Spirit-Thorns and the state of NWSL player development

Think for a second about the talent on the field at last night’s Washington Spirit-Portland Thorns game. The teams combined to use 27 players. Ten players have made it to the field in a World Cup or Olympics. Six more could make their World Cup debuts next year. Five more played in a youth World Cup.*

That’s great for the fans. But it’s even better for the players. They’re improving, game by game.

These players could be tucked away in residency right now, doing beep tests and going up against the same opponents every day. Instead, they’re coping with new situations in a mix of players bringing different talents to the table.

The international mix helps. The two most accomplished current Canadian players, Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson, were on the field — Sinclair wasn’t at her best but still hit the post once, while Matheson had a few sharp attacking moments and an assist. Then all six imports from outside North America were in good form:

– Lisa De Vanna (WAS) was a speedy pest down the left flank, nearly combining with Matheson on a brilliant scoring chance.

– Nadine Angerer (POR) showed every bit of veteran poise in goal, dominating the box on set pieces and coming out to sweep the ball away on a Spirit attack.

– Jodie Taylor (WAS) was responsible for that attack and a few more, including a quality finish that leveled the game.

– Stephanie Catley (POR) had a thrilling duel with U.S. phenom Crystal Dunn, assisting on the Thorns goal to Alex Morgan and playing solid defense while wearing out the grass on the flank.

– Kerstin Garefrekes (WAS) might have lost the speed to keep up with the Catleys and Dunns of the world, but she had a couple of moments of class that nearly stole the game for the Spirit.

– Vero Boquete (POR) had an off night. Most other players would call it a highlight reel, turning defenders in knots and scooping a ball over the defense to give Ashlyn Harris a nervous moment in goal.

“That’s what you need in this league,” said Portland’s loquacious coach, Paul Riley. “We didn’t have ’em last year, we didn’t have these foreign players. Now we’ve got some of the top players in the world here. It’s getting more like WPS was. They do bring something to the table. I think they add so much to the team, in practice even.”

In particular, the enthusiastic Riley gushed about Vero, who played for Riley with the WPS Philadelphia Independence, and Catley, a young Australian defender/midfielder/wherever she wants.

“Good decisions on the ball. She can tackle, too. And she’s just turned 20. Think about it — she’s a sophomore in college in our terms in America.”

Australia has already qualified for the World Cup, and Catley is getting a glimpse of a quicker style of play in the NWSL. Vero may finally get a chance to play in the World Cup next year, with Spain sitting atop its qualifying group, and she’s only getting better.

Then consider the effect of these players on Americans who are still on the upswing of their careers. Like Tobin Heath, the skillful Thorns midfielder who missed last night’s game with a knee sprain.

“I told Tobin Heath, if you want to be the Number 10 (playmaking midfielder) for the United States, this is the player you need to watch,” Riley said.

And the league is a learning experience for a player like Crystal Dunn. If you can’t see her quality, you need to consult a soccer coach or an optometrist. But she’s prone to rookie mistakes — a slip here, a bit of matador defense there, an ill-advised run out of position elsewhere. Better to have these teachable moments now than against Germany.

The U.S. depth in field players is growing with each game. Allie Long may have her Twitter detractors, but she was a strong midfield presence for the Thorns last night. Nikki Marshall limited De Vanna. Tori Huster limited Vero. Even if these players don’t make the national team, they’re helping by giving the U.S. players a good test every week. Last year, perhaps you could say a few teams in the league — especially the Spirit — fielded some players who looked out of place against a top team. Not in this game.

Then there’s the goalkeeping question, a dangerous discussion topic in women’s soccer circles. Last night’s game provided plenty of evidence for the cases for and against Ashlyn Harris’ national team future. She was stranded on the Thorns goal and had a couple of rough moments with her distribution. But without her saves, the Thorns win 3-1 or 4-1.

And she was just a little bit defensive when asked whether her play on the Thorns goal, where she came out partway, was “high-risk.”

“I don’t think I would really word it like that. You’re playing against the best striker in the world. To me, it was a great ball, and she dealt with it well. I wouldn’t go as far as to saying it didn’t work for me. I think I had world-class saves tonight, and that game could’ve been much different. So the way I see it is — yeah, I made a decision that may not have worked out in my favor, but I (freaking) got the job done.”

Then came a quote that is surely already being picked apart like the Zapruder film:

When you get so many balls played over the top and your back line’s not doing their job, at some point, you have to come out and relieve the pressure. There’s times where I came out and I intercepted passes, and there’s times that I won’t. There’s times where it’s going to be sketchy and hairy, but until our back line figures it out, we’re in sync and we drop as a line and we don’t create that big of a gap where people can just constantly toe-poke and run after us, we’re going to be beat. That’s something we’re trying to figure out now, but we don’t have the legs. This is coming off of a long week and a half of game after game after and travel, travel, travel.

