Washington Spirit 1-0 Portland Thorns: Rivalry?

The driving distance from Providence Park to the Maryland SoccerPlex is 2,785 miles. Google Maps says I can do it in 41 hours.

But is the relationship between the Portland Thorns and the Washington Spirit a rivalry?

“For me, yeah,” said former Spirit and current Thorns midfielder Hayley Raso with little hesitation. “It’s hard to leave a club the way I did, so coming back here, I feel like I have something to prove.”

Raso is a young soft-spoken Australian who was happy to see Boyd, the SoccerPlex’s field-maintenance dog — “he’s cute,” she said — and doesn’t seem like the sort of person who’d be in the middle of controversy. She had a few fouls tonight and picked up a yellow card (which I missed because I foolishly thought the Thorns might dart through the press area before I got there, so I was heading down to the field) at the final whistle. But this was nothing like the professional agitators so many NWSL teams employ.

And yet, there was an incident immediately after the whistle (again, I missed it) between Washington coach Jim Gabarra and Portland coach Mark Parsons — who was, of course, the man who led the Spirit to consecutive playoff appearances before Portland hired him away. I understand Gabarra didn’t comment (I missed the last part of his comments to catch Raso), but Parsons …

Bear in mind — Parsons didn’t turn up to the postgame interviews with a bright-red face and a hoarse voice from screaming. He thought we didn’t want to talk with him, the result of a miscommunication between some non-PR Spirit staffers and Nadine Angerer, the Thorns’ goalkeeper coach/visiting PR contact. When I suggested to him that perhaps the Thorns could invest some of their gate receipts from their five-figure home crowds in an actual PR contact who isn’t also the goalkeeper coach, he gave me a playful pinch on the arm.

And he was gracious to his former team.

“The Spirit were very good. Packed house (attendance over 4,000) for them tonight, and I know what a packed house does — we have it at home. It pushes you. They caused us some problems, and we struggled to break them down.”

Indeed they did. The Thorns had 62.7% of the possession but generated few chances.

“I don’t think they had any clear possession in our final third,” Gabarra said. “It was all the middle of the park or their half.”

This week may bring a screeching halt to goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe’s weekly nomination(s) for Save of the Week.

“That’s GREAT news!” Labbe laughed. “I guess? I know, they’re killing my saves here, you know? But that was awesome. I can’t even remember having to make a dive at all. Defensively, I thought we played so well and kept everyone in front of us. With so many attacking threats, I think it was almost a good thing for us because we didn’t have to focus on one person, we focused on the whole team.”

Spirit fans are used to seeing Estelle Johnson’s magical recovery power, and they can trust in Shelina Zadorsky’s steady presence at center back. The improvement has been a collective effort, but Zadorsky’s central partner Whitney Church deserves special mention. The thought of putting Church up against Christine Sinclair might’ve seemed frightening in the past. But Church was steady tonight.

Midfielder Tori Huster: “I thought we had really tight lines for the most part. I thought our back four did perfectly. They were dropping when they needed to drop, and I think Whitney had probably 20 headers that we really needed her to have, and they could’ve been a lot more dangerous had she not headed them. I thought she had an outstanding game.”

And yes, that’s Huster, the midfield rock who has been missing with an injury for the last few games. She was so happy to be back on the field that she was still signing autographs 45 minutes after the whistle.

Washington is one of two NWSL teams that doesn’t have a midweek game on Wednesday. Portland has to face perplexing but dangerous Kansas City.

“Individually, we have to look at our performances and examine how we did and go back to work and make sure we’re fixing those things we didn’t do well,” said defender Meghan Klingenberg, who spent much of the game pressed forward on the flank. “And collectively, figure out what we didn’t do well. And fix those things for Wednesday, because it’s a quick turnaround.”

But Klingenberg declined to make any Carli Lloyd-style comments about her teammates. “My teammates are amazing! They work their butts off. I don’t care if we win or lose, I would choose to play with them more than any other team.”

And in any case, the game would’ve been much different if not for this:

Ordega and Cheyna Williams were magnificent up front. Williams forced the best Portland save of the night, and Ordega had a sick nutmeg among other sweet moves.

