soccer

‘Enduring Spirit’ epilogue (sort of): An August snapshot

Sometime during the NWSL season, it occurred to me that people might be interested in an epilogue to Enduring Spirit, summing up the team’s successful second season. Perhaps they would be more interested in that than they were in the book on the first season. Perhaps I’d even recoup a bit more of the money I lost writing Enduring Spirit.

Circumstances have conspired against that work being completed. I was sick for a while, and a couple of injured fingers (one broken, one badly sprained) cut into my productivity on the computer keyboard. And the people involved aren’t racing to tell me interesting stories about what happened through the season.

So instead of adding an epilogue to the book and also publishing it separately for the low, low price of 99 cents, I’ve decided to empty out the notebook for anyone who’s interested. I went to a late-season practice to draw a contrast between Season 1 and Season 2, and I had a few interviews worth sharing.

The result: A snapshot of the Washington Spirit on a beautiful August day. Enjoy.

Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014

Nearly a year since I last saw the Washington Spirit practice, some things hadn’t changed.

Mark Parsons’ voice was still the dominant sound. Lori Lindsey was no longer the captain but was the most vocal of the players on the stadium field, which was in its usual pristine shape despite a hard rain the night before. Emily Fortunato was still the voice of wit and wisdom on the sideline when she wasn’t tending to Ashlyn Harris, who was coming back from concussion symptoms and complained of “heavy legs.”

But a few things were different. Practice seemed a little more serious this time. The impish humor of Conny Pohlers was missing — teammates insisted this year’s German veteran, Kerstin Garefrekes, was also funny, but she wasn’t joking around here. The vertically challenged duo of Diana Matheson and Crystal Dunn clowned around briefly, but the players mostly kept their practice faces on.

This was an older Spirit team. Most of the youngsters had gone elsewhere. Jasmyne Spencer had a productive year with Western New York. Stephanie Ochs, newly converted to the back line, was in Houston with Tiffany McCarty and Kika Toulouse. Holly King and Lindsay Taylor were out of the league. Julia Roberts, waived by the Spirit, wound up in Seattle and got called up briefly to suit up for the Reign. A couple of more experienced players were also gone — Marisa Abegg went back into retirement and started her medical career, Conny Pohlers was back in Germany, and injury-plagued Candace Chapman wasn’t able to make the team.

The Spirit roster still included Caroline Miller, but she had suffered yet another injury setback and wasn’t at practice. Colleen Williams, injured in 2013 just as she broke into the lineup, tried to come back but was waived. She went to Sky Blue in her home state and once again suffered a major knee injury. Between Miller and Williams, the 2013 college draft was surely cursed.

Aside from top pick Dunn, who already had national team experience, Parsons had a roster of experienced pros. Undrafted rookie Bianca Sierra made the team as a hard-nosed (and foul-prone) defender, but Parsons traded her to Boston for talented, oft-controversial attacker Lisa De Vanna.

The rest of the newcomers were experienced. Garefrekes had been a German national team mainstay for years. Danesha Adams’ resume dated back to WPS. Yael Averbuch also played in WPS and was well established in Europe and in the national team pool. Niki Cross and Alex Singer had bounced between WPS and top German teams. Christine Nairn and Renae Cuellar had some success already in the NWSL. So had Veronica Perez, who was most famous for scoring the winning goal in Mexico’s upset of the USA in a World Cup qualifier in 2010. And Jordan Angeli, the WPS star who had tested her oft-injured knee in training with the Spirit in 2013, had come all the way back to get a roster spot this year.

Jodie Taylor was the breakout star. An English forward who made a name for herself in Australia, she shook off an early drought to become one of the most reliable scorers in the league.

So even with veteran attacking pest Tiffany Weimer out of action for the season, the Spirit had a serious infusion of experience. (Weimer also edits Our Game magazine, for which I’ve volunteered a few articles.)

“The quality and experience some of these players bring to the table is second to none,” said Tori Huster, one of the holdovers on the Spirit team. “You look at our roster — you look at our bench, even, in some of these games, and it’s like, ‘Wow, she’s not playing?’ There are some really good quality players on this team that I am lucky to play alongside.”

Parsons had figured out what a lot of the league’s pundits had not: This league eats young players for breakfast. The 2014 draft had a lot of hype, and most of the first-round picks had productive years. But beyond the first round, only five players were consistent starters. In Seattle, Parson’s countrymate Laura Harvey rebuilt through free agency and trades, and Parsons did the same. Leaguewide, the only team that had any success with draftees was Kansas City, where Kassey Kallman and Jenna Richmond were solid role players on a team that thrived on the connection between national team players Lauren Holiday and Amy Rodriguez. Chicago stayed in contention with Julie Johnston and Vanessa DiBernardo in key roles. Boston and Houston had several rookies in the mix, and they battled for last place.

So the youthful exuberance was dialed back a bit. This was a Spirit team less prone to fill its Twitter timelines with selfies from the road. In practice, they moved confidently through each drill.

