Washington Spirit 0-1 Houston Dash: Random thoughts

Houston is not that bad.

Yes, the Dash lost 5-1 to Seattle, which lost 3-0 to Boston. It’s an unpredictable league. If you want predictability, watch the Celtic men or Lyon’s women demolish their domestic leagues.

Anyway …

Kealia Ohai was a monster. Her goal, which Washington defender Estelle Johnson simply called “a great play by a great player,” wasn’t even her best play of the game. She was a constant threat down the left wing and put the “track” in “tracking back.” She’s a blur at top speed, even on a hot night in the D.C. exurbs. “It’s a lot of running, but I think that’s my strength,” she said in an early nomination for Understatement of the Week. And she likely would’ve contributed to another goal or two if not for …

– Estelle Johnson, who is having a breakout season at age 28. She managed to get forward and spark the Spirit’s second-half attack even while racing back to deal with the consistent threat of Ohai. She says she’s working on getting forward — “it’s something new that I’m learning” — which is certainly easier when the Spirit abandon the three-back system and go with four. “I’m just constantly a student of the game. I think my mentality from last year to this year is different — more positive and more confident.”

“She’s awesome,” Ohai said.

– Ohai and Rachel Daly were unable to offer any sort of explanation for their goal celebration, in which Daly winds up and tosses an imaginary softball and Ohai hits it out of the park. They simply started doing it out of the blue in preseason, and it stuck. Daly is from England and says she has never played softball. Go figure.

– The Spirit played timidly in the first half. Johnson said it’s something they need to address. (I saw a youth soccer team play timidly and lose 6-0 earlier today on the first part of my Complete Loop Around The Beltway, so it could’ve been worse.)

– Did a ref assessor visit the ref at halftime? The first half featured a contest in which Dash players tried to see who could commit the most obvious foul on Francisca Ordega. In the second half, Ordega drew a soft foul early on, and the ref cracked down on everything.

– Will the Spirit finish last? I was not one of the people who picked them last in preseason. Like most people who’ve watched the team, I figured they’d be somewhere around seventh or eighth.


You could look at it this way — even without Joanna Lohman, Kristie Mewis, Katie Stengel, Cheyna Williams, Cali Farquharson, Kelsey Wys and Caprice Dydasco, and with only 16 players dressed, the Spirit were still in this game until the final whistle. But they’re not getting Lohman back, and Wys would only displace the in-form Stephanie Labbe.

The attacking players pushed into the positions Mewis, Williams, Stengel and Farquharson have left open simply haven’t been up to the task. Through three games, the Spirit have had seven shots on goal and one goal.

Mewis might be back next week. But the player they really need is Williams, who seemed poised for that second-year breakthrough so many NWSL players have.

– Will Houston be a factor? Too soon to tell. But their ball movement was sharp. They’re fast and strong. And they’re due to end the season with Carli Lloyd, which could either put them into the playoff mix or ruin what appears to be solid team chemistry.

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.


Washington Spirit vs. Houston Dash: Behind the goal

One of the neat features of the Maryland SoccerPlex stadium field is the hill behind the south goal, which the Spirit sells as general admission. I’ve seen games from “end zone” seating, but I had never been up close and personal with the goal.

Until tonight.

The kickoff was early enough (4 p.m.) to take one of my kids, and I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. And I figured we’d make it especially interesting.

I wouldn’t want to watch every game from that vantage point. For one thing, you lose any credibility in terms of arguing offside calls. The action at the other end is distorted.

But this game had a lot of action for those of us on the hill. Here’s the video, some highlights and a bit about how it looked from close range:

3:56: Dash defensive breakdown, Jodie Taylor presses, ball pops out to Diana Matheson, who chips Erin McLeod for the opening goal. I actually said to my son, “Oh, too bad, it went high.” Then it floated into the net. So, yeah — you’re not going to get a good view of everything from this view. 1-0

11:24: This didn’t look the least bit dangerous, and I still have no idea how this ball rolled past Ashlyn Harris. 1-1

– 25:23: Harris’ best moment of the first half, shutting down the near post on Ella Masar.

– 37:10: Even from the other end, we could see Taylor astutely letting the ball bounce in front of her before finishing past McLeod. 2-1

Another first-half highlight: While I didn’t hear a ton of the legendary Harris shouting, I did hear her say something like “OK, no stupid throw-in, right?” before former teammate Stephanie Ochs tossed a long one into the box.

In the second half, most of the action was coming right toward us. It was full of squandered opportunities for the Spirit, who outshot the Dash 11-3 in the half. But every time, the ball just wouldn’t quite sit right. A lot of Spirit attackers were a little off balance when they shot. Lori Lindsey (45:35) couldn’t generate much power on her shot. Matheson (56:25) had a tough angle, and McLeod made a strong save. Tori Huster (61:58) wasn’t really in position to do any more than poke at it.

One distinctive feature of the angle I had — on several occasions, I saw Crystal Dunn cutting into the box, pointed straight at me. It’s scary. She’s not the biggest player, of course, but you just have the sense that she could do anything. But she, too, couldn’t do anything with the shot (63:52) she created.

Then the Dash had its one good spell of the second half. And even from across the field, we could see Osinachi Ohale hanging over the Spirit defense and finishing clinically at the post (76:22). 2-2, and you will never convince me that it’s a good idea to leave a post unguarded on a corner kick. No way Harris could’ve made it over there in time.

We do have to talk about the PK call (80:44). In real time, about 10 yards away,I saw McLeod charging out and figured the call was coming. She wasn’t getting that ball without getting Taylor. And now that I see the replay … I’ll stand by it. Some people on Twitter have said they saw Taylor dragging her feet as if in preparation to dive. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Contact is contact.