Ordega was especially inspired:

https://twitter.com/caitlinbuckley2/status/878790603773009920

That goal certainly changed the Thorns’ approach.

Raso: “We went down a goal, so I guess we got a bit anxious out there. From the start, we were chasing the game. We probably could’ve played more simple, but when you’re chasing the game, you’re just trying to do what you can do.”

And the Thorns simply looked tense, making a lot of clumsy turnovers and failing to connect in the final third.

Parsons put it in simple terms: “We were just a little bit off tonight, and when you’re playing a team with a bit of momentum, it’s going to be a rough one.”

Other notes from the game:

Spirit owner Bill Lynch heckled Parsons and a few Thorns during the game. But Parsons didn’t seem to notice anything from the stands this time around.

“Last year, I heard a lot of negative, which was pretty cool and fun. That’s when you know women’s soccer’s growing, when players and coaches come back and get harassed in a good, healthy way.”

But things have changed since last year, when the Spirit had most of the same players from Parsons’ last year.

“It’s been a changeover in players, fans and staff. But it’s great coming back. This is a special place for me that I had some great, unbelievable moments with, and I’ll always hold on to that and know that this gave me an opportunity to get in this beautiful game and work with these great female athletes.”

Tony DiCicco’s passing was observed with a moment of silence and armbands. I missed what Gabarra said about him — check with Caitlin Buckley or Jordan Small. Parsons hailed him as a “person and face and heart of women’s soccer,” and he shared a personal anecdote:

“I remember going to watch his NSCAA Convention sessions when I first got here and wanted to learn. I finally had the opportunity to talk to him when I was trying to sign a Japanese girl here at the Spirit. I reached out to Tony. He didn’t have to help me, and he sat there for an hour on the phone telling me everything I needed to know about this Japanese international and walked me through everything. He didn’t know me, he had no tie to the Washington Spirit, he probably had closer ties to other teams. … Now you read what everybody else is saying about him. I experienced that first-hand. He was all about helping anyone in the women’s game and outside the women’s game. We’ve lost a great there. If we can grab the special qualities that he had consistently every week and keep spreading that love and support for everyone in the game, I’m sure he’d be proud.”

 

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National Weird Soccer League: The Spirit-Reign regular season finale/Part 1

I would probably pay good money to watch Laura Harvey and Mark Parsons play chess.

It’s not just that they are, as their fellow Englishpeople would say, bloody brilliant. It’s the fact that entertaining eccentricities and stunning plays just seem to follow them around.

Consider tonight’s game, where the turning point apparently came during the pregame introductions, when the Spirit’s PA announcer gave Hope Solo’s number the wrong number: No. 2 rather than No. 1. A quick correction, drawing a thumbs-up and a smile from Solo, apparently didn’t appease fiery Reign player Jess Fishlock.

“I think it got chippy because — I have so much respect for Washington Spirit as an organization, and I have so much respect for Ashlyn, but what they did at the beginning of the game to disrespect Hope Solo, a goalkeeper that’s won the Golden Glove in the World Cup, is actually a little bit disgusting. So that’s why we had a bit of a chip on our shoulder, because we protect our teammates, and it’s just unnecessary to do that.”

Wait a minute — what? Was it something the Spirit Squadron said? Was it the incident late in the game in which Solo was banged up in a multiplayer collision, though it didn’t seem upon live viewing that any one person was to blame. (The ref had a different opinion, but based on the absurd calls and non-calls throughout the game, I refuse to take that opinion seriously. Some serious conversations need to take place between the NWSL and PRO. This is ridiculous. Are we going to wait until a game gets totally out of control and a national team player breaks a leg?)

No.

“They announced Hope Solo as No. 2, and I think that’s a little bit disgusting.”

A couple of us who have been to a lot of Spirit games were compelled to tell her it absolutely could not have been intentional. That’s not the first idiosyncrasy we’ve heard over the PA at a Spirit game.

Here’s the deal: The announcer writes a few numerical cues on the margin of the paper to get the order correct. The captain is the first person announced — so, No. 1. Goalkeeper is second, No. 2. Easy to transpose the two columns — the order in which players are announced, and the jersey number.

