That’s what it is now, isn’t it? A vigil?
A vigil for the first win since May or even the first run-of-play goal since May. A vigil for Conny Pohlers to convert one of the opportunities she’s getting in increasing numbers. A vigil for Stephanie Ochs, lauded by every broadcaster as a fantastic talent, to turn one of her near-misses into a goal. A vigil for Diana Matheson to be as influential as she was in the Spirit’s promising start.
It’s no longer a vigil for personnel. Pohlers and Toni Pressley have arrived, and Mark Parsons has taken over as coach. For all the knocks on the Spirit’s reliance on young, local players, the only such players in the lineup yesterday were Julia Roberts and Kika Toulouse. The other second-year players in the lineup — Pressley, Ochs and Tori Huster — didn’t go to high school or college anywhere near the SoccerPlex, and they were key players for the WPSL Elite champion Western New York Flash last season.
It may be a vigil for health. Caroline Miller and Colleen Williams are already gone for the season. We don’t know when Robyn Gayle will return. Yesterday, Ali Krieger went off after a clash of heads, and Candace Chapman was down for a while after twisting awkwardly on the turf. Wouldn’t it be just the Spirit’s luck to see their offense come together at last, only to see the defense run out of healthy players?
Going back to preseason, I thought the Spirit would have the season the Reign is having — a dreadful start, then a promising streak. The Spirit surprised a lot of people early. Now all those same people are clucking, “I told you so.” I hate cynicism.
The slump’s timing was bad. Had the team hit the reset button going into its three-week break, everyone would have had time to work together on a new direction. Instead, the Spirit came out of that break playing terribly, and the reboot started after one game of a murderous stretch of five games in 17 days. As the sharp Fox Soccer broadcast team of Steve Cangialosi, Lori Walker and Heather Mitts pointed out, this team has had no time to practice.
But in some respects, the Spirit’s path forward is clearer. It’s about next year now. Chicago and Seattle now believe they can make the playoffs. After seeing both of those teams and the Holy Cow Did You See The Thorns-Flash Game in the past week, I’m not sure the Red Stars or Reign can rise to the level of the top four. Maybe another team will drop — FC Kansas City could implode in the wake of Chicago’s comeback yesterday, or Portland could become as bad as its critics think — but I’m still of the mindset that Boston’s the most likely team to sneak into the playoffs if someone collapses.
Building for next year, though, could further tax the patience of the Spirit’s terrific fanbase. Despite all the losses, the team has terrific chemistry now, and if the lineup stayed intact, it should get a couple of wins by the end of the season. But are those couple of wins the goal? Or is it a thorough evaluation of the players on hand, throwing out a couple of unusual lineups to let players audition to keep their places for next season?
One irony here: There’s an Internet meme that Spirit management doesn’t care about winning as long as the seats are full. Let me see if I can put this nicely: That’s ridiculous. You don’t bring in Conny Pohlers and Toni Pressley, then fire the coach, if you don’t care. If it’s all about the fans instead of the record, you don’t cut Domenica Hodak. They expected some early struggles, and perhaps they were too confident they could weather the storm until reinforcements arrived. They may have overpaid on particular players. But they care about winning. (And we have to repeat — the allocation process was not kind to them. They were playing catch-up from Day 1.)
And yet they’re in a place now in which winning now may be less important than preparing for next season.
So which do you emphasize? (I don’t know — that’s why I have comments here.)
I do have one bit of advice for Spirit fans. You’re underdogs. Embrace it. Keep up the constructive criticism, but don’t just look for easy ways to place blame within the organization. The allocations were unfair. The refs are unfair. The injuries are unfair. And people from elsewhere sneer about this team, griping all week that the Spirit game shouldn’t have been on TV. Everyone’s written this team off (except the Fox Soccer commentary team). Blame them. Certain WNT players thrive on striking back against mysterious “haters” — maybe it’ll work for the Spirit as well.
You’ve already built a terrific fan experience. It’s the best party in western Montgomery County.
So call it the Beer Garden Vigil. Down but not out. Patient but defiant.
In the meantime, here’s yesterday’s recap: Good 25 minutes for the Spirit, with Matheson converting a deserved penalty kick. Two defensive lapses in three minutes. A lot of chasing the game after that, with a couple of good opportunities squandered. 2-1 Reign. Game over. Time for rest, recovery and rebuilding.