This play — forward going at a diagonal wide of goal, with little opportunity to do much, and a goalkeeper sliding out in a way that makes it too easy for a forward to trip over her — is always controversial. We’ve all seen it so many times. And about two-thirds of the time, the ref gives the PK.

McLeod argued, of course. And she was still mad when Matheson saved a ball on the end line (82:15). “Brutal!” she yelled at the AR. It wasn’t, but her frustration is understandable.

In between those plays, of course, McLeod saved a PK from Matheson. And what you can’t see on the replay is Matheson giggling as she steps up to the spot, as if a little embarrassed to be face-to-face with her Canadian teammate in that situation. It wasn’t Matheson’s best PK effort, but credit McLeod with the save.

And though I don’t think McLeod, in hindsight, could really complain about the call, we can all be glad it didn’t decide the game.

Because what DID decide the game was spectacular. If the Spirit could promise a finish like that in every game, it could charge $200 for hill seating. My thought process as Christine Nairn’s shot (stoppage time, see it on Instagram if you don’t want to work through the video) was airborne: “Holy (bleep), that ball has a — wow, it’s the upper corner.”

You have to feel for the Dash. They didn’t have the better of play, but the defense managed to limit things in the second half. They battled back for the equalizer. And it was all taken away so swiftly.

Houston has some good components. Kealia Ohai came on in the second half and just carved up the Spirit defense. Nina Burger is legit. I was impressed with Rafaelle Souza and surprised she was taken off at halftime. Ella Masar is always dangerous. Ohale and Holly Hein aren’t bad at the back. And McLeod never gets enough recognition.

I’ll be back in the pressbox for the next one, peeking around the obstructions and missing out on the sounds of the game. Memorial Day didn’t draw the Spirit’s biggest crowd of the season, but the Spirit Squadron’s chants and songs are fun.

And at the risk of sounding like a Yelp reviewer, the hill gets five stars.

NWSL expansion, MLS precedent and devious tactics

Want some irony?

The person at the epicenter of the biggest controversy in MLS expansion draft history is now the managing director of the Houston Dash, which will stock its roster in the first NWSL expansion draft Friday.

Brian Ching was (and still is) a Houston legend, a key figure in the Dynamo’s early MLS success. The Dynamo left him unprotected in the 2011 expansion draft, figuring no one would take him.

Naturally, the Montreal Impact took him. Brian Straus explained:

Houston officials had gambled that Ching’s age (33), salary ($412,500), recent injuries and public preference for retirement over Quebec would scare off Marsch. Instead, the coach called the Dynamo’s bluff and made an instant enemy in Texas. Now, the Dynamo will either have to trade for Ching or let the long-time face of the franchise go.

And it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Here’s Ives Galarcep:

In 2006, Real Salt Lake tried a similar move by leaving then-captain Jason Kreis exposed in Toronto FC’s expansion draft, never thinking that the Canadian club would be interested in a 33-year-old American striker on a relatively high salary. Toronto FC wasn’t interested in Kreis, but was fully aware that Real Salt Lake had made Kreis their poster boy heading into the 2007 season. TFC selected Kreis and ultimately forced RSL to pay a $125K allocation to give him back.

So Kreis made it back to RSL, where he went on to be their coach for several good years. And Ching made it back to Houston — for a surprisingly low price of one draft pick. Ching finished out his playing career in Houston, and now he’s the one who gets to turn the thumb screws in the expansion draft.

When you look at the protected/unprotected list that someone curiously leaked in the middle of the night, you’ll see some surprising names. Nicole Barnhart. Karina LeBlanc. Becky Edwards. Tiffany Weimer. Ashlyn Harris. Lori Lindsey. Sarah Huffman.

A couple of those players are goalkeepers, and they’re less likely to be taken now that we know Houston has Erin McLeod.

Some other players are simply value decisions — maybe Player X has more long-term potential than Player Y. Or maybe losing Player Y would give the team more flexibility under the salary cap.

Some of these players are gambles, like Ching and Kreis. The teams figure Houston will shy away, not wanting to use a lot of salary-cap space or not wanting to bring an angry player to camp.

But look at this from Houston’s perspective. Suppose you really want, say, a player on Western New York’s protected list like Samantha Kerr or Kat Reynolds. Maybe you pick Sarah Huffman and say, “OK, Flash — we’ll give you Huffman for Kerr.” Maybe toss in a draft pick to make sure it happens.

For that and for several other reasons, don’t expect the dealing to stop on draft day. In 2010, the Portland Timbers (sibling team of the NWSL’s Thorns) drafted 10 players in the expansion draft. A couple of their picks weren’t playing in the league; the Timbers merely stashed their rights. Others were immediately traded elsewhere.

So you’ll all forgive me if I don’t do a mock expansion draft. Too many moving parts. And unlike MLS players, NWSL players don’t even have their salaries released to the public.

A couple of side notes:

– Did some teams know about the McLeod deal while other teams did not? That would explain why Barnhart, Harris, LeBlanc and company are floating around. Why not just announce it ahead of time so the teams have all the same information before submitting their lists a few days ago?

– Can we drop the myth that the Spirit is trying to stock its roster cheaply? They overspent on some players last year, and they saved up money early to acquire Toni Pressley and Conny Pohlers. You can say they managed their cap space badly, but they weren’t fielding an Atlanta Beat team against the rest of the league’s magicJack.

– Another precedent for the NWSL: A lot of indoor soccer players in the 2000s were picked in expansion drafts but immediately traded back to their original teams for draft picks and whatnot. One factor: Some players had second jobs. And a low-budget league doesn’t want to pay to relocate families.

– So does Houston take Tasha Kai and deal her to Portland in hopes that she’ll want to reunite with Paul Riley? Boom bam, everybody.