Quick Spirit-Sky Blue thoughts

I went to the SoccerPlex today with one question: “Is Sky Blue for real?”

I left with many more questions:

  1. Why did the two Sky Blue players whose combined age is 74 cover more ground than the rest of the team? Yes, we know running is Christie Rampone’s thing, but Tasha Kai was left isolated and trying to press the entire Spirit team for much of the game. After an hour, she started coming over the sideline for water. She may have drawn a foul by simply falling down out of exhaustion. She said, in good humor after the game, that she simply ran until the tank was empty. Good for her, and she did have Sky Blue’s lone goal and another 1-2 good chances, but does this team really have no one else who can help with the pressure, especially against a Spirit defense that was unusually prone to coughing up the ball today?
  2. If Sky Blue had trouble possessing the ball and getting Raquel Rodriguez involved against a team missing five players on international duty, what happens when all the big guns come back from their teams? Sky Blue gets Kelley O’Hara and Sam Kerr, but in their last five games (my goodness, this season has gone quickly), they’ll be facing Chicago (Press, Johnston, Naeher), Kansas City (Sauerbrunn, O’Reilly — who’s going to Brazil as an alternate, Scott, Bowen), Orlando twice (most of the defense) and Portland (everyone).
  3. Would this game have been less choppy if it had been played at 9:30 last night instead of 11 a.m. this morning?

Rampone said this was the first time in her pro career she has played a game in the morning. I asked about the Olympics, which can impose some strange start times, but apparently not there, either. But she and coach Christy Holly weren’t using the early wake-up call or the soupy weather as an excuse. Both teams had to deal with it, and that might explain why neither team looked particularly sharp.

Spirit coach Jim Gabarra said the first half might have been the best half they’ve played all year. Offensively, at times, sure. Estefania Banini looked dangerous every time she touched the ball, and the passing combination that led to the first goal was pretty. And we might remember this as a breakout game for Caprice Dydasco, who was the sturdiest Spirit defender and also contributed offensively.

I didn’t have a good view of the second goal, so I wasn’t sure if Cheyna Williams had a terrific first touch on the ball or a lucky deflection. Honestly, neither was she. She said it all happened in a blur. But the shot was a nice, composed finish.

But to me, the Spirit seemed more error-prone than usual. Perhaps it was the heat, perhaps it was the occasional forearm shiver from the imposing Sky Blue players, perhaps it was the strange timing of the game.

In any case, the Spirit hit the Olympic break in great shape. Gabarra pointed out that the team went 4-1 in July without Dunn, D-Math, Krieger, Labbe and Zadorsky.

In fact, the last time those five players were available, the Spirit lost 2-1 at home to Sky Blue. If you know the quality of those players and watched today’s game without them, you’d wonder how in the world that was possible.

Funny old game. See you in September.

 

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Washington 1-0 Sky Blue: Lightning strikes

I hope no Washington Spirit players are expecting a nice, happy training session when they get back to work next week just because they pulled off a 1-0 win over Sky Blue on Saturday.

“About the 60th minute, I was already thinking about training and I wouldn’t know where to start, because there were about 200 things you would want to touch on,” coach Mark Parsons said. “Last week, when there were a few slip-ups, that’s normal.”

This was not.

Goalkeeper Kelsey Wys might get a pass, having stood her ground against a 21-shot onslaught, nine on goal. Maybe Crystal Dunn, who saved one of those shots off the line and created some opportunities, including a long lob for the winning goal in stoppage time. And Francisca Ordega, who looked like she wouldn’t be able to continue after a first-half knock to her ankle, got on the end of that lob from Dunn and willed the ball past Sky Blue keeper Brittany Cameron for the winner. Besides, it’s Ordega’s last practice before she goes to play for Nigeria in the World Cup.

The rest of the thirteen players who saw the field will be getting an earful.

Thirteen players? Not fourteen? The Spirit didn’t use all three subs.

“I didn’t make more subs because I couldn’t decide who needed to come off more,” Parsons said. “‘Cause it was bad. Really bad. And they know it.”

