Spirit, Reign play a legitimately entertaining soccer game

Things didn’t bode well Saturday. Traffic heading up the Beltway to Maryland was worse than usual. The SoccerPlex didn’t have its usual Ben & Jerry’s cart — Yom Kippur apparently kept the proprietor away.

And Seattle’s Jess Fishlock, simultaneously one of the most inspirational and infuriating players in women’s soccer, started the game by clattering into Washington’s Mallory Pugh, the type of foul that does nothing other than send an early message.

Then a funny thing happened. An actual soccer game broke out. Free-flowing. Long strings of passes. Good runs.

For Spirit fans, it looked a bit like 2016 all of a sudden, with Pugh replacing Crystal Dunn and Meggie Dougherty Howard replacing everyone else. The two rookies carved up the Seattle defense with incisive passes en route to a 2-0 lead.

But the defense certainly isn’t last year’s defense. The Reign got back into the game as Spirit defenders kept whiffing on clearances. It’s the SoccerPlex — a terrific playing surface on which the Spirit play every home game. They should be used to it.

And credit to the Reign. They were pressing. They didn’t want their season to end on a loss. And coach Laura Harvey told us after the game, incongruously given her giddiness after Seattle’s 3-2 win, that she had reminded players at halftime they were playing for their jobs.

So were the Spirit players. Looking ahead to next season, they’ll build around their two sensational rookies from opposite ends of the hype meter — national teamer Pugh, who skipped out on UCLA to go pro early, and third-round pick Dougherty Howard. Of the other 11 Spirit players to appear in the game, who’s guaranteed to return next year? Probably captain Shelina Zadorsky and original Spirit player Tori Huster, who can surely play for the Spirit as long as she wants. Anyone else?

It’s not that the players are particularly bad. As a whole, even with a viable starting XI on the injury report, Washington had a competitive team this season. It’s strange to say for a last-place team, but they overachieved. If you’d told me before the season they’d have this many injuries but would still win five games (two more than the disastrous 2013 season) and score 30 goals (more than Kansas City, Boston and Houston, and only three less than playoff-bound Chicago), I’d have said that’s impossible.

The defense, though, needs to be addressed. I don’t want to speculate on whether Stephanie Labbe will be back in goal for the Spirit — I simply hope she’s happy and healthy. Zadorsky is generally solid, and Estelle Johnson was having a career year until her injury. Other than that, it’s simply not a reliable group of players for this level.

They’ll surely draft Andi Sullivan, who could slot in at center back alongside Zadorsky. But she can have a bigger impact in midfield.

They can’t just draft a bunch of defenders with their surplus of picks and see who emerges. The Spirit have enough youth. If they want their rebuilding project to be 1-2 years instead of 3-4, they need to make a trade or a sign a big-time free agent.

But there’s time enough to deal with that. Tonight, it seems most NWSL fans got an entertaining sendoff to the regular season, a nice change of pace from what’s been a lackluster season marked by cynical play that the referees refuse to stop.

Whatever you think of the Spirit, let’s hope tonight’s slate of games was a nice harbinger of things to come next year.

 

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