For the most startling comment in the wake of Washington’s last-minute winner over Chicago on a pleasant Saturday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex, let’s check in with Chicago coach Rory Dames on how the loss affected the Red Stars’ playoff chances:
“I don’t think (losing) changes a lot for us, to be honest. Winning obviously would’ve helped. But we’re two points back from Portland.
“We always thought the race was going to be with Portland. I don’t think we really ever thought we were in a race with Washington.”
The standings would’ve said otherwise before tonight’s game. A Chicago win would’ve vaulted the Red Stars into a tie for third with Washington. The Spirit would still own the head-to-head tiebreaker, having already beaten Chicago twice, but the Red Stars would have a game in hand. And the Red Stars have three games at home, while the Spirit must travel to first-place Seattle and return home to face nemesis Sky Blue.
And yet, here was Dames after the game, saying they were just competing for the fourth playoff spot with the star-studded Portland Thorns, not the defending wooden-spoon holders from Washington. In fact, Dames and Red Stars all-everything Lori Chalupny were in surprisingly good moods considering what had just happened.
In case you missed it, here’s what had just happened:
4th minute: After missing a good early chance, the Spirit gave up a truly awful opening goal. Tori Huster gave up the ball to Christen Press at midfield, and the Red Stars forward went streaking down the middle. Spirit left back Alex Singer was caught upfield, and Press played the ball into that space for Melissa Tancredi. The Spirit center backs rolled to their left, and Tancredi crossed it back for Lori Chalupny. The should-be national team midfielder didn’t make great contact with her one-timer from the top of the box, but Ashlyn Harris was uncharacteristically slow in getting across. 1-0 Red Stars.
28th and 31st minutes: The Red Stars didn’t necessarily have the better of possession in the first half, but they created the best chances, particularly off Spirit misplays. In the 28th minute, Press again picked the ball away from a Spirit defender (Niki Cross), this time going one-on-one with Harris, who made the big stop. (Dames thought Cross might have held Press back and deserved a yellow; not sure I see it on replay. Meanwhile, the Red Stars were undoing themselves with some silly, nasty challenges, earning yellow cards for Jen Hoy and Jackie Santacaterina.)
Press again had an opportunity as the Red Stars, wisely, went Route 1 with a ball up the middle. Press raced past the defense, but Harris was out in her keeper-sweeper role to clean up. That would be the best Chicago opportunity for some time, while the Spirit started to come back, with Kerstin Garefrekes’ 39th-minute shot cleared away by Abby Erceg.
48th minute: This time, the Red Stars gave up the soft early goal. Christine Nairn has scored some beautiful long-range goals, but this one was a slow grounder that somehow wrong-footed Karina LeBlanc.
89th minute: The Spirit had the better of play in the second half, outshooting Chicago 12-4 while Harris only made one save. But what a save it was. Adriana Leon tapped the ball for Melissa Tancredi, who rushed past Ali Krieger with the ball and crossed for Christen Press, who had found space in the box. Tancredi’s cross was perfect. Press’ header was perfect. But Harris, racing to her left, leaped to knock it away.
94th minute: The ball was surely rolling out. There was no way Diana Matheson would be able to chase it down on the sideline, right? Even if she caught it, how could she keep it in? She slid and hooked a foot onto the ball to play it along the line, then hopped up to chase it down. She played it back for Lisa De Vanna, who held the ball with the poise of a veteran. Finally, De Vanna played it left for Yael Averbuch, who struck it first-time with her left. The other two goals in this game looked a little clumsy. This one was brilliant.
Dames knew the last two big Spirit plays were the sort of thing you could only applaud. “An unbelievable save,” he said of Harris’ 89th-minute leap. Then Matheson saving the ball to set up the goal — “There’s maybe three players in the league who have that thought process and that quality.” And then Averbuch.
Chalupny simply smiled. “The Spirit, they just never quit. Credit to them, they’re a great team.”
Why has Washington managed to sweep the season series with this solid Chicago team? “If we had an easy answer to that, we would’ve figured it all out by now,” Chalupny said with a little laugh. “They’re strong top-to-bottom, and they have some real game-changers and some players who can strike from distance.”
Yet it’s a Spirit team that seems to thrive when its back is against the wall. Porous starts turn to powerful finishes. Harris shrugged off the early goal for a couple of vital saves, including one that frankly deserves some time on SportsCenter. Spirit coach Mark Parsons singled out Tori Huster, who had a bad touch leading to the Chicago goal, as a disruptive presence in defensive midfield. The versatile Huster also had a key clearance late in the game. Lisa De Vanna had squandered a couple of opportunities but came through with a bit of brilliance at the end.
Then there’s Averbuch, who has slid from national team player on the rise to a substitute for the Spirit. In an instant, the low-scoring midfielder (one goal in WPS, she said, and now one goal in the NWSL) found the confidence to rip a goal past a good keeper in LeBlanc, just after passing up a similar opportunity.
“I was angry at Yaya just before that because she passed to someone out wide,” Parsons said. “So I’m so glad she decided to strike.”
And she clearly surprised herself.
“I was just really focused with getting it on frame,” Averbuch said. “So when I got it on frame, I was already happy with the fact that it was going on the goal, maybe get a rebound for someone else to score.”
That’s the second time this season the Spirit have won a home game with a laser in stoppage time. Christine Nairn did it to Houston in May with a goal of the year contender. In the game before that, Matheson’s stoppage-time penalty kick gave the Spirit a 3-3 draw with Sky Blue. In July, yet another Matheson stoppage-time PK salvaged a 3-3 draw with Boston after the Breakers led 3-1.
Other late goals: A 79th-minute goal from Jodie Taylor, who missed Saturday night’s game on national team duty, to win the June 4 game at Chicago that clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Other comebacks: Down 2-1 at halftime before beating Western New York 3-2. Down 2-1 at Boston, won 3-2. Down 1-0 at halftime to Portland, drew 1-1. Down 1-0 at halftime to Kansas City, won 2-1.
“We’ve been a second-half team, for sure, for at least the second half of the season,” Matheson said. “We make games interesting, which is good for the fans.”
(Here comes the call-out …)
“Hopefully we can get some more fans out. I don’t know why we have less fans than last year. So if you could tell the fans that came out last year that aren’t coming out this year to come back out. We miss them. We’re playing exciting soccer.”
No doubt about that. And if Dames is to be believed, the Spirit will be extending that exciting soccer into the playoffs this year.
Circumstances could prove Dames wrong. But so far, the only wrong is … me. When it became apparent a couple of months ago that four teams would be battling for the last two NWSL playoff spots, I figured they would go to Portland and Western New York. That’s mathematically impossible. The Flash can’t catch the Spirit, so there’s no way the Flash and Portland can get in.
This Spirit team is still a strange one. They never control a game from start to finish, something you’d expect a third-place team in a nine-team league to do every once in a while. But their game-changing ability has earned a lot of respect around the league. And maybe it’ll earn them another week of soccer in late August.