Spirit season recap and a post-Vegas anti-cynicism rant

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, the Ranting Soccer Dad podcast opens with a few thoughts on why we shouldn’t give up on changing people and society as a whole, either on something relatively trivial like youth soccer or something horrifying like one man’s ability to assemble the weapons to wound 500 people. Maybe we need a little less competition and a little more cooperation to make the changes we need?

Also, a quick recap of the Washington Spirit’s season, in which the team fell from being 30 seconds away from a league championship to last place. Includes postgame comments from Spirit coach Jim Gabarra and the team’s star attacking player, Mallory Pugh.

(Apologies for the drop in volume during the Pugh interview. Also, if you can’t hear Gabarra’s last two words, they’re “No comment.”)

(Featured image from Flickr)

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Spirit, Reign play a legitimately entertaining soccer game

Things didn’t bode well Saturday. Traffic heading up the Beltway to Maryland was worse than usual. The SoccerPlex didn’t have its usual Ben & Jerry’s cart — Yom Kippur apparently kept the proprietor away.

And Seattle’s Jess Fishlock, simultaneously one of the most inspirational and infuriating players in women’s soccer, started the game by clattering into Washington’s Mallory Pugh, the type of foul that does nothing other than send an early message.

Then a funny thing happened. An actual soccer game broke out. Free-flowing. Long strings of passes. Good runs.

For Spirit fans, it looked a bit like 2016 all of a sudden, with Pugh replacing Crystal Dunn and Meggie Dougherty Howard replacing everyone else. The two rookies carved up the Seattle defense with incisive passes en route to a 2-0 lead.

But the defense certainly isn’t last year’s defense. The Reign got back into the game as Spirit defenders kept whiffing on clearances. It’s the SoccerPlex — a terrific playing surface on which the Spirit play every home game. They should be used to it.

And credit to the Reign. They were pressing. They didn’t want their season to end on a loss. And coach Laura Harvey told us after the game, incongruously given her giddiness after Seattle’s 3-2 win, that she had reminded players at halftime they were playing for their jobs.

So were the Spirit players. Looking ahead to next season, they’ll build around their two sensational rookies from opposite ends of the hype meter — national teamer Pugh, who skipped out on UCLA to go pro early, and third-round pick Dougherty Howard. Of the other 11 Spirit players to appear in the game, who’s guaranteed to return next year? Probably captain Shelina Zadorsky and original Spirit player Tori Huster, who can surely play for the Spirit as long as she wants. Anyone else?

It’s not that the players are particularly bad. As a whole, even with a viable starting XI on the injury report, Washington had a competitive team this season. It’s strange to say for a last-place team, but they overachieved. If you’d told me before the season they’d have this many injuries but would still win five games (two more than the disastrous 2013 season) and score 30 goals (more than Kansas City, Boston and Houston, and only three less than playoff-bound Chicago), I’d have said that’s impossible.

The defense, though, needs to be addressed. I don’t want to speculate on whether Stephanie Labbe will be back in goal for the Spirit — I simply hope she’s happy and healthy. Zadorsky is generally solid, and Estelle Johnson was having a career year until her injury. Other than that, it’s simply not a reliable group of players for this level.

They’ll surely draft Andi Sullivan, who could slot in at center back alongside Zadorsky. But she can have a bigger impact in midfield.

They can’t just draft a bunch of defenders with their surplus of picks and see who emerges. The Spirit have enough youth. If they want their rebuilding project to be 1-2 years instead of 3-4, they need to make a trade or a sign a big-time free agent.

But there’s time enough to deal with that. Tonight, it seems most NWSL fans got an entertaining sendoff to the regular season, a nice change of pace from what’s been a lackluster season marked by cynical play that the referees refuse to stop.

Whatever you think of the Spirit, let’s hope tonight’s slate of games was a nice harbinger of things to come next year.

 

No one injured in Spirit-Breakers game

Neither the Washington Spirit nor the Boston Breakers tanked Saturday night’s game to get the No. 1 draft pick. For once, my prediction was right.

But it wasn’t pretty. I didn’t notice any Spirit Academy kids in the crowd, and that’s probably for the best. You don’t want them to learn anything from this. Two own goals by the same luckless player, former Breaker Kassey Kallman. No shots for the home team in the first half. Fouls that weren’t particularly malicious but just pointless. Passes that clattered into opponents.