But the biggest difference hanging in the air: This team was in playoff position.

The Spirit had given away a wondrous chance, leading 1-0 at Seattle against the league’s top team before conceding a late goal, a change of pace for a team that was used to scoring those late goals rather than giving them up. The disappointment from that missed opportunity was hanging in the air.

“We’ve done a great job when mistakes happen of learning from it, eliminating it and moving forward,” Parsons said. “Saturday at Seattle, we could’ve killed that game off and managed the game better. The other team want rhythm and intensity. We could’ve done a far better job in the final 10 to break that. I’m not talking about time-wasting, I’m talking about what can we do in the game that slows the opposition down. How do we break up their linking play? …

“I was disappointed, but we’ve got so many situations to learn from.”

Yet the Spirit controlled its own destiny in the season finale — beat Sky Blue, which harbored faint playoff hopes of its own, and Washington would make the playoffs. Even with a loss or draw, Portland and Chicago would have to win their games to knock out the Spirit. There was even a chance the Spirit could clinch in a few hours, depending on Chicago’s midweek game.

Nairn, who had spent 2013 with a non-contender in Seattle, noticed the difference. “Everything is taken a little bit more seriously. It’s a little bit more demanding.”

Huster saw a change in the late-season goals: “There is a little more on the line this year. Last year, I think we were really hungry just to get a point, even. As hungry as we might be just to get a point on this weekend to get into the playoffs — or three points, whatever it may be — also, in the back of our minds, we still have three games left. We’re really hopeful to finish out the season on a good note.”

From Parsons’ perspective, though, the two Spirit seasons had their own challenges.

“Last year, I distinctly remember training sessions — I guess you weren’t there — we got into it more than we did today because what we were working on wasn’t happening,” Parsons said. “And we actually had a heated discussion with a couple of players. Maybe you caught us on a fun day when you last come in (last year). We were focused, ready to get the job done.”

Any heated discussions this year?

“We’ve had a lot,” Parsons said. “I think you have to, otherwise you’re not moving forward. Right now, we’ve had enough struggles, we’ve had enough failure and setbacks to learn from. We’re all very aware of each other right now, in our personalities, and the group is in a great place. Yeah, we’ve had some rocky moments through the season. Nothing too serious, but whether it’s discussion on how hard we’re working, why we’re doing it, or the actual mentality in our previous session or game wasn’t right …

“I think we’re just all on a great page right now. But it’s taken a lot to get there. You have the honeymoon period of preseason — you haven’t put a team sheet out, so everyone is hunky-dory and happy, everyone is bonding well, I think we had an unbelievable preseason. The first 2-3 weeks of every season is really tough unless you’re winning every game and everyone’s getting a bit of action. You start showing your cards, and that’s where managing people and managing top pros who want to play comes in.”

And merely getting to the playoffs, which would happen if the Red Stars faltered, wasn’t enough.

“We’re chasing third (place),” Parsons said. “My mentality, and I shared this with a couple of players yesterday, is (a Chicago loss or tie) gives me a sigh of relief for a couple of seconds. But the target of third place doesn’t change. So we have to win. Because if we don’t win Saturday, we put it in Portland’s hands to go and get third place. … So our target is three points against a team (Sky Blue) that’s had our number this year.”

It wasn’t that the team had dominated opponents, save for a stunning three-goal explosion in the first half against title contender Kansas City early in the season. Instead, they had a knack for the dramatic.

  • May 17: Spirit 3-2 Flash. The Spirit equaled its win total from the previous season with a comeback from a 2-1 deficit in which Western New York made it rather chippy.
  • May 26: Spirit 3-2 Dash. Nairn won it with a stoppage-time blast to the far upper corner from 30 yards out, sending fans to Twitter to lobby for the highlight to be on SportsCenter.

  • July 2: Spirit 3-3 Breakers. A wild game full of controversy. In the 90th minute, former Spirit defender Bianca Sierra made contact with Jodie Taylor, who fell and earned the tying PK.
  • Aug. 2: Spirit 2-1 Red Stars. Late in the game, Ashlyn Harris made a brilliant save, leaping across the goal mouth. (She had been thoroughly checked out by the trainers after a collision early the second half, but concussion symptoms popped up later.) In the dying moments, Matheson sprinted about 20 yards to keep a ball in play. She got the the ball to De Vanna, who expertly held the ball before laying off to Averbuch. Then Averbuch ripped a shot from just outside the box to seal the win over the fellow playoff contenders.

https://twitter.com/Sarah_Gehrke/status/496419406365216769

“These rosters don’t really vary that much with talent,” Nairn said of the parity-ridden NWSL. “Sometimes, it’s the team that’s going to put the hardest tackles in, that one sprint that no one wants to make, just the tangible things you can control. You’re not always going to have the best game of your life, but you can control your hustle and your effort and all those things.”

