Washington Spirit 0-1 FC Kansas City: History and repeating

Something new: Mallory Pugh became the first U.S. teenager in the NWSL and, as far as I know, the first U.S. teenager in a pro women’s soccer league.

Something old: The Spirit couldn’t turn their chances into a goal, losing 1-0 for the third time in four home games.

In most respects, though, both teams exceeded my expectations. Maybe I’m just getting old and pessimistic. But the Spirit’s oft-sputtering offense created some chances even without Tori Huster in the midfield to drive them forward. The defense had nowhere to go but up after conceding six in Seattle, but they went beyond “avoiding catastrophe” to “limiting chances.” FCKC’s defense is simply superb, and the offense capitalized on its one good chance.

“We’ve been working all week on getting in the box and finding space,” Newfield said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Syd claims she flicked it over to me on purpose.”

When told Opta had ruled later in the game that Leroux would get an assist on the play, Newfield quipped, “They must have heard her talking at halftime then.”

The Spirit had a few good chances, but two weeks after her offensive explosion against Sky Blue, Francisca Ordega’s touch deserted her. Cheyna Williams got into good spots but shot straight at Nicole Barnhart multiple times. The best chances were from Kristie Mewis — the first after Arielle Ship’s slick move on the left …

… the second on a free kick …

… and another on a free kick.

Unfortunately for Mewis and the Spirit, Becky Sauerbrunn is apparently psychic and had positioned herself right where that ball was going to go.

“When (Nicole Barnhart) was setting the wall, I asked, ‘Do you want me to come back?'” Sauerbrunn said. “She said yeah. Literally, I was trucking back, and Kristie Mewis nailed it off my chest.”

Was that how you drew it up, Vlatko Andonovski?

“I’m gonna say that I was happy with the restarts.”

First time I’ve talked with the FCKC coach after a win. He’s amusing.

And KC needed this. They have playoff potential as usual, but five points in five games won’t cut it.

Andonovski insists that they’re not just going Route 1 to Leroux.

“We were changing it as the game was going on. Sometimes we were a little more possession-oriented and looking for those gaps and opportunities, and sometimes we were direct. We were going to take what they give us. When they put pressure on us and overload numbers in our defensive third, we had to go over the top and find the runners. Then there were times they were sitting a little bit lower, and we started building it from the back.”

Besides, direct play gets a bad rap at times. If someone can whack a 50-yard diagonal ball that sends Leroux into a foot race against a terrified defender, that’s worth trying a few times a game, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, the Spirit’s ambitions are going to be a bit lower this season. Before the rash of injuries, they were a long shot to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Now? Nearly impossible.

But tonight’s game gave a few glimpses of potential. Cheyna Williams just seems to be a touch or two away from having that breakout second season that so many NWSL attackers have. When healthy, Mewis and Huster are a powerful midfield engine.

And that new kid out on the left wing in the second half looked pretty good, too. I wonder if Jill Ellis, who was sitting right in front of the pressbox, happened to catch her name.

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.'”


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. FC Kansas City: Meet the new boss

A promising performance against a talented team. A second-half setback. Then a controversial call late, with Diana Matheson stepping up to convert the penalty kick.

That was the Washington Spirit’s April 20 game against Western New York. And it happened again last night against FC Kansas City.

So in a sense, the Spirit has simply gotten back to where it was at the beginning of the season. But after a five-game losing streak and scoreless streak, it feels like progress.

And it is, in many ways, a different Spirit team. Not just on the sidelines, where new coach Mark Parsons keeps up a constant stream of instructions in sharp contrast to the laid-back Mike Jorden.

– Candace Chapman is finally healthy, and she and Toni Pressley had a strong game in central defense.

– Conny Pohlers, in her first home game, had trouble getting the ball where she wanted it. But she showed her quality a few times and had a terrific shot off a nifty combination with Matheson. (Nicole Barnhart wasn’t awarded a save on the play, and it’s tough to see on the video, but people who saw it from different angles say Barnhart seemed to get a touch on it. The Spirit did get a corner kick, and KC didn’t argue.)

