Spirit-Red Stars: A mad night at the SoccerPlex

There’s just a lot of anger in the world right now.

Our president took a break from Twitter ranting to issue the most controversial presidential pardon since Gerald Ford fell on his sword for Richard Nixon, paving the way for a peanut farmer from Georgia to become president and then a truly outstanding ex-president. North Korea, apparently angry about being pushed off the front page by U.S. domestic shenanigans and a hurricane (and a preposterous fight), flung a few more missiles into the sea, which raises the question of how many North Koreans live in dangerous poverty while Kim Jong Un bombs the whales.

And in the ever-argumentative women’s soccer community, Backline Soccer had to deal with online threats after some woker-than-thou “fantasy” writer discovered an old op-ed about Jaelene Hinkle and deemed the entire staff homophobic, which would come as a great surprise to those who know the staff. (Should someone tell him about Orson Scott Card, who actually does work to deny gay rights and about whom he has said nothing on his site?)

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So given all that, perhaps it’s little surprise that the Spirit-Red Stars game, which Chicago desperately needed to halt a skid out of the playoff positions, was a little on the aggressive side. The Red Stars, bringing a talented team against a makeshift Spirit backline, finished the first half with 11 fouls and one shot on goal. (Yes, one. Opta gave Washington keeper DiDi Haracic credit for a save when she pounced on a loose ball in a scramble.)

From the pressbox, it all seemed a little cynical. Time after time, a Chicago player would extend the arms on a shove while the ball was in the air, then turn to the ref in disbelief when the whistle blew.

But most of the physical play was rough but legal. The ref, like nearly every other ref we’ve seen in the NWSL this season, could’ve given out more yellow cards, but give him credit for calling the fouls.

And it worked. The Spirit players were rattled. Tori Huster, the Spirit’s most-fouled player, had a bad giveaway or two after hearing nearby footsteps from Julie Ertz or Kristie Mewis or Danielle Colaprico or anyone else who had knocked her around in the game. (The pressbox consensus seems to be that at least one foul attributed to Mewis actually belonged to Ertz.) Huster participated in a team-high 18 “duels” and only won six of them, a very un-Huster-like performance.

The Red Stars’ goals were the result of good old-fashioned hustle, with Colaprico keeping a ball alive to set up the recently traded Mewis for a goal against her old team and Christen Press finally beating the Spirit’s high line before rounding the keeper. But they were finished well. Things didn’t work for Mewis in Washington for whatever reason, but she can play.

It was a strange night in general. The medical crew carrying injured Spirit forward Arielle Ship off the field took the long way around and was nearly hit by a ball going out of play. (At least Ship was able to go past the Spirit Squadron, which roared for her and got a thumbs-up from the weeping Ship.) The fourth official decided it was cold (a surprise to the announcers who said it was hot and humid) and donned a black long-sleeve top, blending in with the game staff at the middle of the field.

Chicago coach Rory Dames started the postgame inquiries by repeating the first question he was asked.

“Thoughts on the game — it was pretty ugly at times,” Dames said with the expression of a dog that expected a piece of chicken but got tofu. “I would say that with the way they play — they’re very direct out of their end, and they try to get up into your end and press you, and they try to combine with their front players in your end. So there was no reason for us to try to play through their pressure, and nobody the last five games has tried to play through our pressure, so it was always going to be a first-ball, second-ball, ball winning-contest kind of game.”

He didn’t seem too frustrated with the Red Stars’ losing streak heading into the game. Neither did Ertz.

“I don’t think it was necessarily wrought-out frustrations in there,” Ertz said. “We really wanted to win, we really wanted three points. I think everyone does, but especially for us, the points these last few games really do matter for going to the playoffs or not. We wanted to make sure we won our tackles — first ball, second ball, that was a big thing for us — and when that’s your main focus, I think it does become a more aggressive game.”

And yes, the points matter more for Chicago at this point than they do for the Spirit, which was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention but was never really in it this season. In the long run, the Spirit would be better off losing and improving their draft position to make sure they get hometown hero Andi Sullivan, though possible league expansion could throw a wrinkle in that. My guess is that the Spirit will package the pick it received for Mewis with another pick and maybe a player to make sure Sullivan is at the SoccerPlex next season. Let’s be clear — they’re not tanking. They were pushing hard until the last second, spurred by Mallory Pugh, who grew into the game and played some actual soccer amidst the rugby/Aussie rules contest occupying much of the field.

Let’s also be fair to the Red Stars, always a class organization. They figured a choppy game would suit them and they’d be able to go Route 1 to Christen Press at some point. A better team than the Spirit would’ve punished them. A better ref would’ve showed some cards and put a stop to the midfield shenanigans.

Fans got their money’s worth. The weather was nice. The Spirit Squadron was in fine voice. The concession lines seemed to move at a decent speed. And Pugh and Press showed their national-team skills in flashes. They’ll see better games at some point.

The strange, surly night had a perfect capper. Throughout the week, Twitter was been abuzz with the possibility of Stephanie Labbe’s dog, Rio, going out on the field for National Dog Day. I was hoping to meet Rio because I’m a little silly about dogs. One thing I love about my house and my neighborhood is that I can sit in my living room or my bedroom and see dogs walking down the sidewalks. At my elementary school, I earned the nickname “The Dog Whisperer” when I wrangled a dog out of traffic, and all the dogs that turn out at departure time love me.

I met Rio on the way to the postgame interviews. He growled and barked at me. Before you think it’s just me, he did the same to Kevin Parker, one of the nicest guys on the planet.

So, yeah. It was that kind of night. It’s been that kind of week.

Here’s to a better month in September.

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