Mild, sunny weather. A couple thousand fans nearly filling the stands and spreading out over the hillside. Crystal Dunn creating chance after chance.
Washington Spirit fans had a lot to enjoy Saturday afternoon at the SoccerPlex. The result — a 2-0 win over Penn State — wasn’t particularly important, though longtime Spirit fans will be relieved to see the team no longer losing these preseason encounters with college squads. More important was the promise of quality play on a lovely spring day.
That said, it’s still a team in preseason, with a few things to iron out:
– New central defender Shelina Zadorsky gifted a chance to Penn State’s Frannie Crouse.
– Goalkeeper Kelsey Wys, keeping alive the Ashlyn Harris “keeper/sweeper” tradition, was caught out when Crouse got the ball and retreated, not quickly enough to do anything about the shot. Fortunately for her, Crouse’s chip hit the crossbar.
– Plenty of chances were created but not finished. Just a few moments of indecision from Francisca Ordega and rookie Cheyna Williams.
None of which should cause Jim Gabarra any real concern.
“It was really good that they were willing to press us and force us into mistakes,” the new Spirit coach said. “That’s how you learn, and in the first half, I thought we were cheating a little bit in our passing and our defensive spacing.”
Diana Matheson was in good form and good spirits, even if some ill-timed PA announcements ruined my recording of our interview. Let me check: “We have a new coach and staff, but I think they’ve worked to keep a lot of SEASON-TICKET HOLDERS, THE RED ZONE IS FOR LOADING AND UNLOADING ONLY continuity with what was working BE SURE TO HAVE YOUR WRISTBANDS AND DON’T LEAN ON THE RAILING keep possession and try to get that quality instead of rushing IF YOU ARE NOT HERE FOR THE MEET-AND-GREET, PLEASE GO TO RED ROBIN AND FORM A MASSIVE LINE …”
Crystal Dunn was happy with the chemistry she and Williams have already developed. That was evident on the first goal, right after halftime, with Williams getting to the end line and crossing back for Dunn to rip it into the net.
“The game kind of calmed down as it went on, and that made a difference,” Dunn said.
And yes, Gabarra is happy to be back in front of a big crowd at the SoccerPlex (it filled in considerably after this pregame picture), where he led the Washington Freedom for years.
“It’s great. Some things don’t change, and then there’s a lot of changes. Five years is a long time, but it’s still one of the best facilities in the country. Glad to be here and hopefully add some value to the club and get us to the next step.”
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.
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.
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.
Not to take anything away from Carli Lloyd, a clutch performer of the highest caliber and someone who has worked very hard to get where she is, but something was missing in the Sports Illustrated cover story on her after the World Cup.
If you have yet to read the story, the upshot is that she got really upset after being cut from a U.S. youth team, so her family turned her over to James Galanis, who made her a good player by essentially telling her to quit the rest of her life.
“Forget about friends, forget about family, forget about boyfriends,” Galanis told her. “If this isn’t No. 1, let’s just walk off the field right now. What I’m saying to you, Carli, is that at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, if I call you and say, ‘I’ll meet you at the field in half an hour,’ and you’re at a party with your friends, don’t tell me, ‘Sorry, Coach, I’m at a party.’ You’ll turn to your friends and say, ‘Sorry guys, I have to leave; I’m going to training.’ Do you understand the commitment here?”
We know hard work is part of world-class soccer. But there’s something else, something every bit as essential as running beep tests, maybe even more essential than ditching a party at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night because your private coach needs you right this very minute.
And like a lot of things in sports, that other essential thing can be found in an NSFW clip from Bull Durham:
Yes, fun. This game is supposed to be fun. FUN, BLEEP IT!
Who plays soccer and has fun? Megan Rapinoe, for one. She’s also the most creative player the U.S. women’s team has. That’s not coincidence.
Then there’s Crystal Dunn. If the USA wins the World Cup again in 2019 (FIXED from 2015 – see comments), maybe Dunn will get the nod for the big article, and we can hear how she streaked past a lot of dour German players for the winning goal. (Actually, that’s a stereotype — German legend Conny Pohlers is one of the funniest players I’ve ever encountered. But she’s retired.)