– The late tactical switches were creative. With Pohlers tiring, Parsons didn’t go for the obvious substitution of bringing in a fresh forward like Jasmyne Spencer. He sent in Kika Toulouse, who appeared in her usual outside back spot but also ran around up front. At the same time, Ali Krieger was pushed forward into midfield, to the delight of the Internet’s “Krieger to midfield” activists. (We didn’t see this formation long enough to evaluate it, which Parsons noted afterwards.)

– Colleen Williams, the only Spirit player other than the recently added and recently injured Lupita Worbis not to start a game under Mike Jorden, started this one and drew a nice roar from the crowd upon her introduction.

– The Spirit possessed the ball and had some creativity in the attack. I’d love to see passing stats for this one.

– Matheson has never taken a penalty kick quite like she did last night, chipping it down the middle (Panenka is the official slang term) as Nicole Barnhart sprawled to one side. (Yes, we asked Matheson. No, the shot was not “rifled” into the net. Not sure who gave the KC Star reporter that impression, but take a look at the video, which was indeed up and running at that moment.)

So despite the similarities between this game and the Spirit in April, the “fresh start” mantra has some validity. Parsons conceded that the team knew it might take a couple of games to get going, and he regarded this point as “a bonus.”

Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski might refer to it as “bogus.” He told the assembled media, “We can play against the team but not against the referees.” And he hoped referees watch game tape like coaches do.

The YouTube video, unfortunately, cut out when Tiffany McCarty was or was not fouled inside or outside the box. Maybe that explains why, on my way out of the SoccerPlex, a man in an FC Kansas City shirt raced up to me and asked if the people who do the game filming were still around. I told him I didn’t know, so he kept sprinting.

(UPDATE: The Spirit’s highlight package includes the play in question. UPDATE 2: I’ve fixed the link, thanks to the alert from Kevin Parker, who has a game recap with a photo that may prove the call was legit.)

Not sure he got to the film in time, but Andonovski did expound a bit more to the KC Star, saying McCarty may or may not have been fouled but definitely outside the box. “I don’t the referee was in a good position,” he said.

And he reiterated: “We can’t compete against the referees.”

Spirit fans might say, “Well, neither can we.” The referee didn’t blow her whistle very often, letting KC get away with mauling Pohlers. And for some reason, Tori Huster gets flattened once a game with no call. The Spirit was long overdue for some karmic payback for a lot of things this season. (Matheson, for the record, said the PK call was legit, though gutsy.)

And if soccer karma actually exists, then maybe FC Kansas City won’t have anything nasty happen in the playoffs in which they will certainly participate. They’re a terrific team, even without Player of the Month Lauren Cheney (or Holiday?) in the lineup.

Soccer karma would also say a 1-1 result here was just. Kansas City created chances, most of them through speedy and shifty winger Merritt Mathias, but Ashlyn Harris had one of her quieter games for the Spirit. (The stats are deceiving.)

Now the Spirit have to deal with another bit of bad luck — the schedule, which gave the team a three-week break but now gives them five games in 17 days. Somewhere along the way, the Spirit may take another step backward. But the busy schedule also gives them an opportunity to take another step or two forward.

Washington Spirit vs. Kansas City: Time to patch things up

On the surface, the Washington Spirit’s 2-0 loss at Kansas City doesn’t look horrible. Playing without five injured players, with one center back still adjusting to new teammates and a star forward barely getting time to meet the team, a loss on the road against one of the top NWSL teams doesn’t look too bad. Perhaps even one of the team’s many moral victories on the season.

But a closer look at the game turns up a grimmer picture.

Collectively, the team may had valid excuses. World-class midfielder Diana Matheson and utility midfielder-defender Tori Huster joined an injury list that already included emerging striker Caroline Miller and Mexican attacker Lupita Worbis. Center back Candace Chapman showed in the previous game that she’s still not ready to go 90 minutes. By game’s end, the Spirit had fielded all 13 healthy field players, all on a hot day on unfamiliar turf. That included the new player, Conny Pohlers.

