Neither the Washington Spirit nor the Boston Breakers tanked Saturday night’s game to get the No. 1 draft pick. For once, my prediction was right.
But it wasn’t pretty. I didn’t notice any Spirit Academy kids in the crowd, and that’s probably for the best. You don’t want them to learn anything from this. Two own goals by the same luckless player, former Breaker Kassey Kallman. No shots for the home team in the first half. Fouls that weren’t particularly malicious but just pointless. Passes that clattered into opponents.
The Breakers played hard, and aside from two maybe-overdue yellow cards, they played fairly. Own goals are often a mix of luck and getting the ball in good spots, and the Breakers got the ball in good spots many times in the first 10 minutes of the second half, turning a 0-0 snoozer into a 3-0 game with a bit of life.
And the Spirit didn’t pack it in. Two terrific strikes were called back due to close but probably correct offside calls. The silver lining (coincidentally, the Rilo Kiley song of the same name is now playing on my Spotify mix) for the Spirit: They put the ball in the net four times! Too bad two counted against them and the other two didn’t count at all.
Late in the game, those of us in the pressbox were wondering why Breakers coach Matt Beard was so animated, chastising his team and gesticulating wildly. After the game, the thoughtful and tactically shrewd coach explained that he was legitimately worried that the Spirit might come back, like Sky Blue has on more than one occasion this season. When you haven’t won a road game in a while, a little paranoia is understandable.
So yes, both teams were trying. It wasn’t just a couple of teams tanking to land Andi Sullivan in the 2018 draft. At this point, the Spirit seem destined to land their hometown hero. And tonight, they looked like they needed her. Some of the players on the field simply were not up to the task.
And it’s not as if the Spirit have many other options. They dressed 14 players for the game. (The Breakers, also limping toward the finish line of the season and missing game-changer Rose Lavelle, only dressed 15.)
Coach Jim Gabarra said quite candidly after the game that his team really didn’t have the training they needed to prepare. Too many games in a short time. Too many injuries.
“So you didn’t think it would be a good idea to run your players through a series of intense practice in 90-degree weather with only three available subs?” I asked (paraphrased).
“Probably not,” Gabarra said.
Spare a thought for Spirit fans who’ve attended most of the games this season. They’ve seen a lot of bad soccer, and it’s not all from the home team.
Maybe it’s a strange thing to say about a team in last place, but the Spirit overachieved in many ways this season. Stephanie Labbe and Estelle Johnson were having great seasons until they abruptly ended a couple of weeks ago. Arielle Ship was better than expected. Meggie Dougherty Howard was way better than expected — even people who wish the next hurricane would race up the Potomac and destroy the Maryland SoccerPlex because they so despise Spirit ownership have pegged the late third-round draft pick as a solid pick for Rookie of the Year.
But Spirit fans really haven’t been treated to a lot of quality from their visitors, either. Portland showed little in Mark Parsons’ return to the SoccerPlex. Orlando wasn’t quite the Morgan-and-Marta juggernaut they later became. The Chicago Red Stars looked like they were playing old-school roller derby. The best game of the season, oddly enough, may have been the previous Spirit-Breakers game, when Boston goalkeeper Abby Smith flat-out robbed the Spirit (legally) of a win.
Call it bad luck, compounded by some personnel moves that will leave some lasting bitterness. Frankly, the quality of play in the NWSL has been poor this season. If you want to blame anyone, blame the referees who’d rather carry on conversations with players like Allie Long and McCall Zerboni rather than give them cards for any of the 349 fouls they commit each game. That needs to change.
One thing that’s not going to change — the occasional late-season game between tired, ailing teams at the bottom of the table. And if this game proved one thing, it’s that the women’s game is not ready for promotion and relegation, no matter how many U.S. Soccer presidential candidates try to win points by promising it. These coaches can’t afford a training injury, and there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by tossing Rose Lavelle or Cheyna Williams out on the field at this point just so they can avoid swapping places with WPSL champion Fire And Ice SC. (Granted, if the problem with Lavelle is that she’s flying too much, may I suggest a bus with adequate sleeping space? And no, I have no idea what possessed anyone to name a team “Fire And Ice.” Does Shy Ronnie play for them?)
Even in a no-good, horrible, very bad game such as this, you’ll see moments of quality. Smith didn’t have to pull the mind-boggling saves she made last time to get the shutout this time, but she was terrific when she needed to be. Mallory Pugh adds life to any attack, whether it’s the U.S. national team in full flight or whichever players the Spirit can scrape together around her.
The Spirit will be better-prepared when Seattle visits for the season finale. I’m predicting a 6-5 game with 30 saves. We’re due.