The backline, Parsons said, was heroic. Not solid and organized, but heroic. Estelle Johnson made a couple of last-second tackles. Whitney Church stood her ground nicely. And they were under pressure because Sky Blue played a much more direct game than the Spirit expected, blasting the ball up to twin forwards Nadia Nadim and Kim DeCesare. Nadim outmuscled Spirit defenders to win several balls, while DeCesare forced Wys’s best save with a clever redirection.

“Fair play to them — they came in with a game plan,” Parsons said. “I thought they were the better team tonight. They didn’t take their opportunities. We stopped them.”

“That’s the best by far we’ve played, the most chances we’ve created,” Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra said. He was planning to be direct the first 10 minutes, anyway, but he decided to stick with it when Sarah Killion (knee) was unable to go.

When the Spirit managed to get forward, which wasn’t often between roughly the 25th and 85th minutes, Dunn and good friend Maya Hayes had a fun battle for a while. Hayes is typically a forward but assigned to the Sky Blue backline this time, shadowing Dunn for much of the game.

“It was really fun to see her out there,” Dunn said. “She’s a forward at heart, and I was joking with her that it’s really weird seeing her back here. She’s really fast, really tenacious.”

Dunn was also whistled offside many, many times. The stats say the Spirit had six offside calls against them — they may all have been against Dunn. Some were questionable. Some weren’t.

But even as the Spirit go through what’s sure to be a serious training session in a couple of days, they can be happy in knowing that they’ve really got something here. Wys is ably filling in for Ashlyn Harris, who’s off with the national team. Dunn, who only had a brief time to re-integrate herself with the Spirit after flying back from fill-in duty in national team camp, is the best American player left in the league with the World Cup players gone. They’ve got Caroline Miller and Tiffany Weimer ready to join the fray with Ordega gone.

And they still have the best field in the league, which held up nicely despite an apocalyptic thunderstorm that pushed the game’s start back a few minutes. Fans stuck it out, and the Spirit drew more than 3,000 on an evening in which driving was a nerve-racking experience.

They won’t get this lucky every night. They might not need to.

 

Spirit vs. Sky Blue: Farewell to Lori Lindsey

I’m not going to do a big recap of Sky Blue’s 1-0 win over Washington for the following reasons:

1. Western New York held Chicago to a draw in the later game, clinching a playoff spot for the Spirit despite the loss. (Former Spirit Reserves goalkeeper DiDi Haracic, essentially the Flash’s fourth-string keeper, got the start.) Sadly for Sky Blue, which counterattacked beautifully in this game and got solid defensive performances from Sophie Schmidt and Christie Rampone, that result knocks them out.

2. Spirit coach Mark Parsons summed up the team’s performance with elegant simplicity: “The occasion got to us a little bit.” More specifically, “everyone wanted to hit that final pass.” He’s right. The night was riddled with ambitious passes that skidded away so quickly that Canadian artificial turf apologists will surely use the video to claim the ball is tough to control on all surfaces, not just FieldTurf.

3. Broken finger. Can’t type much.

So the lasting memory of the evening will be Lori Lindsey’s retirement. The Spirit put together a nice video tribute with comments from all over — former coaches such as Clyde Watson and Kris Ward, former teammates such as Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe (the funniest of a fairly witty bunch), even Mia Hamm.

Fans outside Washington or recent women’s soccer fans might not realize how important Washington has been to Lindsey (and vice versa). In the years between the WUSA and WPS, she slogged it out with the Washington Freedom (held together by Jim Gabarra, now the Sky Blue coach, who graciously congratulated Lindsey before the game). She played on this field in front of a couple hundred people at times. In those years, she pushed her way into the national team pool and wound up playing in the 2011 World Cup.

She talked a bit about those years in the postgame interview, after she signed autographs for everyone who hung around. I’m uploading the entire audio here and may add parts of it to the debut SportsMyriad podcast Sunday or Monday. Stay tuned.