If you were seeing this team for the first time at this practice, you might not get a full impression. Adams, buried on the bench through much of the summer and plugged in at the back line at one point, looked sharp and scored off a turnover. Dunn, a contender for Rookie of the Year, was easily dispossessed when she tried to make a move at midfield. Matheson, no longer carrying the team to the extent that she did in 2013 but still an essential part of the attack, had to laugh at herself after flubbing an easy pass. Lindsey looked and sounded like the team leader despite handing over her captaincy to Ali Krieger at the beginning of the season. Ashlyn Harris didn’t participate in the scrimmage, leaving Chantel Jones facing off against Adelaide Gay, a former Portland keeper who had spent the season with the Spirit Reserves and filled in as the team’s PR liaison when someone abruptly departed a couple of games into the year.

After scrimmaging, many players lingered on the field to work on finishing. Jones had been tagged in the summer’s viral charity event, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and she fulfilled her end of the deal with a loud scream.

“Freeeezing,” Jones said of the ice bucket. “A lot of people, when they do it, they just pour the ice in right before, and it’s not cold. That has been stewing all training, and it was freezing.”

Huster stayed on the field a while. No, she wasn’t adding forward to the list of positions she had played in two years with the Spirit. “Gotta get some extra touches in,” she said.

The former Florida State midfielder had been shoved on to the back line on an emergency basis much of 2013 and parts of 2014. She showed well enough to win the team’s Defender of the Year honors in 2013. This year, she had emerged as a strong midfield cornerstone.

“I played mostly defensive center mid, if not a linking center mid, in college,” Huster said. “So I’m kind of used to that role. But I really hadn’t played there in two to three years. I’ve been outside back, center back and a little bit in the midfield, but not as much as I’d like. It is a little bit of a transition, but with the good players I have around me, it’s pretty easy.”

Huster also felt the team knew it still had a bit to learn.

“The ideas that Mark is giving us as a group overall definitely help us and keep us on the same page,” Huster said. “We still have some work to do there to be on the same page at playoff time.”

The last two players on the field were Adams and Angeli, who had made it back from three years in soccer limbo to get occasional playing time with the Spirit and bring her good attitude everywhere she went. Neither player had seen much time the last few weeks.

Choosing players for the starting 11 or the the traveling party was one of Parsons’ biggest challenges.

It’s tough for the staff, tough for players. When we built the squad, we talked about that, we knew about it. Players that are 26, 27, 28 that have been playing regularly in previous teams or previous leagues — most teams have 13 or 14. There’s not many that has 18, 19, 20 like us. We’ve built that as a strategy. Challenges do come. You look at teams that have almost played the same lineup every week — I’m sure they have their own struggles, but they have some players who are just excited to be on the roster, (and) that’s less challenging.

I’ve made some really tough decisions on traveling. Leaving anyone on this squad at home is probably the hardest decision every week. It’s heartbreaking, it’s tough, but it’s the part we need to get on with.

So it is a tough bench. No matter what we put out, it’s a strong bench. We’re also excited that players have continued to make an impact.

I also feel that building some consistency in the last few weeks is key, which has been really challenging for anyone that is just on the brink of getting into that starting 11. You’ve got to respect that, and you’ve got to respect that everyone wants to play and everyone wants a chance to compete throughout the week to get that opportunity.

One person Parsons admired but frequently omitted: Angeli.

She’s one of the most important people in our changing room and in our team. She got caught on the end of some very tough calls at times. If she is on the sidelines, not playing, then you hear her from the first to the 90th, you hear her before the game, you hear her at halftime, you her at the end. Incredible personality and character. We’re just privileged and very fortunate to have her with us. …

Jordan is an exceptional person. Every single week, every single session she comes out, no matter the day or the weather, with a point to make. It’s been key to keep competition high and key to keep people on their toes. We’re lucky we’ve had her this year. Last year, we missed that.

One more player who popped up in our conversation: Lori Lindsey, the erstwhile captain who was still leading:

“She’s been a leader throughout. I think two things happened. It was us trying to figure out letting competition drive selection. She’s a winner, she wanted to improve, I think she really drove on and improved.

“We challenged her to continue to be a good leader. We needed her voice. We needed to hear her. She got an opportunity again. When she is on, when she is ticking, when she is moving the ball, we are at her best. We made life very difficult with our decisions at the beginning, and she bounced back stronger.”

I had to wrap my post-practice conversation so Parsons could tend to some business. He got an important phone call, but also, De Vanna had sent word that she wanted to chat with the coach. She came up, saw me interviewing Parsons and said with a smile, “Don’t listen to him. It’s all rubbish.” Parsons smiled, too, but there was a hint of conflicts past in the exchange. De Vanna had shown a few signs of on-field discontent, to put it mildly, over her brief time with the Spirit.

The Spirit would go on to make the playoffs. But before they got there, De Vanna and Lindsey made headlines — one for being left out of the traveling party for internal reasons, another for making a graceful exit from the NWSL.

The Spirit made the playoffs and dropped a tough 2-1 game against Seattle, pushing the league’s runaway top team to the limit. Fans made sure the players got a warm welcome and thanks for the season.

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