The underrated long throw-in (NWSL semifinals)

A few years ago at the NSCAA Convention, a prominent ACC men’s soccer coach gave a presentation on one of the hot topics of the year: “Development vs. Winning.”

With video, he shamed an opponent that beat his team with a long throw-in. At his program, of course, they teach proper development, not little tricks like that to win games.

A few days later, I saw someone score a Premier League goal off, you guessed it, a long throw-in. So I started to wonder what level of play was above the Premier League, because he’s apparently preparing his players for that.

Yesterday in Portland, Jessica McDonald’s long throw-in was a potent weapon for the Western New York Flash in its shocking 4-3 extra-time win over the Portland Thorns, eliminated the regular-season champion from the NWSL playoffs. The commentators marveled, and I’m sure some purists howled.

Surely no one would tell youth coaches to ditch the “footskills” emphasis and start training U-9s to turn their arms into trebuchets. But beyond the youth level, long throw-ins are simply part of the game.

And it’s not as if the Thorns play on a narrow field — at least, not any more. We see some tiny fields in the NWSL and MLS (see NYCFC at Yankee Stadium), but this field is a substantial 75 yards wide unless someone ordered a surprise re-painting of the lines.

The Flash did a few unpalatable things to reach the final, abetted by a referee who either didn’t see or didn’t care about some of the jiu-jitsu Western New York employed to slow down the Thorns. Coach Paul Riley probably didn’t plan to be sent off, but his efforts to work the refs were certainly not in vain. And we could argue that it’s unfair for the Flash to be in the playoffs in the first place given Seattle’s much tougher schedule.

But long throw-ins are simply something all teams have to defend. The Washington Spirit surely will be aware of the danger when they face the Flash in the final.

 

 

NWSL, Spirit-Flash report: We want more of this &*&&%ing league

Tonight’s Washington Spirit-Western New York Flash game was infuriating, frustrating, bizarre, comical and downright baffling. And I’m pissed off.

I’m pissed off because … the season is almost over. And I want more of this.

I don’t want to see a bunch of national team players who’ve already had a ticker-tape parade and endorsement deals strutting around on a dadgum “Victory Tour” playing meaningless exhibitions. Not now, anyway.

I don’t want to see sycophantic pseudo-journalists and radio hosts booking these players for interviews in which every question is some variant of “So how did it feel when you got that medal?”

I want to see Crystal Dunn racing toward the goal, stopped only by the skill, speed and impeccable timing of Whitney Engen.

I want to see Chantel Jones atoning for a howler by flinging herself across the goal and to the upper corner to swat away Dunn’s best shot of the night.

I want to see Franny Ordega turning a defender one way, then another, then another.

I want to see Christine Nairn blasting 35-yard shots that either go in or rattle the crossbar.

Farther afield, I want to see Christen Press challenging Becky Sauerbrunn. I want to see Alyssa Naeher single-handedly keeping the Boston Breakers from utter catastrophe.

I want to see stuff like this:

And I want to see players develop. I want to see Nairn shake the habit she showed tonight of getting caught in possession. I want to see Kealia Ohai pushing herself to make that extra move to create chances. I want to see Julie Johnston trying to organize a back line to contain Dunn, Ordega and Diana Matheson.

Last and not least, I want to see referees develop. I want to see Kari Seitz and Margaret Domka come back from the accolades of a World Cup or Olympic assignment and be humbled by botching a domestic game. (I can only hope their assessors are honest with them.) I want to see PRO called to account for refs who think grabbing an opponent’s shoulder and shoving her down is a legal shoulder charge.

There’s some debate over a play late in tonight’s game in which Ali Krieger tried to take a quick restart, only to find Michelle Heyman standing in her way. Krieger kicked, and the ball wound up on a Spirit arm. The call: handball on the Spirit. I thought it was an atrocious call, figuring Heyman deserved yellow for delaying the restart. At the time, I based this solely on that old standby of referee critics: “What I recall seeing in other games.” Others have told me Krieger was supposed to ask ref to give her the 10 yards.

