BOYDS, Md. — Though they were playing at home, the Washington Freedom may consider themselves lucky to have escaped with a 0-0 draw Sunday against fellow playoff bubble team Chicago.
Despite the oppressive heat — 96 degrees by one check at kickoff — the Red Stars came out running, with a direct approach that kept the Freedom on their heels much of the game. The stats told the story — Chicago outshot Washington 23-5, putting 11 shots on goal to Washington’s 3.
“We knew early on that it was going to be hot this week, so we wanted the ball to do the work,” Freedom forward Abby Wambach said. “But to be quite honest, I felt like they had the ball the whole game. There’s probably 10 different reasons why that’s the case, but the fact is it’s no fun to play when the other team has the ball and you’re defending the whole game.”
Chicago co-captain Kate Markgraf says the tactics were a departure for a team that’s normally possession-oriented.
“The way D.C. plays, sometimes that’s the only option,” Markgraf said. “They clog the center so much.”
Coach Omid Namazi felt the Red Stars were ready to turn up the heat.
“We’ve been working a lot on our fitness,” Namazi said. “We’ve also been working on the speed of our play. We still lack that finishing touch.”
Chicago had a lively start with Marian Dalmy’s long ball to Megan Rapinoe, who shot high. Washington countered with a more patient but equally effective buildup, with a series of passes down the right springing Lene Mykjaland against keeper Jillian Loyden, who was alert to the danger.
They traded chances again before the 15-minute mark, with Dalmy again sending a long ball to Ella Masar and a Freedom free kick causing chaos in the Chicago box.
Cristiane looked dangerous on the left flank for Chicago with good footwork and speed, setting up Masar for a terrific chance from 12 yards, but the shot sailed high.
The game slowed for the next 15 minutes, though Chicago continued to bypass the midfield in its buildup. Dalmy drilled a 30-yard free kick on frame for Erin McLeod to punch over, and the ensuing corner yielded another shot, a Cristiane header easily collected.
Within two minutes, Masar was again on the receiving end of a long ball, with McLeod just getting enough of the ball to keep out of danger.
The Freedom finally got another chance on a 42nd-minute free kick that Sonia Bompastor cheekily sent toward the near post while most traffic went far. Mykjaland couldn’t get a clear shot.
Early in the second half, McLeod again had to be alert on a long ball to Masar, coming up to challenge just in time.
The Red Stars’ direct danger continued in the 65th, with a through ball that put Cristiane a step ahead of the defense. But her touch failed her ever so slightly, and Nikki Marshall broke up the play with a well-timed slide.
The substitution patterns seemed backward, with the Freedom taking out attacking players at home. At halftime, midfielder Beverly Goebel replaced the ever-dangerous Bompastor.
“She physically just couldn’t do what she normally could do,” Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said in a postgame interview on the Soccerplex PA system. “She was in the All-Star Game a couple of days ago. Prior to that, she’s been fatigued with all the play.”
In the 70th, defender Kristi Eveland replaced forward Lene Mykjaland, though the Freedom pushed converted forward Marshall from the backline up alongside Abby Wambach.
“It was pretty unexpected,” Marshall said. “I had played a little bit of forward the last couple of weeks in practice. But he just kind of threw me up there to see what would happen. I’m excited — I hope I get to play more up there. I think I could have done a little bit more — I’m not pleased with my performance completely, but I only got 15 minutes up there.”
The Red Stars kept pressing, bringing in forwards Casey Nogueira and Kosovare Asllani to replace starting attackers Masar and Rapinoe.
But the Freedom started to get chances, earning a free kick that Cat Whitehill ripped just wide. Then Marshall sprang free on the left, only to be see the danger cut out by a speedy recovery from ageless captain Kate Markgraf.
Whitehill, Markgraf’s frequent national team line-mate, made an uncharacteristic misplay of the ball in her own box in the 80th. Chicago centered to the top of the box for Karen Carney, whose shot produced McLeod’s toughest save of the afternoon.
“Our theme this week was about having each other’s back,” McLeod said. “Cat played a tremendous 89 minutes and 45 seconds, and she had that one lapse. We have to be there for those mistakes, and we were.”
The Red Stars’ efforts deserved a goal, and it nearly came in the 85th minute. Asllani played a through ball to fellow sub Nogueira, splitting the defense. McLeod came out to challenge at the top of the box, getting there just as Nogueira shot. The ball trickled just wide of the goal.
“That was a relief, especially the timing of the game,” McLeod said. “We played Philly and lost in the last few minutes of the game.”
McLeod wasn’t surprised, though, to race off her line a few times.
“Cat Whitehill does a tremendous job of keeping a high line,” McLeod said. “When the defense keeps a high line, you have to ready to come out. Cat was yelling at me a couple of times to get my ass out, and I did.”
The defensive end wasn’t really the Freedom’s problem, anyway.
“I’m as frustrated as I’ve ever been today,” Wambach said. “I just can’t find the ball. I had one good chance and didn’t do my best with it.”
Chicago could be pleased with the road draw if not for the fact that they’re still three points behind the Freedom in the race for the fourth playoff spot.
“We have to get points, though,” Markgraf said. “We’re not in the playoffs right now.”
“These are opportunities we’ve got to start taking,” Namazi said.