The Breakers played hard, and aside from two maybe-overdue yellow cards, they played fairly. Own goals are often a mix of luck and getting the ball in good spots, and the Breakers got the ball in good spots many times in the first 10 minutes of the second half, turning a 0-0 snoozer into a 3-0 game with a bit of life.

And the Spirit didn’t pack it in. Two terrific strikes were called back due to close but probably correct offside calls. The silver lining (coincidentally, the Rilo Kiley song of the same name is now playing on my Spotify mix) for the Spirit: They put the ball in the net four times! Too bad two counted against them and the other two didn’t count at all.

Late in the game, those of us in the pressbox were wondering why Breakers coach Matt Beard was so animated, chastising his team and gesticulating wildly. After the game, the thoughtful and tactically shrewd coach explained that he was legitimately worried that the Spirit might come back, like Sky Blue has on more than one occasion this season. When you haven’t won a road game in a while, a little paranoia is understandable.

So yes, both teams were trying. It wasn’t just a couple of teams tanking to land Andi Sullivan in the 2018 draft. At this point, the Spirit seem destined to land their hometown hero. And tonight, they looked like they needed her. Some of the players on the field simply were not up to the task.

And it’s not as if the Spirit have many other options. They dressed 14 players for the game. (The Breakers, also limping toward the finish line of the season and missing game-changer Rose Lavelle, only dressed 15.)

Coach Jim Gabarra said quite candidly after the game that his team really didn’t have the training they needed to prepare. Too many games in a short time. Too many injuries.

“So you didn’t think it would be a good idea to run your players through a series of intense practice in 90-degree weather with only three available subs?” I asked (paraphrased).

“Probably not,” Gabarra said.

Spirit fans weren’t about to forget the birthday of their last remaining original player, Tori Huster.

Spare a thought for Spirit fans who’ve attended most of the games this season. They’ve seen a lot of bad soccer, and it’s not all from the home team.

Maybe it’s a strange thing to say about a team in last place, but the Spirit overachieved in many ways this season. Stephanie Labbe and Estelle Johnson were having great seasons until they abruptly ended a couple of weeks ago. Arielle Ship was better than expected. Meggie Dougherty Howard was way better than expected — even people who wish the next hurricane would race up the Potomac and destroy the Maryland SoccerPlex because they so despise Spirit ownership have pegged the late third-round draft pick as a solid pick for Rookie of the Year.

But Spirit fans really haven’t been treated to a lot of quality from their visitors, either. Portland showed little in Mark Parsons’ return to the SoccerPlex. Orlando wasn’t quite the Morgan-and-Marta juggernaut they later became. The Chicago Red Stars looked like they were playing old-school roller derby. The best game of the season, oddly enough, may have been the previous Spirit-Breakers game, when Boston goalkeeper Abby Smith flat-out robbed the Spirit (legally) of a win.

Call it bad luck, compounded by some personnel moves that will leave some lasting bitterness. Frankly, the quality of play in the NWSL has been poor this season. If you want to blame anyone, blame the referees who’d rather carry on conversations with players like Allie Long and McCall Zerboni rather than give them cards for any of the 349 fouls they commit each game. That needs to change.

One thing that’s not going to change — the occasional late-season game between tired, ailing teams at the bottom of the table. And if this game proved one thing, it’s that the women’s game is not ready for promotion and relegation, no matter how many U.S. Soccer presidential candidates try to win points by promising it. These coaches can’t afford a training injury, and there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by tossing Rose Lavelle or Cheyna Williams out on the field at this point just so they can avoid swapping places with WPSL champion Fire And Ice SC. (Granted, if the problem with Lavelle is that she’s flying too much, may I suggest a bus with adequate sleeping space? And no, I have no idea what possessed anyone to name a team “Fire And Ice.” Does Shy Ronnie play for them?)

Even in a no-good, horrible, very bad game such as this, you’ll see moments of quality. Smith didn’t have to pull the mind-boggling saves she made last time to get the shutout this time, but she was terrific when she needed to be. Mallory Pugh adds life to any attack, whether it’s the U.S. national team in full flight or whichever players the Spirit can scrape together around her.

The Spirit will be better-prepared when Seattle visits for the season finale. I’m predicting a 6-5 game with 30 saves. We’re due.

 

Spirit-Red Stars: A mad night at the SoccerPlex

There’s just a lot of anger in the world right now.

