The bus ride was, by all accounts, pretty good for a change. Then the wheels came off.
You could make the case that the Spirit played better in Rochester than they did in greater Kansas City, where FC Kansas City’s wasteful finishing kept the score to a respectable 2-0 margin. Washington showed a little more offensive creativity Friday than it did on Sunday, and the Flash wasted few good chances for a 4-0 final.
But the defensive lapses that led to those chances were devastating.
– A midfield giveaway, leaving Robyn Gayle with two players on the wing, then an utter failure to track Carli Lloyd as she strolled right through the box and waited for the cross. That was reminiscent of the Kansas City goal in which Lauren Cheney could’ve caught the ball and autographed it before shooting.
– The second goal was the only one with some bad luck involved, a deflected cross. But still, Lloyd had a step on a defender.
– Another midfield giveaway, and then again Carli Lloyd runs unimpeded through the heart of the defense for a 1-on-1 with Ashlyn Harris.
– A prototypical garbage-time goal, though give Brittany Taylor credit for a superb finish.
Offensively, the passing combinations were there. Gayle, freed to play outside back with Candace Chapman going 90, got forward on the left and started some terrific sequences. But somehow, the chances wound up at the feet of players not known for their offense — Domenica Hodak and Holly King.
Conny Pohlers will get there. But she’s not a fan of artificial turf, and she has not yet adjusted to the speed of the fake grass and the defensive pressure. On her one good chance Friday, she took just a split-second too long. She has the best potential for breaking the Spirit’s epic scoreless drought, which dates back to their 4-2 win at Seattle.
That said, she still needs to get the ball. If Diana Matheson is able to return on Wednesday, that should help — defenses will have two proven scoring threats to deal with, and though they haven’t trained together, they have the veteran savvy that should help them connect.
Elsewhere on the field, the Spirit’s lineup shuffle has yet to turn up a winner. We have some evidence now that Julia Roberts wasn’t the problem in midfield. The Flash commentators raved about Stephanie Ochs from her tenure in Western New York last summer, but she wasn’t starting. Given the busy schedule over the next two weeks, the Spirit may have to rotate some players in and out of the lineup, but they’re struggling to find a combination that clicks.
I’ve almost jumped on the “Ali Krieger to midfield” bandwagon. Yes, she’s fine going forward, but I think good attacking outside backs are something teams shouldn’t give up easily. The problem that we’ve seen a couple of times is that she’s not able to get all the way back on defense. Rewind a couple of goals the Spirit has conceded, and you’ll find her caught upfield. She may be the best right back in the world, but she’s not Superwoman. Maybe she’d be better off at midfield with a defender behind her who only occasionally overlaps? Perhaps. Now who’s that defender?
A couple of excerpts:
Some Twitterati think she’s addressing coach Mike Jorden. But it’s clearly more than the coach. You could have me and my E license out there running the team, and the defense shouldn’t give Carli Lloyd those opportunities. In some cases, the players on the field may be the wrong players for the job. That falls on the coaches and personnel managers, but Harris isn’t one to say, “Oh, it’s OK, the coach never should’ve put you on the field.” Tori Huster never expected to be a center back marking Abby Wambach early this season, but she stepped up and did it. Harris wants the rest of the team to set the bar that high, if not higher.
The Spirit’s slide has given a lot of people a chance to say “I told you so.” But the season has really been backwards.
On May 17, the Spirit’s record was 1-2-3. The team looked clearly better than Chicago and Seattle, though the Reign had two world-class players coming in, and roughly even with Boston. And the immediate future looked bright: Young players like Caroline Miller were making progress in picking up the pro game, and Candace Chapman would surely be healthy any day now. We didn’t know the names of the reinforcements who turned out to be Conny Pohlers and Toni Pressley, but the team clearly had plans to plug a couple of holes on the field.
Now Miller is out for the season. Chapman is back but not herself. Diana Matheson, the revelation of the season’s first few weeks, has been out. Teams have to be able to react to such adversity, and the Spirit has not.
Another comment to single out:
Certainly that was the case early in the season. The alarm bells weren’t ringing when the Spirit followed up the 4-2 win in Seattle with an 0-2 loss at Portland. Travel problems and some bad luck made the 0-3 loss in Boston look worse than it was.
But since the three-week break in the Spirit’s bizarre schedule, the team hasn’t been there. In the home loss to the Flash, the Spirit played a good second half, but Jorden conceded “the team didn’t come out ready to play in the first half.” Then came KC, then this game.
If you flip the last four games with the first four games of the season, you could say the Spirit’s season has gone as expected. But as former D.C. resident Bob Mould once put it, expectations only mean you really think you know what’s coming next — and you don’t.
The Spirit should avoid falling to Atlanta Beat depths. Matheson should come back and provide the missing link between the midfield and Pohlers. Chapman and Pressley should figure it out in central defense.
But in this backwards season, “should” means nothing. And it has a nasty way of becoming “should’ve.”