Here’s Lori:

Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue: Amen

Sometimes, progress is measured in small steps for individuals. That was the case in the Spirit’s season finale, where Stephanie Ochs at last got on the scoresheet.

I had seen Ochs twice in practice during the week, working various finishing scenarios with both feet. While the rest of the team stretched, Ochs made run after run onto Lloyd Yaxley’s crosses. Mark Parsons told me Ochs had been begging for this sort of extra practice for a while, but the schedule just wasn’t conducive to it. With a rare eight-day gap between games, the coaching staff was happy to oblige.

But it’s been more than this week. Parsons has been working hard to improve Ochs’ tactical sense. It hasn’t always been fun. I’ve seen Ochs’ face awash with frustration and despair as Parsons once again yells out instructions.

Ochs is talented and athletic. No one who has seen a Spirit game will deny that. But like a lot of young players, she came out of college with a lot of bad habits. She would take several more steps than she needed to approach the ball. Her decision-making in the offensive third wasn’t quick enough for the pro level. It worked for her in college, and the Western New York commentary team had high praise for her season in the WPSL Elite.

She didn’t give up. Nor did the coaching staff give up on her.

And so if nothing else happened on Sunday, the mere fact that Ochs efficiently and effectively blasted a shot into the back of the net would give the Spirit staff and fans much to cheer.

And there wasn’t much else to report. The offense keeps getting better — with another five weeks to the season, they would have been formidable — but the timing is slightly TWEET … yep, Conny Pohlers was offside again. Sometimes, it was the pass that was a hair late. Sometimes, it was Pohlers surely seeing blood in the water. Or merely excited that she found some space among Sky Blue’s defenders, who have the size to blot out the sun, let alone stop a short-ish forward from taking more than one touch on the ball.

The Spirit defense bent a few times. No one is going to complain about the effort of the back five — Julia Roberts spent so much time deep on the field that she was almost a fifth defender — but scrappiness isn’t always enough to get the ball clear. After a long bout of pressure, they finally conceded an equalizer.

Parsons said the Spirit was more dangerous, and I agree. But the result was just.

I stayed out of the pressbox for this game, though I did have a chance to catch up with USA TODAY colleague Christine Brennan. And I was on the field briefly, with just enough time to chat with Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra. I’ve never seen him so devoid of optimism. Soccer karma owes Sky Blue a win over Western New York in the semifinals, but soccer karma doesn’t exist.

But at least hard work can occasionally pay off. And so Ochs’ finish can provide a great bit of inspirational history for future Spirit teams.

Other random thoughts:

– I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the stands for one game. The view of the game is better than it is in the pressbox. I can hear Ashlyn Harris. I can hear the fans, though I wish they’d learn to wait for a stoppage in play before meandering around. One large group arrived 15 minutes into the game and was surprised to find most of the general admission seating full. Fan education is a process. The Spirit Squadron and company are helping.

– Danielle Grote posted four postgame interviews. The one you really want to see is the Ashlyn Harris interview. I still sense some detachment among national teamers when things go astray, as if it’s not really happening or is something from which they can just walk away. Not Harris. She’s determined to learn from the losses. She embraces the bad with the good. That’s a soccer player. Excuse me — footballer.

– I had time to make one quip on Twitter during the game, and of course, it was about the ref. She seemed to be enjoying herself, but I think she occasionally forgot that it was her job to call fouls, keep the official time, etc.

Still hoping to have the book done by the end of September. Watch for updates, and thanks for reading this summer.

Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue: The brief recap

One badly battered team was slightly better than the other badly battered team. A couple of calls — the lone goal looked offside, one likely handball in the box went uncalled — might have skewed the game the other way, but they didn’t.

There. That’s your recap.

More detail? OK, just a little …

– It’s fair to say the Spirit aren’t playing with a lot of confidence right now. This game was better than the last two, but they still only forced Jill Loyden to make one save.

– The 4-4-2 experiment wasn’t bad, but I think the Spirit have already proved they can cancel out Sky Blue in midfield for much of the game.

– I don’t have the official word on why Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger were late scratches.

