soccer

Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue: Amen

Sometimes, progress is measured in small steps for individuals. That was the case in the Spirit’s season finale, where Stephanie Ochs at last got on the scoresheet.

I had seen Ochs twice in practice during the week, working various finishing scenarios with both feet. While the rest of the team stretched, Ochs made run after run onto Lloyd Yaxley’s crosses. Mark Parsons told me Ochs had been begging for this sort of extra practice for a while, but the schedule just wasn’t conducive to it. With a rare eight-day gap between games, the coaching staff was happy to oblige.

But it’s been more than this week. Parsons has been working hard to improve Ochs’ tactical sense. It hasn’t always been fun. I’ve seen Ochs’ face awash with frustration and despair as Parsons once again yells out instructions.

Ochs is talented and athletic. No one who has seen a Spirit game will deny that. But like a lot of young players, she came out of college with a lot of bad habits. She would take several more steps than she needed to approach the ball. Her decision-making in the offensive third wasn’t quick enough for the pro level. It worked for her in college, and the Western New York commentary team had high praise for her season in the WPSL Elite.

She didn’t give up. Nor did the coaching staff give up on her.

And so if nothing else happened on Sunday, the mere fact that Ochs efficiently and effectively blasted a shot into the back of the net would give the Spirit staff and fans much to cheer.

And there wasn’t much else to report. The offense keeps getting better — with another five weeks to the season, they would have been formidable — but the timing is slightly TWEET … yep, Conny Pohlers was offside again. Sometimes, it was the pass that was a hair late. Sometimes, it was Pohlers surely seeing blood in the water. Or merely excited that she found some space among Sky Blue’s defenders, who have the size to blot out the sun, let alone stop a short-ish forward from taking more than one touch on the ball.

The Spirit defense bent a few times. No one is going to complain about the effort of the back five — Julia Roberts spent so much time deep on the field that she was almost a fifth defender — but scrappiness isn’t always enough to get the ball clear. After a long bout of pressure, they finally conceded an equalizer.

Parsons said the Spirit was more dangerous, and I agree. But the result was just.

I stayed out of the pressbox for this game, though I did have a chance to catch up with USA TODAY colleague Christine Brennan. And I was on the field briefly, with just enough time to chat with Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra. I’ve never seen him so devoid of optimism. Soccer karma owes Sky Blue a win over Western New York in the semifinals, but soccer karma doesn’t exist.

But at least hard work can occasionally pay off. And so Ochs’ finish can provide a great bit of inspirational history for future Spirit teams.

Other random thoughts:

– I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the stands for one game. The view of the game is better than it is in the pressbox. I can hear Ashlyn Harris. I can hear the fans, though I wish they’d learn to wait for a stoppage in play before meandering around. One large group arrived 15 minutes into the game and was surprised to find most of the general admission seating full. Fan education is a process. The Spirit Squadron and company are helping.

– Danielle Grote posted four postgame interviews. The one you really want to see is the Ashlyn Harris interview. I still sense some detachment among national teamers when things go astray, as if it’s not really happening or is something from which they can just walk away. Not Harris. She’s determined to learn from the losses. She embraces the bad with the good. That’s a soccer player. Excuse me — footballer.

– I had time to make one quip on Twitter during the game, and of course, it was about the ref. She seemed to be enjoying herself, but I think she occasionally forgot that it was her job to call fouls, keep the official time, etc.

Still hoping to have the book done by the end of September. Watch for updates, and thanks for reading this summer.

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