a lot this week, and for all the wrong reasons. But what's happening off the field in Washington shouldn't take away from what the team has accomplished on it. On Sunday night, playing away from home and with the stadium sound system firmly in someone else's grip, the Spirit will have a chance to write their own story, and the one that's worthy of attention.

Wednesday

Boston Breakers 2 - 2 Western New York Flash
Washington Spirit 2 - 1 Seattle Reign FC
Sky Blue FC 1 - 1 Orlando Pride
Chicago Red Stars 2 - 3 FC Kansas City
Portland Thorns FC 3 - 0 Houston Dash

Saturday

7:30 p.m.: Orlando Pride vs. Sky Blue FC, Camping World Stadium (YouTube)

Sunday

6 p.m.: FC Kansas City vs. Chicago Red Stars, Swope Soccer Village (YouTube)
7 p.m.: Houston Dash vs. Boston Breakers, BBVA Compass Stadium (YouTube)
9:30 p.m.: Portland Thorns FC vs. Western NY Flash, Providence Park (FS1/FSGo)
10 p.m.: Seattle Reign FC vs. Washington Spirit, Memorial Stadium (YouTube)