I think I’m right, based on this passage from the U.S. Soccer Advice to Referees:

Typical examples of causing a delay in this way are kicking the ball away when a decision has gone against them, picking up the ball and not giving the ball to the attacking team or to the referee, moving to retrieve a ball some distance away and then walking slowly to bring the ball back, and standing so close by the ball as to effectively interfere with all reasonably likely directions for the restart. These ploys must be met with an immediate response because, as a result, a delay is no longer theoretical; it has been forced and the challenge to Law 13 must be dealt with swiftly.

Heyman was practically on top of the ball, so I think the part in bold applies.

But the part that had Mark Parsons engaging in a lengthy postgame rant was just basic control of the match. It wasn’t even so much this match as it was his team’s last two or three, where he says referees have just let obvious fouls go. This match, he says, wasn’t proper soccer and was difficult to watch. Parsons went out of his way to say the ref didn’t decide the outcome of the game. Just its quality.

Refs, like players, aren’t going to get better prancing around the country like the Harlem Globetrotters. They’re going to get better when they’re on the field for a domestic league game that matters.

A game that makes fans stand up and applaud when a Nigerian player leaves the field after a terrific effort. A game that makes fans in the USA’s capital embrace a Canadian. A game that rattles coaches’ senses so strongly that Flash coach Aaran Lines thinks he had a perfect view of the goal line when he’s 70 yards away on a bench. (And thinks his team had momentum at the end of the game.)

Bottom line: This NWSL season is ending far too quickly. Players need more. Refs need more. Fans need more.

So next year, my advice would be to take a break for the Olympics. Play a few friendlies — give the non-international players a couple of games to stay sharp and the fans a nice discounted night out. But then play longer into the fall.

That might cut down on players spending their offseasons elsewhere, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Tori Huster has been going back and forth between the NWSL and Australia, and now she’s banged up and not starting.

Regardless of how long the season goes, it deserves more attention. You want development? It’s here. You want drama? It’s here.

And I’ll give the reminder I always give the posers who’d rather sit around eating meat pies in their basements watching soccer on TV instead of going out to see the supposedly lesser games live … nothing beats live soccer.

TV isn’t going to do Crystal Dunn’s slicing offensive moves any justice. YouTube certainly won’t. You have to be there.

Not just once every couple of years, when the national team decides to come to your town to walk through a game, graciously accept your applause and then sign about 8,000 autographs. Several times a year, whenever you can make it to the stadium. (Weeknight driving to the SoccerPlex is not fun.)

You’ll see drama. You’ll see development.

The Spirit only have one more home game left this season.

And that pisses me off. Not that I think they deserve a home playoff game — based on their current results, they don’t. I just want to see more.

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.

Washington Spirit vs. Western New York: Blech

Writing a full-blown recap of last night’s game seems about as pointless as an autopsy on Big Jim from Jim Croce’s You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. He was cut in about 100 places, and he was shot in a couple more. OK, so which of the stab or shooting wounds did it? Um … all of them?

Stats and scores can be deceiving sometimes. I think back to the Spirit’s first two games with Boston, both 1-1 draws. In the first game, they were outplayed, but it took one play in the dying minutes for the Breakers to snag a goal. (I still think Sydney Leroux may have fouled Ali Krieger on the way to getting that goal, but that kind of foul is rarely seen, and the call is rarely made. So anyway.) In the second game, the Spirit outplayed Boston, and the Breakers walked away wiping their brows in relief.

Last night, there was nothing deceiving about the numbers. The Spirit was outshot 20something to 1. Ashlyn Harris wasn’t at her best last week, but she was back in form on this occasion, keeping the score from getting totally out of hand.

Looking back, it would be pretty difficult to imagine the Spirit getting a result in Rochester. The Flash had no injuries; the Spirit started the game without a single player from its preferred back four, though Ali Krieger came back on later. That left a bunch of worn-out midfielders in front of a second-string defense, all against a “physical” Flash team. Lesser mortals wouldn’t have even left the bus and walked onto the field. The Spirit went out there and played, albeit poorly.

