The NWSL final, soccer’s cruelty and the most D.C. finish ever

Most of the time, journalists are able to put aside personal sentiments in sports and just do their jobs. Most of the time.

Readers’ accusations of bias are usually wrong. I’ve been on a sports staff in which we were all accused of attending one or another of the local high schools, even though we all grew up elsewhere. That’s typical.

When I regularly covered MLS in my USA TODAY days, people assumed I was a D.C. United fan. I generally tried not to be, and I think I was successful. Sure, you’d prefer to have a playoff game to see without traveling, so it was in my own interest to see United make the final eight or 10 or 37 or however many teams get home playoff dates in MLS. But at every game I attended, I went to the visitors’ locker room. I wanted to know the whole league. I have more vivid memories of speaking with Landon Donovan and Jimmy Conrad than I have of talking with any D.C. United players.

And I had something less obvious tugging at me as a fan. Real Salt Lake represents one of my favorite places in the world, and for several years, they had two Duke grads in charge — Garth Lagerwey and Jason Kreis. I like Utah, I liked the team’s staff, and I liked the style of play. If RSL had faced DC in an MLS Cup final, I’m not sure which way I would’ve leaned.

I have other sports in which I’m content to be a fan and not a journalist. I had hockey-editing responsibility at USA TODAY for a couple of years, but since then, I’ve been able to be a Washington Capitals fan with my family. That means I really enjoy the regular season and then try to go into hiding in April.

My relationship with the Washington Spirit is unique. I wrote a book about their first season, and it certainly would’ve been better for book sales if they had (A) won a few games or (B) had something interesting to say about not winning a few games. It’s tempting to look back on that experience with a grimace and have no investment in how well they do.

But I can’t. I met too many great people in the process of writing that book. And the Spirit did a great job of getting out in the community — I’ve taken my kids to clinics and open practices, and I know people who’ve played or coached in their Super-Y youth system.

And that first season was a long run of calamities. No one deserved to go through all of that. Those players — and the staff and the incredible fans of the Spirit Squadron, who may be outnumbered by their Portland counterparts but more than hold their own in every other way — deserve some good fortune.

Not that I think fortunes ever even out in soccer. I’ve said it 100 times — soccer karma does not exist. I could break the WordPress servers with tales of woe from my youth soccer parenting and coaching experience, all of which makes me quite sympathetic to the 2013 Spirit (or the 2016 Breakers).

That said, two of my youth teams have won postseason tournaments after finishing near the bottom of the league. So I can also appreciate what Western New York did this year or what Sky Blue did in the 2009 WPS season. Sure, Seattle fans have a right to feel aggrieved by the eccentric NWSL schedule, which saw the Reign play Portland four times while the Flash beat up on the Breakers. But the Western New York youngsters put things together at the right time, and we reward that trait in American sports with good reason.

But I know that for every scrappy underdog that wins in the last minute, there’s a favorite that feels deflated.

And for those reasons, I’m glad I didn’t have to write anything in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s NWSL final, in which the Spirit gave up a goal in time that should not have existed. (I’m sorry — who adds four minutes of stoppage time to a 15-minute extra time session unless an ambulance was called onto the field?)

The final proof that soccer karma does not exist — the three players who missed penalties for the Spirit were the three players who have been with the team since its dreadful start in 2013. That’s actually enough to make you think there is someone up there pulling the strings to determine who wins what, and it’s someone with a sick sense of humor.

Also, we in the D.C. metro area have suffered quite enough, thank you. We’d all like to get rid of our local NFL team’s mascot and owner, though we’re sick of transplants to the region showing us up every Sunday wearing their Giants and Eagles gear. (We get it. You’re jerks. Thanks for reminding us.) D.C. United won a lot of trophies before Seattle and Portland invented soccer, so no one remembers. The one really good team in the D.C. area over the past 10 years has been the Washington Capitals, where Oveckhin, Backstrom and Holtby will break your hearts right around the peak viewing time for the cherry blossoms.

So to have a heavily favored team like the Spirit, with so much talent that Jim Gabarra was desperately trying to invent the 5-5-3 formation to play everyone, lose in the fashion they did is simply the most D.C. thing that could ever happen.

And so I’m heartsick for Tori Huster, who has made my kids smile at clinics and open practices. And for Diana Matheson, who exemplifies the polite, intellectual Canadian but is also a fierce competitor. And for Ali Krieger, who hasn’t always been at her best in her Spirit tenure but shut up her critics with an excellent season and strong commitment to the team. And for Joanna Lohman, who persevered through several Dark Ages of women’s soccer and suited up once upon a time for D.C. United Women, the amateur forerunners of today’s Spirit.

I sometimes wonder why I put up with this sport. Sunday’s game was excruciating to watch. The ref called the game as if he were paid by the whistle or by the minute — some clear-cut instances in which the advantage principle should’ve applied were interrupted instead, and as much as I hate seeing refs let “physical” play go, some of Sunday’s calls were baffling. I also saw yet another painful youth soccer game. And this year, the soccer Twitterati took a hateful turn that made the promotion/relegation wingnuts seem like Zen masters by comparison.

But …

Well, I haven’t come up with anything yet. But I’m sure I will. I don’t know if I’ll continue to be a fixture in the Spirit press tent, but I’ll still be going to games. I’ve used my new Sirius XM subscription to listen to Jason Davis and Eric Wynalda today, and I’m watching somebody play a World Cup qualifier now. I’m not even sure who it is.

Maybe that’s not healthy. That’s OK.

Besides, the saving grace of being a long-suffering soccer fan is the knowledge that others are suffering with you. And maybe celebrating on occasion. Or at least commiserating.