Big heart makes women’s soccer special

Yes, women’s soccer can be frustrating. Two U.S. leagues have disappeared in the past 12 years, and the third is redefining “low profile.” Fans (and sometimes players) argue on social media about the strangest stuff. (This 18-month-old Alex Morgan dis was favorited tonight.) The U.S. national team sometimes looks like it was selected five years ago — the tactics sometimes look as if they were drawn up 15 years ago.

Let’s forget all that for a minute and back up.

 

One bias I’ve always had is for the players who fought their way through the Dark Ages of the mid-2000s. Kevin Parker wrote about the ones who passed through Washington, and Jen Cooper covered it in her Mixxed Zone podcast about “the 99ers and the 90 percent.” The “90 percent” refers to the players who aren’t national team stars but make a pro league competitive, providing challenges that the national team players need to stay sharp. And without them, you don’t have local teams that give fans a chance to see these players in person more than once every couple of years.

Some players don’t have a sense of that shared struggle. Some do. Tonight at the SoccerPlex, they did.

Start with the autographs. I don’t really “get” autographs, to be honest, and I’ve seen a few fans who are a little too demanding, insulting players who aren’t the big stars. But you have to be impressed when players sign for as many fans as possible, trying to make that connection. Tonight, Carli Lloyd from the visiting Dash signed a lot. So did Meghan Klingenberg. So did Spirit stars like Ashlyn Harris and, I think, Ali Krieger.

Lloyd even signed one of the cockroach banners the Spirit Squadron held up in reference to … something I missed on Twitter. I didn’t quite get it, but Lloyd did.

Then there’s this:

Typo in Jen’s tweet — she has ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Lloyd did indeed make time to go over to see her. So did Krieger.

But this fan got much more. As Spirit players left the field one by one, they went over to her. She wound up with as many eight players at a time all chatting with her. She may not have full control over her body any more, but she had a huge smile.

The Spirit players got her up out of her chair for a picture. Then Crystal Dunn, all five-foot-nothing of her, carefully placed her back in the chair before everyone started smiling and laughing again. If laughter’s the best medicine, then this woman is going to pull a Stephen Hawking and live with ALS for decades to come.

In case you forgot, Dunn also did this tonight …

And she scored twice more in the 3-1 win, including a header off a corner kick. Again, she is not tall.

Back to the postgame — I’m in awe of athletes and other celebrities who meet ailing people. Imagine what it’s like to be presented with a person who has been told he or she might live much longer. Now you’re responsible for creating a magical moment. No pressure.

When you see the way these players interact with fans, you see how special they are in ways beyond their skills. It’s almost unfair that these people who have been blessed with talent and determination also have the social graces and kind hearts to make others feel special as well.

And you can see it in how they interact with each other. Houston defender Niki Cross played her final game tonight, and in deference to the time she spent with the Spirit, she was honored with a pregame bouquet courtesy of Ashlyn Harris, who has been close with Cross since they were teammates in the early days of WPS. Fans chanted her name when she came onto the field as a second-half sub.

So women’s soccer is in that sweet spot right now — popular enough to have sought-after stars but still maintaining a sense that we’re all in this together.

You may not guess it from Twitter, but I’m an optimist. I think women’s soccer can maintain this spirit even as the sport matures and the mainstream media picks up the tactical and technical debates the hard-core fans and bloggers are doing now.

The players can handle it. They want to be pros. They deserve to be pros. They deserve the attention not just of the autograph hounds or the pundits who turn up out of the woodwork every four years, but the everyday sports fan.

So I left the SoccerPlex feeling pretty good about the sport. Both teams played dynamic, attacking soccer. They didn’t take advantage of the referee’s lack of attention. It was a great show with a wonderful display of heart.

Tomorrow, we’ll get back to the criticism and debate. It’s all meant to be constructive. We all care. We all see something special in this sport, and tonight reminded us why.

 

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U.S. women in the World Cup semifinals: Decisions, decisions

Jill Ellis made three lineup changes for Friday’s quarterfinal win against China, two out of necessity. The result: Still just a 1-0 win against a team that had little attacking punch, but the team looked better and felt better.

And it was the kind of performance U.S. fans had wanted to see. Amy Rodriguez was buzzing around making things difficult for China, Alex Morgan was a looming threat, and Carli Lloyd was unleashed. Not that the trio was perfect — A-Rod shanked a great chance like a beginning golfer, Morgan didn’t quite have the scoring touch, and Lloyd had a few giveaways. But this was not the lumbering attack we had seen in the past. Abby Wambach gave some inspiration from the bench and was ready to go if needed.

Then two players stepped up in surprising roles. The versatile Kelley O’Hara was a menace on the flanks, and young Morgan Brian looked like a composed veteran in a holding midfield role.

So now what? What happens when the USA takes a giant leap up in competition from a young, easily rattled Chinese team to a ruthlessly efficient German team that absorbed a couple of hours of French pressure and fought back to win?

Player-by-player:

Rodriguez: Did the German defense look a step slow against France? If so, they could be tailor-made for the speedy A-Rod. Then again, Sydney Leroux has some wheels, too.

