Washington Spirit report: Pretty good for preseason

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.

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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.”

‘Enduring Spirit’ epilogue: Thoughts from Diana Matheson

Here’s proof, once again, that soccer karma doesn’t exist:

Through the Spirit office, I asked several players (not all, so don’t go accusing people) a few follow-up questions about the 2014 season, thinking I would publish a short epilogue to the tale of their 2013 season, Enduring Spirit. The epilogue didn’t come to pass, and I wound up passing along what I had gathered in a blog post providing a snapshot of the team at a late-season practice.

The one player who responded was Diana Matheson. And now she’s hurt. Again — no such thing as soccer karma.

She responded before she was injured, which just goes to show how negligent I’ve been in posting her comments. I figured the least I could do was go ahead and post them here with apologies for being so late. I really appreciate her taking the time she did here and over the past two seasons with the Spirit, and I think all women’s soccer fans are rooting for her to recuperate in time for the World Cup.

Enjoy …

1. What was different this season compared to last year? (Besides the record!)

This season had a very different feel in almost every way. We knew from the beginning that we were a team that could compete with any other team in the league and we put higher expectations on ourselves. We had a more experienced group and every player brought their own professionalism to the club.

2. Were practices different with more veterans and few rookies on the roster?

I think training was overall at a higher level than last year. I think that speaks to a different group of players and also the fact that Mark had us for the whole year.

3. Who was the most improved player on the team from 2013 to 2014?

I’m not sure who the most improved player is, but the most unsung player on the team both seasons for me has been Tori Huster. She does the job in any position she’s asked to play.

4. Did you feel in 2013 that defenses were focused on shutting you down, figuring that you didn’t have much help on offense? Was it different in 2014 when Jodie Taylor established herself as a goal-scorer?

It was a lot of fun playing with players like Jodie Taylor this year. I think we had a good connection on the field and we worked well together. It’s always good to have many people scoring goals, which we were glad to have this year.

5. Did Rapinoe foul Toni Pressley when she swiped the ball for the winning goal in the semifinal?

Don’t know.

6. I know your living arrangement changed this year. Where were you?

I was in a townhouse with Robyn, Danesha and Jodie. Robyn and I both missed Ingleside at King Farm and we went to visit our friends a few times for lunch or dinner throughout the season. It was nice to be in a more independent living situation with our peers as well!

Washington Spirit vs. FC Kansas City: Goal rush

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:

Crystal Dunn.

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.'”

MISCELLANY

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 …

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.

Washington Spirit vs. Western NY Flash: Dan Borislow was wrong

Those of you who recall WPS may remember that Dan Borislow was an immense supporter of U.S. national team players. Other players, not so much. The idea of fans cheering for anyone other than Abby Wambach almost struck him as repugnant.

I never asked Borislow how much WPS he watched before buying the team formerly known as the Washington Freedom. He would have seen ample evidence that fans can embrace players who aren’t the U.S. stars. Washington’s crowd favorites included those who had put down roots with the organization (Rebecca Moros) and those from overseas (Sonia Bompastor).

Tonight proved the point once again. The fans turned up and screamed for Abby. By the end, they were also screaming for the home team, which got a late penalty kick and another 1-1 draw.

Make no mistake — Abby Wambach gave a complete demonstration of why she’s a star, and I don’t just mean the time she intimidated the experienced international referee Kari Seitz into blowing a whistle on a questionable call. (No such luck when she sprinted 80 yards, the fastest Wambach sprint I’ve ever seen, to complain about the PK call in the Spirit’s favor. Strange thing to do when you’re not even the captain.)

Wambach won balls in the air, as you’d expect. Someone a couple of seats away from me marveled at her accuracy and precision. Put the ball near her head, and she’ll flick it to a teammate in a good spot. I’m not sure TV does any justice to this remarkable skill.

She had her chances, too. One clanged off the crossbar. Another produced a jaw-dropping save from national teammate Ashlyn Harris. (Note to self: We forgot to ask Harris about that play in postgame, so remember to ask her some other time how the hell she managed to keep that ball out.)

So let’s spare a thought for Washington’s Tori Huster, who has drawn the most difficult and thankless job in women’s soccer aside from explaining it to Sepp Blatter. The midfielder had never played center back before preseason. Tonight, she spent 90 minutes going up against Abby Wambach. And she deflected praise for keeping Wambach scoreless on the season: “I know that I have the girls around me that will cover me.”

Wambach did get an assist, as Ashlyn Harris confirmed. A long Flash free kick floated into the box, and Wambach ever so slightly nudged it with her head. Sam Kerr was equal parts lucky and good, knocking it in as Harris scrambled to cover the post.

That was in the 85th minute. Shortly thereafter, the Spirit got a call in their favor, as Jasmyne Spencer fell in the box. Some Twitsters say dive. The Flash folks in the postgame interview wondered if the ball was too far away from Spencer. Come on — she’s Jasmyne Spencer. If the ball’s on the playing surface, she can get to it.

Adrianna Franch, the terrific young Flash goalkeeper, guessed correctly. But Diana Matheson placed it perfectly.

And the crowd went wild.

That’s a crowd of 4,569, packed into the Soccerplex stands and grass. The beer garden was full. The hill under the beer garden was full. And maybe a few fans showed up knowing no one but Abby Wambach, then learned to love some of the home team’s players.

Matheson continues to be one of the best players on the field, looking dangerous whenever she gets the ball. Ali Krieger gets forward to join the attack, then returns for timely defensive interventions. Lori Lindsey was an effective midfield general tonight.

Both teams will be better by summer. Good plays alternated with miscommunications. The young Spirit attack had an off night, though Stephanie Ochs had an entertaining battle all evening with right back/team president Alex Sahlen. Harris spoke frankly about her need to keep yelling to keep her young teammates dialed in. (If Harris switched to MMA and fought Ronda Rousey, I think Rousey would get her in an armbar, only to relinquish it in fear of Harris’s wrath.)

But this was a great night. The fans came out in strong numbers and got a dramatic, entertaining game.

Just one thing marred the evening. Around the 90th minute, a hard-struck ball nailed Wambach in the head. She slowly got up and kept playing hard all through stoppage time, but at the final whistle, she needed help. Diagnosing head injuries from afar is a stupid and pointless thing to do, but we can only hope she heals fully and quickly.

The Flash were the first team to play the Spirit in the Soccerplex, and they’ll be the first team to play here twice, returning in June. Maybe Wambach will get some time to spend with the fans then. And maybe the fans will know more of their Spirit team, which is proving to be more resilient and dangerous than the preseason prognosticators imagined.