Washington Spirit vs. Chicago: Clock strikes 12

For 77 minutes, the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars played an entertaining soccer game. Both teams were seriously short-handed, as they had been too often through this season. But they stuck it out and put together some decent chances.

Then the evening took a supernatural turn, like the end of L.A. Story, when the weather suddenly changes so Victoria Tennant can’t fly away from Steve Martin. (You’d never guess from that clip, but it’s actually a funny film.)

It had been a typical first half from the Spirit on the team’s good days. Maybe a little better. Washington outshot Chicago in the first half and had the best couple of chances, including one that was cleared off the line after Diana Matheson, Erin McLeod and a defender awkwardly converged in the box. (I’m told by people who had a better view than the pressbox/broadcast camera that Matheson was not fouled.)

Spirit coach Mark Parsons: “The first half, I feel they got a couple of clear-cut opportunities but we created a lot more. That might be the first half that we got more shots than the opposition for a long time.”

At halftime, the fans were treated to an impromptu juggling and passing exhibition by four tired Spirit national team players who didn’t start — Conny Pohlers, Ashlyn Harris, Lori Lindsey and Ali Krieger.

But Krieger would play a vital role in the second half. The Spirit started on the back foot, with backup keeper Chantel Jones racing out to collect at the feet of Adriana Leon. Krieger came in at midfield and picked up the team’s confidence.

Parsons: “The scariest moment was coming out for the second half for the first 5-10 minutes. I looked at Lloyd (Yaxley, the goalkeeping coach) and thought, ‘There’s only one thing that will help swing momentum, and it’s not a tactical or technical thing. It’s just a psychological thing.’ And that’s when we brought Krieger on. Everyone (on the Spirit) was kind of panicking and shaking a little bit, they see her come on, and everyone settled.”

Then came the first supernatural event. The Spirit scored. From the run of play.

And it was Lupita Worbis, the allocated Mexican player who arrived a few weeks into the season and has bounced in and out of the lineup, who created and finished the play. She won the ball in midfield, spun 360 degrees, knocked the ball left to Diana Matheson and ran on to Matheson’s textbook one-touch return pass. Then she put it through McLeod’s legs and in. All in front of her parents, who are visiting from Mexico.

As if commenting on the improbability of what had just happened, the skies opened up 10 minutes later, with heavy rain sending shrieks through the crowd. That’s Supernatural Event #2. For five minutes and change, the game was played in a downpour. Somewhere in the rain, Chicago substitute Maribel Dominguez somehow found the speed in her 34-year-old legs to race past Kika Toulouse and Tori Huster, but Jones easily collected her cross.

The rain stopped abruptly. But a couple minutes later, the Maryland SoccerPlex’s WeatherBug Lightning Detection System sprang into action. Clear the field. As if to verify the automated sensors, some dazzling lightning lit up the sky while we sat in the pressbox. Supernatural Event #3.

The next 105 minutes have been temporarily erased from my memory. I’ll somehow piece it back together when the time comes to write the book. I know at some point fans were heading back into the SoccerPlex, only for the alarm to go off again.

Then we heard this:

  • When there has been no lightning strike within ten (10) miles for a continuous 15 minute period, the horns will blast three (3) times, each blast is five (5) seconds

But apparently not this:

  • You may return to the field after the three (3) shorter blasts have sounded

Apparently, it had something to do with the likelihood of more lightning in the next couple of minutes. It’s safe to say people were a little confused. A few minutes later, with little fanfare, teams just returned to the field and started warming up.

Sometime during the break, the Spirit apparently had a dance-off, with Toni Pressley taking a narrow victory over Lori Lindsey. The Red Stars, surely aware by then that other results across the NWSL meant they needed a win to maintain their slim playoff hopes, may have been a bit more nervous. Also, the Spirit encouraged me, Kevin Parker and Jennifer Gordon — most of the local media press corps in the absence of a local newspaper recently sold to Jeff Bezos — to get up to the roof and do a media roundtable with Spirit announcer Michael Minnich.