Dunn brought the fun to the SoccerPlex on Saturday night, tearing at the Seattle Reign’s back line and scoring a goal that looks like some sort of video game glitch in which a player suddenly zips from one part of the screen to the other:
The abrupt edit in that video doesn’t do justice to how quickly Dunn zipped past her defender to score that goal. It was as if a wormhole opened above the immaculate grass of the Maryland SoccerPlex just a few yards away from the beer garden.
“Oh sure, I’d have plenty of fun if I had wheels like Crystal Dunn,” you might say. But Dunn also plays a bit of joga bonito, the beautiful game. Look closely next time you see her with the ball, and you may see her make a subtle shift to unbalance her defender. Or she might put her foot on top of the ball as if she’s going to pull it back, only to slip it forward.
She’s got skills. And like an old-school soccer player who enjoys playing soccer, she likes to use them.
(Quick aside: Isn’t it funny that, for all the fuss over Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina program being behind the times and playing a physical brand of soccer while other college programs are focusing on soccer skills, three of the most skillful Americans — Dunn, Tobin Heath and Yael Averbuch — all played for Dorrance at UNC?)
And she’s a fun interview. She has a disarming self-effacing wit, joking about being caught offside so much. “I know I’m fast, but I just get so excited!” (I’m paraphrasing because my iPhone ate this interview. Bad, bad iPhone. Must have been worn out from all the tweeting I did on it while the Plex was Internet-less.)
Who else looks like she’s having fun out there? Diana Matheson. In her case, she’s just glad to be back after months of traumatic injuries. But she’s thrilled to be combining with Dunn as well.
Asked by Kevin Parker (@starcityfan) about that Spirit goal in which Matheson and Dunn took on four defenders, Matheson deflected all the praise to Dunn: “She probably took on three of them.”
Matheson also signed many, many autographs, as did many players. It was reminiscent of Abby Wambach after the 2011 World Cup, working her way through a line in Boston that snaked through the Harvard campus. Matheson didn’t mind, with one caveat:
“They were pushier, too. They were getting aggressive.”
So for the good of the fences at the SoccerPlex, maybe folks should back up a bit.
Other notes from the Spirit’s 3-0 win over Seattle:
– Seattle coach Laura Harvey’s comments could be summed up in three words: “We were poor.” She wasn’t angry, just stating the facts as she saw them.
– Washington coach Mark Parsons said he was wearing the same shirt he wore at the draft, when he also thought he got the better of Seattle and his good pal Harvey. My phone camera doesn’t do justice to how much he was sweating in that shirt on a steamy night at the Plex.
Parsons saw this game as a momentous achievement for the Spirit, stressing his respect for the Reign and Harvey. “Brave, intelligent and effort made that a complete performance. We’ve been striving to play soccer defensively like that, being hard to beat, hard to break down. … Offensively, we want to be a team that can build patient and can break and counter. I’ve said for a while until we beat a top team playing this style, we’re always going to fighting to get there. Tonight, we got there.”
– Speaking of the draft and the defense — at some point, those of us who cover the Spirit need to write about those players. Seattle’s Kim Little had her moments, but second-round pick Megan Oyster and fourth-rounder Whitney Church slammed the door on the top-scoring team in the league, and it’s no fluke. They’re only getting better. Estelle Johnson and Katherine Reynolds provide the experience, and now Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris are coming back into the lineup. The defense hasn’t often been seen as the Spirit’s strength, but we might need to rethink that perception.
– Women’s pro soccer SoccerPlex record 5,413 saw the game. The Spirit should probably take a page out of the Freedom’s book and put some concessions and portable toilets on the far side of the field as well when they’re expecting a crowd of that size. The concourse was borderline impassable at halftime, and I’m sure much of the crowd missed the first Spirit goal less than a minute into the second half.
What’s changed for the Washington Spirit this season? It’s pretty simple. Goals.
Never before had the Spirit scored three goals in a half. Only once last season did they have three or more in a game. Tonight, they had three in the first half and held on to beat FC Kansas City 3-1.
We can’t read too much into one game. Sometimes those shots go in, sometimes they don’t. The first goal was the result of a fortunate bounce toward Diana Matheson and a little deflection — exactly the sort of goal Mike Jorden often hoped for but never saw in his tenure as Spirit coach.