Morgan: You just sense that it’s coming, don’t you? She made pivotal plays against Colombia and has the potential to create something magical.

Wambach: She may have another clutch goal left on her head or in her feet. She’d be perfect to bring in against a tired German defense in the second half.

Megan Rapinoe: Has to play. She’s the most creative winger the USA has.

Lloyd: Has to play in the same role she played last night. Don’t forget who scored the winning goals in the last two Olympics, and she scored again last night.

Brian: Clearly the best option at holding mid now. Lori Chalupny can play there at club level, but she hasn’t been tested there at international level in a long, long time.

Lauren Holiday: Unfortunate. She was miscast as a holding mid for months, and now it might be too late to get her back on the field in another role such as attacking mid or second forward. But we would’ve said the same about O’Hara before last night, right?

Tobin Heath: Just isn’t turning those nifty moves into anything concrete right now.

O’Hara: Maybe the best option on the right flank? Her pressure, passing and willingness to test China with an occasional medium-range bomb were outstanding last night.

Christen Press: Can she bring the same tempo-changing ability as A-Rod?

The defense isn’t in question — Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger have been so outstanding that we often forget Hope Solo is even playing.

So those five are sure starters, and I’d add Rapinoe, Lloyd and Brian to that list. Everything else is up for grabs.

Here’s one reasonable lineup that builds on last night’s success:

football formations

And here’s one that’s a little wilder:

football formations

But I’m not sure Ellis needs to do anything that drastic. She has already shown the flexibility for which I was pleading at SoccerWire. They did not play “Whack it to Wambach” for 90 minutes last night.

And as a result, I’ve gone from thinking Germany is a sure bet to thinking we may see an epic on Tuesday.

Western New York Flash make their own luck in loss to Spirit

Soccer karma does not exist, most of us have agreed. But can a team make its own luck?

Saturday at the SoccerPlex looked like a typical Washington Spirit game against the Western New York Flash for 45 minutes. The Spirit had a few promising moments — one difference from previous engagements would be the world-class goal from Jodie Taylor that gave the Spirit the lead. But the Flash led 2-1, and it could’ve been more.

In the second half, the Flash either forgot or declined to play soccer. They looked less like the Flash playing the Spirit and more like the Virginia Beach Piranhas bringing their “physical” presence against D.C. United Women.

Stating for the record: The Flash are not a dirty team. But it’s still stunning to watch a team riddled with world-class players and a history of accomplishment come in against the Washington Spirit and foul out of frustration and retaliation. Their petulance — and what coach Aaran Lines described as an inability to string three passes together — was costly.

And the Spirit made their own luck as well. A couple of tactical adjustments gave the home team quite a bit more of the ball, and they dominated the second half to a greater degree than the Flash dominated the first. Final score: 3-2 Spirit.

That’s a confidence-booster for the hosts. Jodie Taylor finally got her goals — two, nearly four. Yael Averbuch played her best game for the Spirit. Lori Lindsey got an extended run and fared well. Robyn Gayle defended well and was close to a goal and an assist. Ali Krieger did just fine at center back.

Referee Katja Koroleva had a puzzler, often allowing outright muggings while punishing the odd single-handed shove. Lines wasn’t happy: “The referee was inconsistent, regardless of the result. But that seems to be a tendency within the NWSL.”

But the Flash simply forced Koroleva to blow her whistle. She went nearly 45 minutes without calling anything on the Flash, but some fouls were just too obvious.

Here’s the video, and here’s how it unfolded:

FIRST HALF

6:15 –  Big flurry for the Flash as Ashlyn Harris can’t hold a hard shot.

7:15 – Hard sliding foul from Spirit defender Bianca Sierra on Sonia Bermudez. Sierra started at right back, with Ali Krieger going to the center to replace the injured Toni Pressley.

8:15 – Spirit midfielder Veronica Perez goes hard for a 50-50 ball, banging into the midsection of a Flash player.

8:20 – To paraphrase The Untouchables, she sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of hers to the morgue. The Flash’s Carli Lloyd clobbers Christine Nairn, who gets up and looks back as if to say “What the …?” Danielle Malagari, the Spirit’s color commentator, goes out on a limb and predicts a physical game.

But that’s the last foul called on the Flash in the first half.

10:35 –  Lori Lindsey sends a well-weighted ball ahead to Jodie Taylor, who finishes with a world-class chip. 1-0 Spirit.

12:55 – Adriana hits the crossbar for the Flash.

16:35 – The camera doesn’t quite catch the dubious decision involving Tori Huster, a required part of every Spirit game. Abby Wambach flings the Spirit defender to the grass like a Nickelodeon game show contestant ridding herself of slime.

16:55 – The unlucky Huster finds herself isolated against Wambach in acres of space, and Wambach simply heads exactly where she wanted it to go. 1-1.

19:00 – The crowd doesn’t like an offside call that nullified yet another Taylor goal. Replay is inconclusive.

29:25 – Lloyd wins a duel with Huster, then beats Krieger and Harris while avoiding Gayle. 2-1 Flash.

34:20 – Lloyd takes a knock to the eye or nose when she tangles with Averbuch. Hard to see what happened, but no one complains.