Our president took a break from Twitter ranting to issue the most controversial presidential pardon since Gerald Ford fell on his sword for Richard Nixon, paving the way for a peanut farmer from Georgia to become president and then a truly outstanding ex-president. North Korea, apparently angry about being pushed off the front page by U.S. domestic shenanigans and a hurricane (and a preposterous fight), flung a few more missiles into the sea, which raises the question of how many North Koreans live in dangerous poverty while Kim Jong Un bombs the whales.

And in the ever-argumentative women’s soccer community, Backline Soccer had to deal with online threats after some woker-than-thou “fantasy” writer discovered an old op-ed about Jaelene Hinkle and deemed the entire staff homophobic, which would come as a great surprise to those who know the staff. (Should someone tell him about Orson Scott Card, who actually does work to deny gay rights and about whom he has said nothing on his site?)

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So given all that, perhaps it’s little surprise that the Spirit-Red Stars game, which Chicago desperately needed to halt a skid out of the playoff positions, was a little on the aggressive side. The Red Stars, bringing a talented team against a makeshift Spirit backline, finished the first half with 11 fouls and one shot on goal. (Yes, one. Opta gave Washington keeper DiDi Haracic credit for a save when she pounced on a loose ball in a scramble.)

From the pressbox, it all seemed a little cynical. Time after time, a Chicago player would extend the arms on a shove while the ball was in the air, then turn to the ref in disbelief when the whistle blew.

But most of the physical play was rough but legal. The ref, like nearly every other ref we’ve seen in the NWSL this season, could’ve given out more yellow cards, but give him credit for calling the fouls.

And it worked. The Spirit players were rattled. Tori Huster, the Spirit’s most-fouled player, had a bad giveaway or two after hearing nearby footsteps from Julie Ertz or Kristie Mewis or Danielle Colaprico or anyone else who had knocked her around in the game. (The pressbox consensus seems to be that at least one foul attributed to Mewis actually belonged to Ertz.) Huster participated in a team-high 18 “duels” and only won six of them, a very un-Huster-like performance.

The Red Stars’ goals were the result of good old-fashioned hustle, with Colaprico keeping a ball alive to set up the recently traded Mewis for a goal against her old team and Christen Press finally beating the Spirit’s high line before rounding the keeper. But they were finished well. Things didn’t work for Mewis in Washington for whatever reason, but she can play.

It was a strange night in general. The medical crew carrying injured Spirit forward Arielle Ship off the field took the long way around and was nearly hit by a ball going out of play. (At least Ship was able to go past the Spirit Squadron, which roared for her and got a thumbs-up from the weeping Ship.) The fourth official decided it was cold (a surprise to the announcers who said it was hot and humid) and donned a black long-sleeve top, blending in with the game staff at the middle of the field.

Chicago coach Rory Dames started the postgame inquiries by repeating the first question he was asked.

“Thoughts on the game — it was pretty ugly at times,” Dames said with the expression of a dog that expected a piece of chicken but got tofu. “I would say that with the way they play — they’re very direct out of their end, and they try to get up into your end and press you, and they try to combine with their front players in your end. So there was no reason for us to try to play through their pressure, and nobody the last five games has tried to play through our pressure, so it was always going to be a first-ball, second-ball, ball winning-contest kind of game.”

He didn’t seem too frustrated with the Red Stars’ losing streak heading into the game. Neither did Ertz.

“I don’t think it was necessarily wrought-out frustrations in there,” Ertz said. “We really wanted to win, we really wanted three points. I think everyone does, but especially for us, the points these last few games really do matter for going to the playoffs or not. We wanted to make sure we won our tackles — first ball, second ball, that was a big thing for us — and when that’s your main focus, I think it does become a more aggressive game.”

And yes, the points matter more for Chicago at this point than they do for the Spirit, which was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention but was never really in it this season. In the long run, the Spirit would be better off losing and improving their draft position to make sure they get hometown hero Andi Sullivan, though possible league expansion could throw a wrinkle in that. My guess is that the Spirit will package the pick it received for Mewis with another pick and maybe a player to make sure Sullivan is at the SoccerPlex next season. Let’s be clear — they’re not tanking. They were pushing hard until the last second, spurred by Mallory Pugh, who grew into the game and played some actual soccer amidst the rugby/Aussie rules contest occupying much of the field.

Let’s also be fair to the Red Stars, always a class organization. They figured a choppy game would suit them and they’d be able to go Route 1 to Christen Press at some point. A better team than the Spirit would’ve punished them. A better ref would’ve showed some cards and put a stop to the midfield shenanigans.

