NWSL: Spirit, Breakers and the end of reality

What really happened at the Maryland SoccerPlex last night?

We know the Washington Spirit got a 3-3 draw with the Boston Breakers in familiar fashion — a Diana Matheson penalty kick in the final minutes.

But even after going through the video and photos like JFK conspiracy theorists (hmmm — the Plex does have a grassy knoll, though it’s tough to hide in the beer garden), we’ve got no shortage of contrasting opinions on these topics:

The first PK (2:20 into the game). Did Boston deserve a penalty kick when Niki Cross fell next to Jazmine Reeves in the box, just 2:20 into the game? The video is unclear, and commentators Michael Minnich and Danielle Malagari (who are not the homers we hear on so many other NWSL broadcasts) were stunned when the teams lined up for the PK.

One photo from the end line catches the key moment. Is Reeves’ foot trapped under Cross? Or is that just scant, incidental contact that shouldn’t make Reeves fall so easily?

One note Boston coach Tom Durkin raised after the game: Isn’t this a red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity? To me, the fact that Cross wasn’t carded suggests the ref wasn’t fully sold on the call.

The second PK (5:58). This time, Ali Krieger definitely made contact with Nkem Ezurike. Maybe a little harsh, but the contact makes it a reasonable call. (Remember that. We’ll return to this principle in a minute.)

The red card to Maddy Evans (69:16). This call also shocked Minnich and Malagari. Ashlyn Harris, in her postgame comments, wondered if it was some belated attempt by the ref to take control of the game. I have no problem with it. Yes, Evans missed Lori Lindsey’s leg, and we can all be thankful for that. But she came sliding in hard, nowhere near the ball. You don’t have to make contact to get a foul. If I try to punch you on the field, it doesn’t matter if I hit you in the face or miss and break my hand on the goal post. I’m off. Evans deserved the red and needs a stern lecture from her team or the league.

The Harris “shove” (86:42). I’ve watched it scores of times, and I basically see a “get your hands off me” gesture with no force behind it. I can see how others might see it in a more belligerent light. As tightly as this ref was calling this game, it seems fair to say he would have acted if he had felt accosted. The other incidents happened quickly, and it’s tough to gauge how much contact took place. For this one, the ref felt whatever contact Harris made and what force she used. But then it’s the league taking a closer look:

The final PK (89:15). You can say Jodie Taylor fell a little easily, and some people have. But that doesn’t mean no foul happened. Former Spirit defender Bianca Sierra had her hands around Taylor. They kept moving, she fell, the ref blew the whistle. If you want to say it’s a soft make-up call, fine. But it’s hardly beyond the pale, and you’d have to say it’s consistent with the standard set earlier in the game.

The rest of the game. Let’s say for sake of argument that referee Dimitar Chavdarov got all five of the major flashpoints correct, or at the very least that he was consistent in his PK calls. The players still wouldn’t have been happy.

Consider these quotes (and read Sarah Gehrke’s piece at The Soccer Desk for more complete transcriptions):

Spirit coach Mark Parsons, cleverly choosing vague words: “There were a couple of moments where our players almost lost their cool because I think the players were put in situations they shouldn’t have been put in.”

Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris: “It was just one of those games where everyone was kind of just losing control. I think the ref kind of let things get out of hand.” She said the refs let down the Spirit and Boston.

And Durkin, while also questioning whether his team can ever get a fair shot, agreed that both teams struggled to comprehend the officiating.

A few other areas of general agreement:

Traffic surely killed some of the walkup crowd. Took me two and a half hours to get to the SoccerPlex from Northern Virginia, most of that time on the Beltway and I-270. An accident on 270 was cleared just as rush hour started, and traffic didn’t quite catch up. Another accident blocked the GW Parkway, leaving people stranded if they were trying to come up from the district.

The Spirit defense made three horrific blunders. PKs or not, Cross and Krieger had ill-timed slips when dealing with attacks they should’ve been able to handle with ease. These aren’t rookie center backs any more. These are veteran pros. (Better defending up the field would’ve prevented such 1-on-1s, too.) Then Crystal Dunn, already on the wrong side of Reeves, slipped and left Reeves alone with the ball for goal No. 3.

