A promising performance against a talented team. A second-half setback. Then a controversial call late, with Diana Matheson stepping up to convert the penalty kick.
That was the Washington Spirit’s April 20 game against Western New York. And it happened again last night against FC Kansas City.
So in a sense, the Spirit has simply gotten back to where it was at the beginning of the season. But after a five-game losing streak and scoreless streak, it feels like progress.
And it is, in many ways, a different Spirit team. Not just on the sidelines, where new coach Mark Parsons keeps up a constant stream of instructions in sharp contrast to the laid-back Mike Jorden.
– Candace Chapman is finally healthy, and she and Toni Pressley had a strong game in central defense.
– Conny Pohlers, in her first home game, had trouble getting the ball where she wanted it. But she showed her quality a few times and had a terrific shot off a nifty combination with Matheson. (Nicole Barnhart wasn’t awarded a save on the play, and it’s tough to see on the video, but people who saw it from different angles say Barnhart seemed to get a touch on it. The Spirit did get a corner kick, and KC didn’t argue.)
– The late tactical switches were creative. With Pohlers tiring, Parsons didn’t go for the obvious substitution of bringing in a fresh forward like Jasmyne Spencer. He sent in Kika Toulouse, who appeared in her usual outside back spot but also ran around up front. At the same time, Ali Krieger was pushed forward into midfield, to the delight of the Internet’s “Krieger to midfield” activists. (We didn’t see this formation long enough to evaluate it, which Parsons noted afterwards.)
– Colleen Williams, the only Spirit player other than the recently added and recently injured Lupita Worbis not to start a game under Mike Jorden, started this one and drew a nice roar from the crowd upon her introduction.
– The Spirit possessed the ball and had some creativity in the attack. I’d love to see passing stats for this one.
– Matheson has never taken a penalty kick quite like she did last night, chipping it down the middle (Panenka is the official slang term) as Nicole Barnhart sprawled to one side. (Yes, we asked Matheson. No, the shot was not “rifled” into the net. Not sure who gave the KC Star reporter that impression, but take a look at the video, which was indeed up and running at that moment.)
So despite the similarities between this game and the Spirit in April, the “fresh start” mantra has some validity. Parsons conceded that the team knew it might take a couple of games to get going, and he regarded this point as “a bonus.”
Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski might refer to it as “bogus.” He told the assembled media, “We can play against the team but not against the referees.” And he hoped referees watch game tape like coaches do.
The YouTube video, unfortunately, cut out when Tiffany McCarty was or was not fouled inside or outside the box. Maybe that explains why, on my way out of the SoccerPlex, a man in an FC Kansas City shirt raced up to me and asked if the people who do the game filming were still around. I told him I didn’t know, so he kept sprinting.
(UPDATE: The Spirit’s highlight package includes the play in question. UPDATE 2: I’ve fixed the link, thanks to the alert from Kevin Parker, who has a game recap with a photo that may prove the call was legit.)
Not sure he got to the film in time, but Andonovski did expound a bit more to the KC Star, saying McCarty may or may not have been fouled but definitely outside the box. “I don’t the referee was in a good position,” he said.
And he reiterated: “We can’t compete against the referees.”
Spirit fans might say, “Well, neither can we.” The referee didn’t blow her whistle very often, letting KC get away with mauling Pohlers. And for some reason, Tori Huster gets flattened once a game with no call. The Spirit was long overdue for some karmic payback for a lot of things this season. (Matheson, for the record, said the PK call was legit, though gutsy.)
And if soccer karma actually exists, then maybe FC Kansas City won’t have anything nasty happen in the playoffs in which they will certainly participate. They’re a terrific team, even without Player of the Month Lauren Cheney (or Holiday?) in the lineup.
Soccer karma would also say a 1-1 result here was just. Kansas City created chances, most of them through speedy and shifty winger Merritt Mathias, but Ashlyn Harris had one of her quieter games for the Spirit. (The stats are deceiving.)
Now the Spirit have to deal with another bit of bad luck — the schedule, which gave the team a three-week break but now gives them five games in 17 days. Somewhere along the way, the Spirit may take another step backward. But the busy schedule also gives them an opportunity to take another step or two forward.