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.

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Washington Spirit vs. North Carolina Tar Heels: Free subs!

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Tiffany McCarty set up one goal and scored the other.

So I went to an NWSL preseason game and a college game broke out!

A sizable portion of the Maryland Soccerplex crowd wore Carolina blue and broke into a “TAR! … HEELS! …” chant, despite the efforts of Washington uber-fan Stewart Small to interject “SPIRIT!!” The teams played with college substitution rules. For a while, North Carolina’s players outhustled their opponents to every ball and dominated play.

Then Tiffany McCarty broke down the left flank and centered for Carolina killer Caroline Miller, who lashed home the rebound of her own shot, and the professionals restored order against the mighty college dynasty.

“That girl (Miller) has scored against us consistently,” UNC’s legendary coach Anson Dorrance said of the former Virginia player.

Then Dorrance remembered McCarty from her Florida State days. “Actually the other girl was an absolute thorn in our side for four years.”

McCarty was the player of the game. She didn’t officially get an assist on Miller’s 27th-minute goal because Miller’s initial effort was saved. But she was indeed the “absolute thorn” Dorrance remembered from ACC play, and she doubled the Spirit lead in the 47th minute on a superb breakaway.

Stephanie Ochs, usually the target player in the Spirit’s three-pronged attack, sprang McCarty up the middle of the field. McCarty held off a challenge and made substitute keeper Bre Heaberlin guess before calmly finishing as she has so many times in Spirit practice so far.

Carolina managed little the rest of the way.

In the pressbox and on Twitter, we all had a few laughs about playing the game under college substitution rules at Dorrance’s insistence. He was far from apologetic afterwards. “We’re trying to develop our team for next fall,” Dorrance said.

Why not use spring games to develop players for pro play and international play? “The sort of player that ends up on the national team is not subbed out,” he said.

And he had one of those players in Kealia Ohai, Heaberlin’s teammate on the U.S. Under-20 team and the lone scorer in the World Championship final. Plenty of Carolina players could match the Spirit’s speed in a foot race. Ohai was one of the few who could match the actual speed of play, where one- and two-touch play is the norm. “In college, it’s three,” Ohai said.

In the long run, the substitution issue didn’t matter. The typical pro game doesn’t include a change on the fly when a player leaves with a bloody nose — Dorrance couldn’t cite regulations but chalked up to a ref with a brain — but the revolving door at the sideline didn’t affect too drastically.

If anything, the waves of subs provided a good test for the thin Washington team, which had several players on national team duty (UNC was similarly missing Crystal Dunn) and several others injured. Carolina pressed Washington early, beating the Spirit players to the ball and keeping the Spirit stuck in their own end of the field much of the first half-hour. Exhausted UNC midfielder Brooke Elby seemed relieved to see a substitute replacing her in the 28th minute.

“There are going to be some teams that are going to run and gun,” Washington’s elder stateswoman Lori Lindsey said. “They were a good test for us in terms of athleticism.”

The Spirit eventually responded to the high tempo, and coach Mike Jorden let a couple of his own players take a break and return.

“They came out the first 15 minutes and really took it to us,” Spirit coach Mike Jorden said. “As the game went on, we played better.”

Notes:

– Missing Spirit players, national team duty: GK Ashlyn Harris, D Ali Krieger, D Robyn Gayle, M Diana Matheson. Missing due to nagging injuries: D Candace Chapman, M Colleen Williams, F Megan Mischler, D Kika Toulouse. That left Washington with 16 players dressed.

– The absences also left Washington with a makeshift center-back pairing of Tori Huster and Casey Berrier, the latter of whom just arrived in camp after being waived by Kansas City. Berrier struggled at first, with Domenica Hodak racing over to stop a breakaway in her area, but she picked up the pace as the game went on and stayed in for nearly 60 minutes.

– Dorrance didn’t understand the question when I asked for reaction to the closing of Pepper’s Pizza, which is almost as much of a Chapel Hill institution as he is. His players did. “We’re really sad about that,” Ohai said.

Other game reports (will add links as they come in — feel free to add in comments):

Official Spirit site

All White Kit

Equalizer Soccer