Hi, I'm new here

Individually, the breakdowns in this game may not be as easily brushed off.

The stats say a lot. After a promising start — through 17 minutes, the Spirit had two shots to Kansas City’s zero — the Spirit had little possession and therefore no offense.

The problems started with Kansas City’s 18th-minute goal. Somehow, in the Spirit’s midfield shuffle, pesky forward Jasmyne Spencer was left to rotate from one player to the next. The “next” in this case was U.S. international Lauren Cheney, whose hard, high shot smashed off Ashlyn Harris’ fingers and the crossbar before nestling in the net.

Ashlyn Harris is Superwoman.
Ashlyn Harris is Superwoman.

From then on, Harris was busy. She finished with eight saves. Robyn Gayle saved another shot, getting behind Harris for a vital clearance. Between their heroics and some dreadful Kansas City finishing, a game that could have finished 4-0 or 5-0 was held to a respectable 2-0.

The other end of the field was hardly used for the 47 minutes between Kansas City goals. Conny Pohlers, the great German forward making her Spirit debut, claimed a loose ball in the midst of five defenders and at least forced Nicole Barnhart to make a save in the 34th minute. Spencer recorded a shot in the 57th minute, but that stat says more about the stat-keeper’s generosity than the run of play.

The Spirit’s first corner kick finally came in the 63rd minute, and Pohlers may have set herself up for a decent chance if the ball hadn’t slipped away from her on the fast turf. Instead, Kansas City countered. Then this happened:

– At the 63:37 mark, KC’s Renae Cuellar took a long pass at midfield. The Mexican star, who surprisingly came off the bench in this game, ran first at Domenica Hodak but then went to the middle against Robyn Gayle, the only other Spirit defender staying back on the set piece.

– As Cuellar drifted right, Gayle stuck to her. And Hodak drifted into the middle. That left an acre of space for Lauren Cheney to race forward on the left.

– At the 63:46 mark, Cuellar found space past Gayle and shot. Harris parried it to KC’s right.

– 63:49: Gayle has gone out to face Merritt Mathias, who has collected the loose ball. Holly King has returned to the area to mark Cuellar, who’s still in a dangerous spot. Stephanie Ochs also has made it back, but she and Hodak are gathering at the right post.

– 63:52: Remember Lauren Cheney? Yeah, she’s still wide open inside the 6-yard box, a few feet inside the left post. Hodak’s at the right post, and Ochs has just realized the danger a second too late. Ali Krieger is returning but is still 10 yards behind Cheney when Mathias’ cross lands on Cheney’s foot. Harris would need Star Trek teleportation technology to get across the goal in time. 2-0

“Where was the marking?” asked my friend in soccer and MMA, Sean Wheelock, who was soloing in the KC commentary box. I’m sure the Spirit coaching staff would like to know.

The Spirit pressed forward in the last 20 minutes, getting two chances that each flowed through substitute Colleen Williams. In the 72nd minute, they had their best sequence of the game. Spencer swiped the ball from Kristie Mewis (whom some Twitterati think the Spirit should have drafted ahead of Tiffany McCarty) and played it back to Holly King. Immediately, King played ahead to Williams in the middle of the field. Williams took a couple of touches in space and played a beautiful through ball to McCarty, whose shot beat Barnhart … and glanced off the post.

In the 81st minute, the Spirit got its sixth and final shot (third on goal). It was Williams to McCarty to Spencer, who rolled a meek shot straight to Barnhart.

A few weeks ago, the Spirit had a legitimate claim to be the sixth- or maybe fifth-best team in the league, and they had a chance of getting better with the younger players catching on and Pohlers and Pressley coming aboard. To get back in the mix, they’ll need to get healthy. And they’ll need better luck. But they’ll also need to show a bit better than they did in Kansas City.

Like the photos? See more on Latda Siharath’s Flickr feed — and thanks for permission to use them here!

Match report with quotes from the notables at Pitchside Report.