Those of you who recall WPS may remember that Dan Borislow was an immense supporter of U.S. national team players. Other players, not so much. The idea of fans cheering for anyone other than Abby Wambach almost struck him as repugnant.
I never asked Borislow how much WPS he watched before buying the team formerly known as the Washington Freedom. He would have seen ample evidence that fans can embrace players who aren’t the U.S. stars. Washington’s crowd favorites included those who had put down roots with the organization (Rebecca Moros) and those from overseas (Sonia Bompastor).
Tonight proved the point once again. The fans turned up and screamed for Abby. By the end, they were also screaming for the home team, which got a late penalty kick and another 1-1 draw.
Make no mistake — Abby Wambach gave a complete demonstration of why she’s a star, and I don’t just mean the time she intimidated the experienced international referee Kari Seitz into blowing a whistle on a questionable call. (No such luck when she sprinted 80 yards, the fastest Wambach sprint I’ve ever seen, to complain about the PK call in the Spirit’s favor. Strange thing to do when you’re not even the captain.)
Wambach won balls in the air, as you’d expect. Someone a couple of seats away from me marveled at her accuracy and precision. Put the ball near her head, and she’ll flick it to a teammate in a good spot. I’m not sure TV does any justice to this remarkable skill.
She had her chances, too. One clanged off the crossbar. Another produced a jaw-dropping save from national teammate Ashlyn Harris. (Note to self: We forgot to ask Harris about that play in postgame, so remember to ask her some other time how the hell she managed to keep that ball out.)
So let’s spare a thought for Washington’s Tori Huster, who has drawn the most difficult and thankless job in women’s soccer aside from explaining it to Sepp Blatter. The midfielder had never played center back before preseason. Tonight, she spent 90 minutes going up against Abby Wambach. And she deflected praise for keeping Wambach scoreless on the season: “I know that I have the girls around me that will cover me.”
Wambach did get an assist, as Ashlyn Harris confirmed. A long Flash free kick floated into the box, and Wambach ever so slightly nudged it with her head. Sam Kerr was equal parts lucky and good, knocking it in as Harris scrambled to cover the post.
That was in the 85th minute. Shortly thereafter, the Spirit got a call in their favor, as Jasmyne Spencer fell in the box. Some Twitsters say dive. The Flash folks in the postgame interview wondered if the ball was too far away from Spencer. Come on — she’s Jasmyne Spencer. If the ball’s on the playing surface, she can get to it.
Adrianna Franch, the terrific young Flash goalkeeper, guessed correctly. But Diana Matheson placed it perfectly.
And the crowd went wild.
That’s a crowd of 4,569, packed into the Soccerplex stands and grass. The beer garden was full. The hill under the beer garden was full. And maybe a few fans showed up knowing no one but Abby Wambach, then learned to love some of the home team’s players.
Matheson continues to be one of the best players on the field, looking dangerous whenever she gets the ball. Ali Krieger gets forward to join the attack, then returns for timely defensive interventions. Lori Lindsey was an effective midfield general tonight.
Both teams will be better by summer. Good plays alternated with miscommunications. The young Spirit attack had an off night, though Stephanie Ochs had an entertaining battle all evening with right back/team president Alex Sahlen. Harris spoke frankly about her need to keep yelling to keep her young teammates dialed in. (If Harris switched to MMA and fought Ronda Rousey, I think Rousey would get her in an armbar, only to relinquish it in fear of Harris’s wrath.)
But this was a great night. The fans came out in strong numbers and got a dramatic, entertaining game.
Just one thing marred the evening. Around the 90th minute, a hard-struck ball nailed Wambach in the head. She slowly got up and kept playing hard all through stoppage time, but at the final whistle, she needed help. Diagnosing head injuries from afar is a stupid and pointless thing to do, but we can only hope she heals fully and quickly.
The Flash were the first team to play the Spirit in the Soccerplex, and they’ll be the first team to play here twice, returning in June. Maybe Wambach will get some time to spend with the fans then. And maybe the fans will know more of their Spirit team, which is proving to be more resilient and dangerous than the preseason prognosticators imagined.