Fans got their money’s worth. The weather was nice. The Spirit Squadron was in fine voice. The concession lines seemed to move at a decent speed. And Pugh and Press showed their national-team skills in flashes. They’ll see better games at some point.

The strange, surly night had a perfect capper. Throughout the week, Twitter was been abuzz with the possibility of Stephanie Labbe’s dog, Rio, going out on the field for National Dog Day. I was hoping to meet Rio because I’m a little silly about dogs. One thing I love about my house and my neighborhood is that I can sit in my living room or my bedroom and see dogs walking down the sidewalks. At my elementary school, I earned the nickname “The Dog Whisperer” when I wrangled a dog out of traffic, and all the dogs that turn out at departure time love me.

I met Rio on the way to the postgame interviews. He growled and barked at me. Before you think it’s just me, he did the same to Kevin Parker, one of the nicest guys on the planet.

So, yeah. It was that kind of night. It’s been that kind of week.

Here’s to a better month in September.

State of the Spirit, Mewis trade edition

You can’t fault the Washington Spirit for trading Kristie Mewis. She’s a strong attacking player who hasn’t been a full-time starter in recent weeks as the Spirit fully embrace their non-contender status and continue to develop a gaggle of young attackers who have been better than expected. She has trade value, and yet it’s reasonable to omit her from the current starting XI.

The question: What are they getting for her, and what does it say about the Spirit’s awareness of where this team really stands?

The early indication from coach Jim Gabarra on Lifetime’s broadcast is that they’re going for even more youth:

Here’s why I’m skeptical: Mark Parsons turned this team around in 2014 and 2015 by trading away a whole bunch of young players for those with more experience. He and fellow English coach Laura Harvey figured it out early on — this league devours rookies. Sometimes, it’s just for a year, and then they figure it out. (See Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai, Sarah Killion, etc.) Sometimes, a player whose ACC accomplishments gave Anson Dorrance nightmares simply can’t adjust to a higher level (or playing 90 minutes).

It’s easy to get attached to the 2017 Spirit underdogs. Their third-round draft picks (Arielle Ship, Megan Dougherty Howard) matched up just fine with Boston’s first-round picks in their last home game (to be fair, the Breakers were missing Rose Lavelle, who was resetting our expectations of rookies before her injury). Havana Solaun, all but forgotten in Seattle, has been solid. The Spirit touted Dougherty Howard’s passing acumen in the press release on today’s loss at North Carolina, where the 2-0 scoreline flattered the Courage. Their effort is rarely lacking.

But we saw this in 2013 as well. Some of the losses were unlucky. Injuries took a toll. Unheralded players had bright moments. I was told the passing stats, even more of a secret then than they are today with Opta, made a couple of rookies look fantastic.

Most of those players didn’t last. I count six players from the 2013 roster who are still in the NWSL. (Four of them in Orlando!) That includes three allocated players who had plenty of experience before arriving in Washington.

Several of the young Spirit players are doing better than expected — particularly on offense, which hasn’t been the problem this season. But there’s a difference between overachieving as a rookie or second-year player on a young team and being a true building block of a playoff-contending team in the future.

The Spirit have a glaring immediate need. It’s defense. They’ve conceded 32 goals, second-worst in the league, and goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe isn’t the problem.

That’s not a need that can easily be filled in a draft. Andi Sullivan has some national team experience and strong D.C.-area ties that might bring her to the Spirit even if they don’t get the No. 1 draft pick (if this were MLS, the Spirit would just slap a “homegrown” tag on her and rest easy), but she should really be a No. 6, not a center back.

Now perhaps the Spirit wouldn’t be able to get a starting center back for Kristie Mewis. Or perhaps they have plans to stockpile some younger players and draft picks, then package them together in a trade.

But Spirit fans have to be hoping the team isn’t expecting to take this year’s squad, add a few draft picks and make the playoffs. That’s simply not a realistic view of where this team stands.

 

Spirit-Breakers, before the deluge

Concentrating on soccer was rather difficult this afternoon. When we weren’t checking updates on Charlottesville, we were checking the weather. A couple of minutes after the final whistle, the SoccerPlex lightning-detection system kicked into gear, and we all had a wet drive home.