Could it be better? Yeah, every game could be better. Could I learn from it? Yeah, every game I could learn something from it. At the end of the day, we got a point against a really good team, and we’ve just gotta move forward.

Another reason the Thorns provide a good learning experience: These days, they’re not aiming for the Barcelona-style possession soccer so much in vogue these days. They’re direct. Over the top and far away.

That doesn’t surprise Harris one bit:

Yeah, of course they’re direct. Look at the forwards they have. Why mess with the ball — get it in. These players running at you — it’s not fun. I can tell you that from experience. It put us under pressure. We couldn’t keep the ball. And that was part of our problem.

Going against these players — they want it. Alex Morgan was calling for the ball the entire game. And that’s the difference between her and a lot of other players. She wants (the ball) in all forms — in front, in behind — her movement’s insane. She’s going the entire game. We could learn something from that.

Don’t tell me players don’t care about these games. They’re learning experiences, but they’re learning experiences with far higher stakes than a U.S. friendly against whatever youngsters an international team decides to bring over to face the same old familiar faces in the latest Nike kits.

This game was vital for playoff positioning. Last year, the Spirit might have taken a moral victory over getting a draw with an in-form team like Portland. Not now.

“One point, I think, is a little disappointing,” Cross said. “We were both pushing for three points.”

That said, Spirit coach Mark Parsons is always one to take Eric Idle’s advice and look on the bright side of life, and he’s glad his team has the woeful performances out of its system.

Sunday (a brutal 4-2 loss at Sky Blue) was not us. Today showed that we’re right up there with everyone.”

HIGHLIGHTS

Check the video for these moments:

FIRST HALF

6:50 Stephanie Catley plays it long for Alex Morgan, who splits the defenders. Ashlyn Harris comes out and winds up in no man’s land. Morgan finishes with a beautiful lob. 1-0.

19:30 Alex Singer makes a strong run up the left and beats two defenders to play a short cross to Jodie Taylor. The Spirit forward, with her back to goal, lays it back for Christine Nairn, who has scored some ESPN-worthy goals from distance this season but is well off the mark this time.

25:50 Direct ball for Taylor, but Nadine Angerer is out quickly to slide feet-first just outside the box to knock it away.

27:05 Another direct ball to Morgan, and Niki Cross does just enough to throw her off and force her shot into a tough angle. Morgan hits side netting.

27:50 Just highlighting a sharp example of good tactical runs. Lisa De Vanna cuts inside toward the middle of the field. Diana Matheson, who was in the middle, sprints ahead while De Vanna occupies the defense’s attention. De Vanna’s through ball is a bit too heavy.

29:25 Once again, it was a rough game for an NWSL ref, who actually managed to get in the way twice and broke up a Spirit shooting opportunity. But here, she did something right, correctly playing advantage after Tori Huster is fouled. The Spirit wind up with a good opportunity, but Taylor can’t quite finish it.

33:20 Morgan beats offside trap, goes 1-v-1 against retreating Harris. Harris pokes ball away, saves resulting (more difficult for Morgan) shot

39:20 Dunn lets Catley glide right past her, setting up a good chance for the Thorns.

SECOND HALF

45:25 A good example of the Spirit almost connecting but just taking a little too much time and not quite being in the right spots. They take a while to swing the ball wide to Dunn, who takes a good quick step to send in a cross, only to find no one anticipating it.

57:45 Watch Vero’s audacious scoop pass. Do any American players ever try that?

62:55 Catley beats Dunn, and the Thorns get a couple of chances in a 30-second sequence that ends with Christine Sinclair’s highlight of the night, a shot just off the post.

67:00 The Thorns defense loses track of Taylor, who takes a heavy touch past Angerer but finishes superbly. Assist to Diana Matheson. 1-1.

72:15 Why did Ashlyn Harris play this ball with her head? Making absolutely sure the ref doesn’t think it was a back pass?

77:00 Morgan rounds Cross, and the well-positioned Harris keeps it level with a kick save.

79:35 Lovely bit of skill from Kerstin Garefrekes, with the shot against longtime German teammate Nadine Angerer going just wide.

Unfortunately, the stream cut off before Garefrekes’ last shot nearly won it for the Spirit, and it wasn’t included in the highlight reel.

* Yes, I looked up every player in the FIFA database. World Cup or Olympics: Lisa De Vanna, Lori Lindsey, Diana Matheson, Ali Krieger, Kerstin Garefrekes, Veronica Perez, Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, Rachel (Buehler) Van Hollebeke, Nadine Angerer. Possible World Cup debuts: Vero Boquete, Crystal Dunn, Jodie Taylor, Stephanie Catley, perhaps Ashlyn Harris and Allie Long. Youth World Cups: Christine Nairn, Amber Brooks, Sarah Huffman, Nikki Marshall, Angie (Woznuk) Kerr

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