The Spirit missed a few chances. “We can’t miss three sitters,” Harris said.

Harris is an exciting keeper-sweeper: “High risk, high reward. There are some sketchy times. But if I’m not there, it’s just a foot race, and who knows what could happen.”

Also, if no one’s in the box, you can’t give up a PK, right? “As long as I was outside the 18 and everyone else was, we were OK.”

Jazmine Reeves is the real deal. She’s fast, she works hard, and she can shoot. Steal of the draft.

“Our rookie strikers, Nkem and Jazmine Reeves, are getting better and better with every game this season,” Heather O’Reilly said. “Nkem is very strong and holds the ball up well. Jazmine obviously is very quick and made the defense work today.”

The last two are the big takeaways. The Spirit will need to tune up this rebuilt defense. NWSL teams will need to figure out how to contend with Reeves.

A few other takeaways:

Breakers love the long ball, and they should: “Direct” is a dirty word these days. Everyone wants to play like Barcelona. But if you have defenders like Cat Whitehill and speedsters with ball control like Reeves, why would you not go long a few times a game? That’s like telling a boxer not to punch with her right hand because the left hand is so much prettier.

And it’s getting the Breakers what they want. Durkin (and others) disputed the notion that the Breakers gave up more chances than they created, with the Breakers coach going so far as to cast aspersions on home teams’ stat-keeping. You could put 100 stat-keepers in isolated rooms in front of that same game, and they’re all going to tell you the Spirit created more good opportunities than the Breakers. But the Breakers may feel it was even because they created just enough. Get Reeves and company a few chances, and then in Naeher we trust.

Harris: “They have threatening speed up top, and they just look to whack it. A lot of their ball are bending, quality balls behind the back line.”

Emotion got the better of people who should know better: Why were Durkin and Harris arguing after the game? Why did Harris and Krieger, “shove” accusation notwithstanding, react so badly to Reeves just trying to pressure the ball?

Krieger is the Spirit’s captain this season. But while others were staying calm, she was fussing at Reeves after picking up a yellow card. Then after the game, in violation of NWSL rules, she declined interviews. That’s questionable leadership.

We know Durkin has a challenge with the Breakers. A quick peek at the standings will tell you that.

But Parsons has a tall task with the Spirit as well. The midfield and forwards are clicking — Lindsey creates chances, Christine Nairn is a long-range shooting threat, Tori Huster is thriving in her new central midfield role, and Lisa de Vanna and Diana Matheson are a dangerous attacking punch behind proven scorer Jodie Taylor. But the defense is still in transition, with no shortage of talent but questionable poise and a few tactical questions to sort out.

“Portland (a 6-1 loss in the Spirit’s last home game) was crazy,” Parsons said. “I think that’s self-inflicted. Tonight, some very extreme events happened. If it happens for a third time … (pause) … we’ve got a lot of training.”

And while the referee may not have been up to the task last night, everyone else needs to step up and dial back the shenanigans. We used to be able to say women’s soccer players didn’t flop and dive. No more. (At least they don’t writhe around as if shot.) I’m starting to see more reckless or even intentional brutality in this league than I see in most men’s leagues. Team officials don’t need to be leading the heckling from the stands.

Time to respect the game. Then maybe I won’t get 1,300 words into a game report without mentioning de Vanna’s sublime cross to Taylor for the first Spirit goal and other great highlights.

Speaking of which — here’s the game in full. Joanna Lohman has a great block on a Matheson shot at 13:20. The Taylor goal is at 27:30. Reeves’ well-taken goal is around the 44-minute mark. Taylor’s second (a scramble off a close-range free kick) is at 55:45. Taylor bids for the hat trick with an audacious chip at 58:10. The lightning delay is at 64:54. Krieger just misses the equalizer at 82:25.

Harris: “You could (after the two PKs) put your head down and just say it’s not our day. But we continued to fight, we continued to battle. We had chances to win that game.”


Published by

Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

One thought on “NWSL: Spirit, Breakers and the end of reality”

  1. I really appreciate this article, it doesn’t point blame at anyone and it just states the honest facts. Thanks for posting this.

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