Maybe on another night, Ashlyn Harris isn’t in the superior form she showed tonight. Or Lauren Holiday is slightly more clinical in her finishing. Or soccer karma (which doesn’t exist) doesn’t help Harris make the big PK save on Holiday after a dubious penalty call.
FCKC outshot the Spirit 17-7. They had nine corner kicks to the Spirit’s zero. Three of the Spirit’s shots went in; another was saved only by the grace of Becky Sauerbrunn, KC’s best player on the evening.
“We had the better of the game, I thought,” KC’s Amy Rodriguez said. “We had the chances — we just didn’t convert them.”
“We can look good and play the beautiful game, but if you can’t put the ball in the net, nothing else matters,” KC coach Vlatko Andonovski said after graciously congratulating the Spirit.
It won’t be like this every game. But there’s one thing that has substantially changed for the Spirit:
My goodness, this rookie can play. She just gets the ball at her feet and drives straight at older, bigger defenders, usually with good results. Twice, the ball wound up at Matheson’s feet, and the Canadian sparkplug didn’t miss. Another time, she got past defender Kassey Kallman, who was forced to haul her down to set up a free kick and a yellow card.
I counted one mistake — a giveaway midway through the first half. She turned around and got it back.
She was supposed to be working her way back to match fitness, not playing the full 90. But there she was, in the inexplicably long second-half stoppage time, making a diagonal run across the field that killed off much of the remaining time. After the game, she hopped up into the stands to take a selfie with one of her many admirers. She looked like she could play another 90.
“I’m glad I look like I could run 90,” Dunn said with a laugh. “I felt great out there. Going into this game, I thought I was only going to play 75. But I’ve got a full game under my belt, and I’m ready for the next one.”
Dunn and Matheson lined up on the wings and shifted back and forth a bit. Good luck dealing with that, NWSL defenses.
The Spirit have a few leaks at the back. The center backs lost track of Holiday and company more than once as they tried to play a high line — a tactic they wisely abandoned as the game wore on. Good thing Tori Huster and Toni Pressley have recovery speed and a lot of heart. Tonight, it wasn’t costly except for one lapse in which Rodriguez was able to pounce on her own rebound after a strong Harris save. And they blocked a lot of shots — Parsons said Robyn Gayle took three shots to the face. Probably feels better after a win.
The center midfield — Lori Lindsey playing in front of Yael Averbuch and Christine Nairn — was solid, and Nairn scored the third goal on a gorgeous bending free kick to the same upper corner in which Matheson drilled her second goal.
So let’s say it one last time — games aren’t always going to go this way for the Spirit. But with Harris, Dunn and Matheson providing the highlights for a team with much more experience and depth than the 2013 Spirit, the good games shouldn’t be as far between this time around.
“The players decided to put a flag on this stadium and say we’re not going to get rolled over,” Spirit coach Mark Parsons said. “One of the players spoke about putting a flag down and make sure when people come here, they’re not just looking at the pitch going, ‘What a great field, we can’t wait to knock it about.’ It’s ‘We’ve got to play the Spirit tonight. They’re going to kick the crap out of us at every opportunity. They’re not going to stop running.'”
Rodriguez on playing after pregnancy and childbirth: “I didn’t think it was going to be this difficult. I’m working my way back. I feel like I’m not quite 100%. …
(I asked: Did Joy Fawcett make it look too easy?)“She did. They didn’t warn me at all. I give a lot of respect and credit to those girls who’ve had children and come back.”
Speaking of soccer-playing parents …
Confirmed: Tonight's goal is Christie Rampone's first in professional club play. Three years in WUSA, three years in WPS, plus 2013 in #NWSL
Sauerbrunn, less impressed with her game than I was: “Unfortunately, I’m going to take a lot of responsibility for the goals the other team scored, so I’m going to say (her save and her saving tackle on Lindsey) were neutralized.”
Harris on her PK save: I’ll have to upload the audio on this conversation to do justice to Harris’ outstanding comic timing.
UPDATE:As promised, here’s the audio of Harris on saving a PK after Rodriguez fell in the box.