But the game deserves some mention, even if it was basically a showdown between two teams battling for eighth place in a 10-team league. It ended 2-2, which won’t propel either team to seventh place, let alone a playoff berth that’s surely unattainable by this point.

Even with only one team below them in the standings, I’d argue both teams have overachieved this season. They’re both young teams, and between them, their injury lists nearly comprise a strong starting 11. But today, the Spirit played inspired soccer in stretches, while the Breakers showed plenty of resilience.

Boston coach Matt Beard wasn’t quite pleased, though — at least, as far as we could tell while conducting interviews in a gym where several youth basketball games were in progress. (As Lloyd Yaxley once put it: Why would someone invent such a noisy game?) Beard’s view: Goalkeeper Abby Smith had a terrific performance, the team took advantage of its opportunities to score two goals, and the Breakers turned the ball over far too often.

Washington coach Jim Gabarra was also unhappy, though in his case, it was his ongoing concern that referees simply aren’t calling enough fouls to protect players. He had a point, in this game and through the season, though Breakers fans may rightly wonder why Caprice Dydasco wiped out Tiffany Weimer twice in the opening minutes. Maybe the Millennials really want anyone over 30 to disappear?

(The ref gave Dydasco a few stern words, which apparently helped. But other players are a little less receptive to the “Hi, could you please stop running over your opponent?” school of officiating.)

Other than that, it’s hard to draw any long-term conclusions from this game. I’d wanted to see if the Spirit’s youth movement was for real, but their younger attackers were a bit erratic today after a busy stretch of games. They were more dangerous when Cheyna Williams came in, and that’s not the first time I’ve said that this season.

I can’t judge the Breakers’ youth movement as long as Rose Lavelle is out. They’re a different team without her.

But both teams have a lot of potential to be better next season. Neither team has had much luck with injuries, and the Spirit could certainly feel they deserved better today.

And it was certainly entertaining. Best of all, they managed to squeeze in the whole game before the storms hit. We were told Lifetime would cut to a movie if the game was scrubbed, and the world doesn’t need that. Seeing a bunch of young athletes with skill and potential was a lot better than that, and it was a nice diversion on a day in which we really needed it.

Spirit, Pride still works in progress

Marta is here. Alex Morgan is back. Mallory Pugh is here. Estefania Banini is back.

But the chemistry isn’t quite there. And neither is the service from midfield.

Yes, the Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride each scored twice in a 2-2 draw before a crowd of 5,200 that filled the seats, the hill and the concession lines Saturday at the Maryland SoccerPlex. And yes, we had a couple of moments like this:

(Incidentally, I have no idea how I’m not in that camera shot. I was sitting on the hill today because I brought the little one with me. So I had a perfect view of that bit of Morganinho skill. And a perfect view of the first penalty awarded. Struck me as a little soft. A bit. When Kate Markgraf calls it “just a little bit of a shoulder challenge,” it’s probably not a great call.)

But neither team produced much to trouble the keepers. Morgan was offside a few times. A late flurry from the Spirit padded the stats.

The strangest thing for the Spirit: Tori Huster, usually a game-changer in midfield but not an offensive force, was shooting from all over. Some of the shots, as coach Jim Gabarra said afterwards, were the result of defenders giving her space and trying to contain Franny Ordega, Mallory Pugh and others.

But then there was this:

And she took a ton of shots in pregame warmups. Even more than Cheyna Williams, who helped the Spirit make a late surge when she came on a substitute.

Williams probably should be starting. So should Kristie Mewis. The Spirit could use some possession, and Ordega’s passing was erratic today.

Today was also the return of Ali Krieger to the SoccerPlex. If you love Krieger, you saw a passionate captain and defensive rock. If you don’t, you saw a lot of griping to the ref and some puzzling passes.

And this:

And a lot of people think Tom Sermanni needs to find a way to move Krieger from center back to right back. Probably, but center backs seem to be in short supply these days.

Sermanni, ever the gentleman, came over for a quick work with the media even though the Pride needed to fly out of town. He wasn’t thrilled with conceding the lead twice. He is thrilled, though, with the prospect of Morgan getting into form alongside Marta.

Pugh is a little younger and Banini is a little less famous than the Pride attackers. But they showed glimmers of quality today, too. Pugh had a marvelous finish and kept her nerve on a last-minute penalty kick.

So both sides will get better. For the Pride, that might mean a late push for the playoffs. For the Spirit, that might mean eighth place.

 

 

 

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.”

 

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 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.

Now?

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.