After a warmup period and the return of maybe 250 of the 2,000-plus fans in attendance (sadly, all the food vendors packed up and fled early in the storm), play resumed a little at 10:48 p.m. And Chicago resumed a bit better than Washington. Jen Hoy eluded Toulouse and crossed to Dominguez, who was wide open in the box but put her one-touch attempt well over.

(Have allocated Mexican players ever accounted for all the goals in a multi-goal NWSL game? Maybe before Cuellar was traded from KC?)

Then came Supernatural Event #4. The MSPWBLDS (we’ll call it “mospwuhbleds”) sounded again. 10:52 p.m.

Players, coaches and refs froze. No lightning was visible. The Red Stars seemed displeased, and honestly, the Spirit didn’t seem any happier. Everyone wanted to play.

But you do not argue with the MSPWBLDS. The field was cleared again. And, in fairness, lightning did indeed resume a couple of minutes later.

(At this point, feel free to check out the game highlights, which are excellent:

By this time, the stadium’s midnight curfew was looming. Various deals were struck with the referees and the league to let the teams warm up in the SoccerPlex’s big gym, which was fortunately NOT hosting a basketball or volleyball tournament at the time. They did have a couple of hoops down around 7-8 feet for young summer campers, and I’m told Ella Masar dunked.

I’ll go ahead and give the details (at least as I know them) now rather than waiting for the book.

A few fans were in the SoccerPlex building, and it occurred to the media quadrumvirate that we could go in there as well. Mark Parsons actually asked me the Chelsea-Real Madrid score. He was disappointed in that.

I ventured over to the SoccerPlex’s front desk. A couple of Spirit staffers had gathered there along with SoccerPlex staffers who were monitoring the weather system. That’s when I was able to confirm the info in this tweet, and I ran back to the pressbox to hack it out:

By those terms, one lightning strike after 11:30 would end it. But in reality, it dragged on a bit longer.

At 11:40ish, there was a gathering in the SoccerPlex behind the bleachers, next to the locker rooms. The crowd included a ref (on the phone), at least one policeman, various staff from each team, and stadium staff.

At 11:42, a couple of people in CSC event staff shirts nodded and walked away from the meeting. They called out to other people — “(the game) will not resume.”

And still the refs were talking.

So I can’t give you a final moment at which the game officials declared the game — and the Red Stars’ playoff hopes — done. I can only tell you the teams held out hope as long as humanly possible.

Most Spirit players were in the hallway, not in the locker room. But there was no moment of celebration. One by one, they filed out (as did several Red Stars in one of many classy gestures as all this unfolded) to meet fans and sign autographs. I wished I could have rushed out to see that scene, but I stayed in to get various comments, many of which the Spirit posted to the team’s site.

Parsons was the first to dissect the game. He thought the Spirit had the better of play before the delay, and McLeod said pretty much the same thing. He thought Chicago wouldn’t have come back if the game had continued with no delay. We can’t say that with certainty — the Red Stars certainly have a flair for drama — but it’s safe to say the delay helped the Red Stars regroup and reorient.

The end didn’t completely suit anyone. Parsons said his first emotion upon hearing the game was over was “gutted” — he wanted to finish it out and hear the final whistle, no matter how small the crowd had gotten at that point. But then he went back and got his team to celebrate in the locker room.

“After all the things that have gone against us, maybe it was meant to be.”

Chicago may be the only team in the league unluckier than the Spirit. Their U.S. allocations were injured (or, in a move that looks a bit more curious in hindsight, traded for next year). Then injuries rattled the rest of the team, including one of the league’s best midfield engineers in Lori Chalupny. And then they had to sit and watch their playoff hopes, faint as they were, tick away without even being able to fight on the field.

At that point, though, nothing would have been a satisfactory ending. A 10-minute resumption at 11:50 p.m. would practically been a new game, bordering on farce. Imagine if you were a Sky Blue fan and you saw the Red Stars get two goals against a Spirit team that didn’t come back strong after nearly three hours idling in the SoccerPlex.

When I left, the stadium clock was frozen at 80:04, as if the game had been played at Pompeii. Appropriate for a game that entered into the supernatural.

In the end, I don’t think we saw an unjust ending. The better team on the night won. But if the mythical force of soccer karma has repaid part of its debt to Washington, it now owes Chicago — a class organization — that much more.

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