I do need to pay respect to one group in Western New York. While everyone on Twitter except Devo complains about the canned music during games, one group is trying to create a legit atmosphere.

I have a soft spot in my heart for fans who try to make a difference. The Spirit fans have been tremendous — not only do they come to the SoccerPlex for the great atmosphere and social benefits, but they sit at home and watch their team through impossible situations on the road. And this group of Flash fans deserves a lot of credit. Maybe, like Kansas City Wizards fans who endured years of artificial atmosphere, they’ll be rewarded down the road.

Back to the Spirit — the debate now is whether they can get a result at all in their last four games. It’s possible, for the following reasons:

– They’re getting healthier. Krieger played a bit in the second half. Robyn Gayle warmed up over the weekend. With Marisa Abegg signed, they can at least field another player who lists “defense” as her job description.

– Sky Blue is also battered and reeling, and the Spirit have two games remaining against them. They played well enough to get a result at Yurcak Field four weeks, and it just didn’t happen.

(Let me offer a quick aside here: Look at the NWSL injury report. Now look at which teams are in form. This is a league with small rosters and a smaller salary cap. On any team, the replacement for an injured national team player is going to be an inexperienced player making a pittance. Good teams don’t make excuses, but good pundits and fans look at the situation for what it is.)

– The Spinal Tap drummer theory. No, the “law of averages” didn’t save poor old Mick Shrimpton. But basic probability suggests that over the course of a season, something good should happen every once in a while. Even atrocious Premier League teams that pay players 20% of the league leaders’ salary budgets manage a few wins somewhere along the way.

– The fans. The last three Spirit games are at home. That’ll provide more motivation that being fed to the lions at Sahlen’s Stadium last night.

I can’t blame the Spirit for not getting up for last night’s game. At home against Chicago, Seattle and Sky Blue? That will be a better test of this team’s pride and professionalism.

Washington Spirit vs. Western NY Flash: Rock bottom

The bus ride was, by all accounts, pretty good for a change. Then the wheels came off.

You could make the case that the Spirit played better in Rochester than they did in greater Kansas City, where FC Kansas City’s wasteful finishing kept the score to a respectable 2-0 margin. Washington showed a little more offensive creativity Friday than it did on Sunday, and the Flash wasted few good chances for a 4-0 final.

But the defensive lapses that led to those chances were devastating.

– A midfield giveaway, leaving Robyn Gayle with two players on the wing, then an utter failure to track Carli Lloyd as she strolled right through the box and waited for the cross. That was reminiscent of the Kansas City goal in which Lauren Cheney could’ve caught the ball and autographed it before shooting.

– The second goal was the only one with some bad luck involved, a deflected cross. But still, Lloyd had a step on a defender.

– Another midfield giveaway, and then again Carli Lloyd runs unimpeded through the heart of the defense for a 1-on-1 with Ashlyn Harris.

– A prototypical garbage-time goal, though give Brittany Taylor credit for a superb finish.

Offensively, the passing combinations were there. Gayle, freed to play outside back with Candace Chapman going 90, got forward on the left and started some terrific sequences. But somehow, the chances wound up at the feet of players not known for their offense — Domenica Hodak and Holly King.

Conny Pohlers will get there. But she’s not a fan of artificial turf, and she has not yet adjusted to the speed of the fake grass and the defensive pressure. On her one good chance Friday, she took just a split-second too long. She has the best potential for breaking the Spirit’s epic scoreless drought, which dates back to their 4-2 win at Seattle.

That said, she still needs to get the ball. If Diana Matheson is able to return on Wednesday, that should help — defenses will have two proven scoring threats to deal with, and though they haven’t trained together, they have the veteran savvy that should help them connect.