And that’s easier to believe than “Hmmm, maybe I can make a subtle jab suggesting Solo should be Ashlyn Harris’ backup on the national team. I’ll say she’s No. 2.”

The other curious thing about it, as Spirit broadcast commentator Danielle Malagari points out:

But as puzzling as Fishlock’s comments were, Harvey pointed to some weird, wild stuff on the Reign’s trip to the nation’s … distant suburb of the capital.

“If you’d looked at our Washington trip, you would’ve thought everything went against us. We couldn’t train yesterday because of lightning, we had wake-up calls at 8 a.m. from the hotel … I joke with Mark, I know that’s not him. But maybe the announcer thing is the icing on the cake.”

If you really want to draw out the conspiracy theory, you’d note that all of the league’s hotel information was recently posted by a reporter … in Portland! Seattle’s big rival!

But who would call and leave a prank wake-up call for 8 a.m.? Is that considered early by some people? I have kids and dogs. By 8 a.m., I’m sometimes considering a nap.

Harvey, though, clearly wasn’t taking such talk seriously. The game, on the other hand, was something she took quite seriously despite having nothing at stake, while the Spirit needed a win to have a chance to host a playoff game.

“I actually spoke to Mark in the week. We speak daily. And we joke around. But I said to him I’m going to come and try to win the game in the sense that I think that’s the right thing to do. I could’ve come here and not played Hope, not played Pinoe (who was subbed out early in the second half, perhaps as much because her tackles seemed hell-bent on getting a nice suspension for the playoffs as any need to rest), not played Jess and not played Kim. The reality is people have paid good money to watch a good game. I’m sure they want to see the Spirit again at home (in the playoffs), but it wouldn’t have been right or fair on my team or the league if I hadn’t have come to win.”

And early on, Harvey’s game plan worked beautifully. Defenders were in place to stop the Crystal Dunn counterattacking menace. The Reign swung the ball around, playing a semi-direct style to put attackers in against Spirit defenders, who struggled to contain them. They were running the Reign attack toward defenders other than Megan Oyster, whom Laura Harvey touted for league Rookie of the Year honors.

Fishlock thought the tired Reign players didn’t execute quite as well as fatigue set in. And the Spirit indeed had some good moments late in the first half and early in the second.

Every other aspect of the game seems debatable. Parsons and Diana Matheson were pretty positive when talking about the Spirit’s performance. Ashlyn Harris was not. Parsons is still bullish on playing Ali Krieger in midfield, saying she contained Kim Little. I still don’t think Krieger looks comfortable there, and I know others agree. (That said — Little didn’t have quite as much impact on the game today as she has in the past.)

A few stray notes:

Predmore vs. the fourth official and others: Reign owner Bill Predmore was behind the Seattle bench tonight. Some Spirit staffers objected. The fourth official had a prolonged conversation with him right around the time the Reign scored their second goal.

I don’t know NWSL protocol for that situation. I just hope the Spirit volunteer got her phone back.

Seen in the stands: Former Philadelphia Independence owner David Halstead.

Plex problems: We’re now keeping our food out of the pressbox because food might attract critters who might chew through the cables that keep the Spirit’s fine broadcast connected to YouTube. That speaks volumes about the state of the Soccerplex right now.

It’s a beautiful field. It’s a beautiful venue. It’s fun to have fans so close to the action. The air always feels fresh.

But the facilities are in dire need of upgrades.

Also, new this season, traffic! I left the parking lot at 9:45 p.m., about 45 minutes after the game ended. Took me 15 minutes to get out of the Plex.

Behind me — the Reign’s bus.

Yeah, their strange trip continues.

See you again in eight days — this time in Seattle, this time with a trip to the final at stake.

 

Western New York Flash make their own luck in loss to Spirit

Soccer karma does not exist, most of us have agreed. But can a team make its own luck?

Saturday at the SoccerPlex looked like a typical Washington Spirit game against the Western New York Flash for 45 minutes. The Spirit had a few promising moments — one difference from previous engagements would be the world-class goal from Jodie Taylor that gave the Spirit the lead. But the Flash led 2-1, and it could’ve been more.