HALFTIME

Flash coach Aaran Lines was pleased with how the first half proceeded. But oddly enough, so were the Spirit players and coaches.

“We were really happy at halftime,” Spirit coach Mark Parsons said. “Really positive at halftime despite being 2-1 down.”

Parsons made a couple of changes. Krieger was already at center back, replacing the injured Toni Pressley. At right back, Sierra started but gave way at halftime to the small Swiss Army knife that is Crystal Dunn, who shifted back from midfield with the intent of containing Bermudez, a Flash’s Spanish international.

And the Spirit merely brought on one of the best players in the sport, Diana Matheson, who sat out the first half and spent halftime jogging and smiling at the parade of ODSL youth players being honored for sportsmanship. You have to hope they didn’t get any ideas from what they saw in the second half.

“We came out the second half and we were really flat,” Wambach said. “Credit to the Spirit for making changes and making life difficult for us on the other side of the ball. To be honest, the second half, we were defending the whole game.”

So the Flash tried to make life as difficult for the Spirit as the officials would allow. Matheson stepped into a hornet’s nest, credited with two fouls suffered but roughed up much more often than that.

SECOND HALF

55:25 – Save, Abby Wambach

56:05 – Lloyd clatters into Matheson from behind, drawing a whistle and some words from the ref.

64:30 – Lloyd gives a little “Who, me?” look after getting a little bit (not much) of Dunn’s foot along with the ball.

68:15 – Kristen Edmonds drapes an arm over Matheson and brings her down. Foul and a lecture.

69:15 – Gayle nutmegs a defender. Cross is partially cleared to Yael Averbuch, who beats Lloyd and shoots. Deflected, then Taylor fires up off the crossbar. Bounces off Kat Williamson’s back and in. 2-2.

72:45 – It’s nothing, really, but it’s funny to see Wambach reaching out to grab Matheson like she’s swatting at a fly. Just a slight size difference there.

73:05 – Harris comes out for the second time in a minute to deny an onrushing Flash attacker — Salem this time, Spencer earlier.

73:30 – Nairn shoots high while Lloyd slides through her legs. No whistle.

74:10 – Salem gets the yellow, again for a foul on the unfortunate Nairn.

77:05 – Nairn suffers another foul. And that eventually leads to …

77:30 – Averbuch flicks a header, Taylor finishes. 3-2

85:05 – Gayle seems to be attempting to jump OVER former teammate Jasmyne Spencer. Not quite. Ref starts to play advantage but then calls it back.

85:35 – The Wambach-Huster incident (replay at 87:15). We’ll come back to this.

89:05 – Ref doesn’t think Angeli fouled Lloyd

90:15 – Spirit commentator Michael Minnich isn’t imagining things. The sign on the fourth official’s table says “3.” But by the time he actually raises it, it says “5.” (No, there wasn’t a sub wearing No. 3.)

91:55 – Maybe this is karma. The call for a corner kick is clearly wrong. Harris sets up for a goal kick. What you don’t see is a very confused ballgirl. Then Harris makes a save off the corner kick. The rebound … goes wide.

93:45 – Hey, Spirit? Need help killing those five minutes? Sure — I’ll just slide through the back of Renae Cuellar here, drawing my second yellow, and I’ll be slow to get up while the ref holds my red card.

Lines faulted his player, Angela Salem, not the ref. “At that point in the game, to see Ang go in was unfortunate.”

But that was the story of the second half for the Flash. They played nothing that really resembled soccer.

Malagari, sometime in the second half: “I think the Flash have kind of dug themselves a hole here. They’re kind of playing, I personally think, for blood a little bit. The fouls have been pretty dangerous in and around their own 18.”

We can’t let the game go without mentioning the Wambach-Huster incident at the end. While Harris calmly collected the ball, Wambach raced past Huster. From the replay, it appears Huster was actually turning her body out of Wambach’s way. And still, they bumped into each other — in the same way that my car recently bumped into a concrete wall in a parking garage.

Did Huster embellish her fall? Hard to say. But from one reliable reporter on the sideline, Wambach didn’t exactly deny making contact:

https://twitter.com/hobwriter/status/467820819994136576

I thought at first Cynthia was kidding, like I was kidding last summer when I suggested what Alex Morgan could be saying and unleashed the wrath of Morgan’s Twitter followers on myself. Cynthia says no.

Tori, care to comment?

“Not really,” she said. “Just gotta leave that kind of stuff on the field. It gets heated. There’s not really not much to say.”

Rough game, though, right?

“They are definitely intense,” Huster said. “They can move the ball around, but they have that grit to them. So we were definitely trying to prepare for that in the week leading up. We knew we had to get stuck in the first five minutes and impose our rhythm.”

As she left, I reminded her to tend to the blood on her left wrist. Not sure how she got that.

Matheson was diplomatic. “They’re definitely a physical team. Lloyd and Wambach always come to battle. But in this league, every team is a physical team, so I don’t think it’s too different.”

But that physicality can be self-defeating. Look at the second half, and it seems the Flash literally took their eyes off the ball.