The Spirit will end the season with three home games. The motivation and confidence should be greater for those games than they were on this road trip. We’ll see if that’s enough to get something out of those games and end on a positive note.

Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue: The final third

For two-thirds of the game at Yurcak Soup Bowl last night, the Washington Spirit controlled two-thirds of the field.

The last-place team in the NWSL turned the first-place team (albeit a team weakened by key absences) into a counterattacking team on its home grass. Toni Pressley had a breakthrough game in central defense, keeping everything under control. The midfield of Julia Roberts, Lori Lindsey and Diana Matheson had the better of the action, moving the ball forward with confidence.

But the Spirit simply could not convert in the final third of the field or the final third of the game. Sky Blue’s counterattacks grew progressively more dangerous and got a nice deflection when a ball landed straight in the path of Monica Ocampo, who had a frustrating game but has been an in-form scorer. 1-0 Sky Blue, and that’s how it ended.

For casual fans, I could see the game being a frustrating stalemate. Sky Blue only generated four shots on goal, and the first-half effort could hardly be more harmless — a Taylor Lytle effort that sailed straight to Ashlyn Harris, and a 35-yard Coco Goodson free kick that was surely intended as something else. The last two were actually one scoring chance — a shot, a deflection, and a goal on the rebound.

The Spirit was only credited with one shot on goal, but that’s deceptive — and possibly incorrect. Watching live, I thought this Diana Matheson shot was on goal — Brittany Cameron certainly was in no mood to let it go wide. The play-by-play calls it a “shot” (and mysteriously ascribes it to Toni Pressley). The Spirit immediately reclaimed possession, and then Stephanie Ochs didn’t miss by much.

Then came the chance Conny Pohlers would surely love to have again. Candace Chapman chipped the ball from midfield and caught Pohlers in stride, but the German striker’s first touch was too heavy, and Cameron came out to smother it. That, officially, was the Spirit’s only shot on goal.

Those chances were all in a six-minute stretch in the first half. Later in the half, we had what the Spirit has seen every game — an officiating howler involving Tori Huster. The Spirit’s utility player, lined up again at left back, made a clever passing combination and wound up free with a one-on-one opportunity against Cameron, only to be called offside.

Yeah, about that …

Huster's in the yellow circle. Two Sky Blue defenders are in the red circles. Thanks to @soccerforbev for the photo.
Huster’s in the yellow circle. Two Sky Blue defenders are in the red circles. Thanks to @soccerforbev for the photo.

I was there — I can assure you the lawn-mower lines were running parallel to the end lines. And you’re welcome to check out the video.

(Other officiating tidbits: The ref added no stoppage time in the first half despite lengthy injury delays/water breaks, and players from both teams had to tell him several times the game ball was flat and needed to be replaced. PRO might want to consider making some sort of statement about what they’re going to do to fix NWSL officiating. We’re not just seeing bad judgment calls in split-second situations; we’re seeing basic failures of game management, and that’s inexcusable at this level. Some of these folks seem to understand the Laws even less than the typical TV commentator.)

The Spirit had to be deflated at halftime. They had 45 minutes of beating the top team in the league and nothing to show for it. They were playing their second game in four days, this one in 90-degree heat and high humidity. Worst of all, Colleen Williams had played only a few minutes in front of a crowd padded with her friends and family before falling with a terrible injury. We’ll wait for the MRI, but it doesn’t look good.

The visitors still managed another 15 minutes or so of good play before Sky Blue’s counterattack started to pay dividends. Jim Gabarra said he was planning not to play recovering national teamer Kelley O’Hara, but circumstances dictated her introduction, and she made the Spirit defense pay attention. In the 72nd minute, Goodson put a header just wide on a corner kick. Ninety seconds later, the winning sequence started. The Spirit managed very little in response.

Gabarra was gracious.

“I know they have some good attacking pieces, they’re very good in midfield. I think it’s just a matter of time for them to kind of figure it out.”

That would actually be bad news for Sky Blue, which will face the Spirit twice in August. Can the Spirit make enough progress to play spoiler?

Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue: Welcome back, Gabarra

Lori Lindsey's long-range shots are getting closer and closer. Photo: WashingtonSpirt.com/Tony Quinn
Lori Lindsey’s long-range shots are getting closer and closer. Photo: WashingtonSpirt.com/Tony Quinn

“I was here really early so I didn’t go in the wrong locker room,” said Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra, the only head coach in the 10-year history of the Washington Freedom.

He chatted with Washington Spirit assistant Kris Ward, who coached in the Freedom’s once-sprawling club structure, as he strolled to the bench. He raved about the Maryland SoccerPlex facility that hosted the Freedom from 2004 onward and still bore a couple of its logos until a few weeks ago.

And he watched his Sky Blue team beat the Spirit 2-1, remaining unbeaten on the season.

Gabarra’s team had a good sense of where to attack the Spirit. They earned an early corner kick, conceded a bit too easily, and sent towering defender CoCo Goodson into the box to head it past Ashlyn Harris. Their speedy forwards harassed midfielder-turned-center back Tori Huster.

But the Spirit contained Kelley O’Hara, who started at forward rather than the backline and spent a lot of the game running at Kika Toulouse, not Ali Krieger. O’Hara managed to cut back and shoot a few times, but they were harmless shots that didn’t trouble Harris. And O’Hara’s frustration boiled over a couple of times — she earned yellow for a rash challenge that left Toulouse sprawled on the grass. The speedy Lisa DeVanna, a former Freedom forward, and the formidable Danesha Adams were a handful.

The shot count, particularly in the first half, was lopsided in Sky Blue’s favor. But Harris didn’t have to pull off anything as spectacular as the big stop on Abby Wambach’s header last week. Sky Blue was willing to shoot from anywhere, but aside from the two goals on which she had no chance, Harris easily had the angles covered.

The Spirit found forward Tiffany McCarty a few times, once on a beautiful bending ball from Stephanie Ochs that would’ve put McCarty one-on-one with goalkeeper Brittany Cameron if not for a dubious offside call.

But McCarty was unusually tentative when sprung free by peripatetic Spirit attacker Diana Matheson or when handed the ball by a Sky Blue error. Some fans yelled for McCarty to be subbed out, though we don’t know how many of those fans are Virginia supporters who wanted to see Caroline Miller.

In any case, those fans got their wish in the 71st minute, and Miller provided instant offense off the bench. She turned Christie Rampone — yes, longtime U.S. captain Christie Rampone — in knots before forcing Cameron into her best save of the night.

Another subplot of the night: The Canadians, who set the stage for the midfield rivalry on Twitter:

Matheson and Sophie Schmidt battled in midfield a few times and scored two of the game’s three goals. Matheson, as she was in the first two Spirit games, was the team’s sparkplug all night. We the media (sadly not including a newspaper or TV representative) chatted with captain Lori Lindsey about the team’s formation — it’s either a 4-4-2 with McCarty and Matheson up front, a 4-2-3-1 with Lindsey and Julia Roberts holding behind Matheson and two wingers, or a 4-4-1 + Matheson covering the entire field.

Lindsey’s influence on the field is perking up. She’s helping the Spirit win more midfield battles, and she had some threatening long-range shots, as you’ll see in the highlights:

Things you might not have seen on the broadcast or the highlights:

– Toulouse left the game briefly after tangling with O’Hara, then removed roughly 800 feet of gauze from her leg. She’s still dealing with a preseason knock.

– The ref (correctly) stopped play when Krieger took a throw-in while a stray ball was on the field. The stray was removed, Krieger got another ball, and a ballgirl raced out to grab the ball Krieger had thrown to the other half of the field. Then the ballgirl tossed another ball to Brittany Cameron. Thankfully, Cameron saw the ball with her peripheral vision and booted it back, avoiding further delay.

– I have no idea what to make of this, though I’m guessing they loved it in the crowded beer garden:

Next up for the Spirit: Portland visits. They’ve sold 3,500 or so tickets. Get there early and get your barbecue and funnel cakes.