In the second half, the Flash either forgot or declined to play soccer. They looked less like the Flash playing the Spirit and more like the Virginia Beach Piranhas bringing their “physical” presence against D.C. United Women.

Stating for the record: The Flash are not a dirty team. But it’s still stunning to watch a team riddled with world-class players and a history of accomplishment come in against the Washington Spirit and foul out of frustration and retaliation. Their petulance — and what coach Aaran Lines described as an inability to string three passes together — was costly.

And the Spirit made their own luck as well. A couple of tactical adjustments gave the home team quite a bit more of the ball, and they dominated the second half to a greater degree than the Flash dominated the first. Final score: 3-2 Spirit.

That’s a confidence-booster for the hosts. Jodie Taylor finally got her goals — two, nearly four. Yael Averbuch played her best game for the Spirit. Lori Lindsey got an extended run and fared well. Robyn Gayle defended well and was close to a goal and an assist. Ali Krieger did just fine at center back.

Referee Katja Koroleva had a puzzler, often allowing outright muggings while punishing the odd single-handed shove. Lines wasn’t happy: “The referee was inconsistent, regardless of the result. But that seems to be a tendency within the NWSL.”

But the Flash simply forced Koroleva to blow her whistle. She went nearly 45 minutes without calling anything on the Flash, but some fouls were just too obvious.

Here’s the video, and here’s how it unfolded:

FIRST HALF

6:15 –  Big flurry for the Flash as Ashlyn Harris can’t hold a hard shot.

7:15 – Hard sliding foul from Spirit defender Bianca Sierra on Sonia Bermudez. Sierra started at right back, with Ali Krieger going to the center to replace the injured Toni Pressley.

8:15 – Spirit midfielder Veronica Perez goes hard for a 50-50 ball, banging into the midsection of a Flash player.

8:20 – To paraphrase The Untouchables, she sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of hers to the morgue. The Flash’s Carli Lloyd clobbers Christine Nairn, who gets up and looks back as if to say “What the …?” Danielle Malagari, the Spirit’s color commentator, goes out on a limb and predicts a physical game.

But that’s the last foul called on the Flash in the first half.

10:35 –  Lori Lindsey sends a well-weighted ball ahead to Jodie Taylor, who finishes with a world-class chip. 1-0 Spirit.

12:55 – Adriana hits the crossbar for the Flash.

16:35 – The camera doesn’t quite catch the dubious decision involving Tori Huster, a required part of every Spirit game. Abby Wambach flings the Spirit defender to the grass like a Nickelodeon game show contestant ridding herself of slime.

16:55 – The unlucky Huster finds herself isolated against Wambach in acres of space, and Wambach simply heads exactly where she wanted it to go. 1-1.

19:00 – The crowd doesn’t like an offside call that nullified yet another Taylor goal. Replay is inconclusive.

29:25 – Lloyd wins a duel with Huster, then beats Krieger and Harris while avoiding Gayle. 2-1 Flash.

34:20 – Lloyd takes a knock to the eye or nose when she tangles with Averbuch. Hard to see what happened, but no one complains.

HALFTIME

Flash coach Aaran Lines was pleased with how the first half proceeded. But oddly enough, so were the Spirit players and coaches.

“We were really happy at halftime,” Spirit coach Mark Parsons said. “Really positive at halftime despite being 2-1 down.”

Parsons made a couple of changes. Krieger was already at center back, replacing the injured Toni Pressley. At right back, Sierra started but gave way at halftime to the small Swiss Army knife that is Crystal Dunn, who shifted back from midfield with the intent of containing Bermudez, a Flash’s Spanish international.

And the Spirit merely brought on one of the best players in the sport, Diana Matheson, who sat out the first half and spent halftime jogging and smiling at the parade of ODSL youth players being honored for sportsmanship. You have to hope they didn’t get any ideas from what they saw in the second half.

“We came out the second half and we were really flat,” Wambach said. “Credit to the Spirit for making changes and making life difficult for us on the other side of the ball. To be honest, the second half, we were defending the whole game.”

So the Flash tried to make life as difficult for the Spirit as the officials would allow. Matheson stepped into a hornet’s nest, credited with two fouls suffered but roughed up much more often than that.

SECOND HALF

55:25 – Save, Abby Wambach

56:05 – Lloyd clatters into Matheson from behind, drawing a whistle and some words from the ref.

64:30 – Lloyd gives a little “Who, me?” look after getting a little bit (not much) of Dunn’s foot along with the ball.

68:15 – Kristen Edmonds drapes an arm over Matheson and brings her down. Foul and a lecture.

69:15 – Gayle nutmegs a defender. Cross is partially cleared to Yael Averbuch, who beats Lloyd and shoots. Deflected, then Taylor fires up off the crossbar. Bounces off Kat Williamson’s back and in. 2-2.

72:45 – It’s nothing, really, but it’s funny to see Wambach reaching out to grab Matheson like she’s swatting at a fly. Just a slight size difference there.

73:05 – Harris comes out for the second time in a minute to deny an onrushing Flash attacker — Salem this time, Spencer earlier.

73:30 – Nairn shoots high while Lloyd slides through her legs. No whistle.

74:10 – Salem gets the yellow, again for a foul on the unfortunate Nairn.

77:05 – Nairn suffers another foul. And that eventually leads to …

77:30 – Averbuch flicks a header, Taylor finishes. 3-2

85:05 – Gayle seems to be attempting to jump OVER former teammate Jasmyne Spencer. Not quite. Ref starts to play advantage but then calls it back.

85:35 – The Wambach-Huster incident (replay at 87:15). We’ll come back to this.

89:05 – Ref doesn’t think Angeli fouled Lloyd

90:15 – Spirit commentator Michael Minnich isn’t imagining things. The sign on the fourth official’s table says “3.” But by the time he actually raises it, it says “5.” (No, there wasn’t a sub wearing No. 3.)

91:55 – Maybe this is karma. The call for a corner kick is clearly wrong. Harris sets up for a goal kick. What you don’t see is a very confused ballgirl. Then Harris makes a save off the corner kick. The rebound … goes wide.

93:45 – Hey, Spirit? Need help killing those five minutes? Sure — I’ll just slide through the back of Renae Cuellar here, drawing my second yellow, and I’ll be slow to get up while the ref holds my red card.

Lines faulted his player, Angela Salem, not the ref. “At that point in the game, to see Ang go in was unfortunate.”

But that was the story of the second half for the Flash. They played nothing that really resembled soccer.

Malagari, sometime in the second half: “I think the Flash have kind of dug themselves a hole here. They’re kind of playing, I personally think, for blood a little bit. The fouls have been pretty dangerous in and around their own 18.”

We can’t let the game go without mentioning the Wambach-Huster incident at the end. While Harris calmly collected the ball, Wambach raced past Huster. From the replay, it appears Huster was actually turning her body out of Wambach’s way. And still, they bumped into each other — in the same way that my car recently bumped into a concrete wall in a parking garage.

Did Huster embellish her fall? Hard to say. But from one reliable reporter on the sideline, Wambach didn’t exactly deny making contact:

https://twitter.com/hobwriter/status/467820819994136576

I thought at first Cynthia was kidding, like I was kidding last summer when I suggested what Alex Morgan could be saying and unleashed the wrath of Morgan’s Twitter followers on myself. Cynthia says no.

Tori, care to comment?

“Not really,” she said. “Just gotta leave that kind of stuff on the field. It gets heated. There’s not really not much to say.”

Rough game, though, right?

“They are definitely intense,” Huster said. “They can move the ball around, but they have that grit to them. So we were definitely trying to prepare for that in the week leading up. We knew we had to get stuck in the first five minutes and impose our rhythm.”

As she left, I reminded her to tend to the blood on her left wrist. Not sure how she got that.

Matheson was diplomatic. “They’re definitely a physical team. Lloyd and Wambach always come to battle. But in this league, every team is a physical team, so I don’t think it’s too different.”

But that physicality can be self-defeating. Look at the second half, and it seems the Flash literally took their eyes off the ball.