Elsewhere on the field, the Spirit’s lineup shuffle has yet to turn up a winner. We have some evidence now that Julia Roberts wasn’t the problem in midfield. The Flash commentators raved about Stephanie Ochs from her tenure in Western New York last summer, but she wasn’t starting. Given the busy schedule over the next two weeks, the Spirit may have to rotate some players in and out of the lineup, but they’re struggling to find a combination that clicks.

I’ve almost jumped on the “Ali Krieger to midfield” bandwagon. Yes, she’s fine going forward, but I think good attacking outside backs are something teams shouldn’t give up easily. The problem that we’ve seen a couple of times is that she’s not able to get all the way back on defense. Rewind a couple of goals the Spirit has conceded, and you’ll find her caught upfield. She may be the best right back in the world, but she’s not Superwoman. Maybe she’d be better off at midfield with a defender behind her who only occasionally overlaps? Perhaps. Now who’s that defender?

And it’s fair to say Ashlyn Harris is fed up. See video part 1 and part 2 (thanks to @RocDevo for posting those).

A couple of excerpts:

Some Twitterati think she’s addressing coach Mike Jorden. But it’s clearly more than the coach. You could have me and my E license out there running the team, and the defense shouldn’t give Carli Lloyd those opportunities. In some cases, the players on the field may be the wrong players for the job. That falls on the coaches and personnel managers, but Harris isn’t one to say, “Oh, it’s OK, the coach never should’ve put you on the field.” Tori Huster never expected to be a center back marking Abby Wambach early this season, but she stepped up and did it. Harris wants the rest of the team to set the bar that high, if not higher.

The Spirit’s slide has given a lot of people a chance to say “I told you so.” But the season has really been backwards.

On May 17, the Spirit’s record was 1-2-3. The team looked clearly better than Chicago and Seattle, though the Reign had two world-class players coming in, and roughly even with Boston. And the immediate future looked bright: Young players like Caroline Miller were making progress in picking up the pro game, and Candace Chapman would surely be healthy any day now. We didn’t know the names of the reinforcements who turned out to be Conny Pohlers and Toni Pressley, but the team clearly had plans to plug a couple of holes on the field.

Now Miller is out for the season. Chapman is back but not herself. Diana Matheson, the revelation of the season’s first few weeks, has been out. Teams have to be able to react to such adversity, and the Spirit has not.

Another comment to single out:

Certainly that was the case early in the season. The alarm bells weren’t ringing when the Spirit followed up the 4-2 win in Seattle with an 0-2 loss at Portland. Travel problems and some bad luck made the 0-3 loss in Boston look worse than it was.

But since the three-week break in the Spirit’s bizarre schedule, the team hasn’t been there. In the home loss to the Flash, the Spirit played a good second half, but Jorden conceded “the team didn’t come out ready to play in the first half.” Then came KC, then this game.

If you flip the last four games with the first four games of the season, you could say the Spirit’s season has gone as expected. But as former D.C. resident Bob Mould once put it, expectations only mean you really think you know what’s coming next — and you don’t.

The Spirit should avoid falling to Atlanta Beat depths. Matheson should come back and provide the missing link between the midfield and Pohlers. Chapman and Pressley should figure it out in central defense.

But in this backwards season, “should” means nothing. And it has a nasty way of becoming “should’ve.”

Washington Spirit vs. Western New York: Is it luck?

“My socks and shoes always match. Is it luck?” – Primus

Let’s start by giving credit where it’s due. Saturday night at the Plex, the Western New York Flash dominated the first half and defended well in the second half. Outstanding young goalkeeper Adrianna Franch was alert when she needed to be, particularly in poking the ball away from Stephanie Ochs outside the box on a breakaway.

And if we’re going to talk about luck and injuries, the Flash could certainly say, “Did you see Sarah Huffman out there? Oh, that’s right — she was home watching her team and the U.S. national team on two streams.”

If the Spirit had gotten a couple of breaks, the game might have been 1-1. And if it had been 1-1 in the 60th minute, the game may well have played out a bit differently from that point.

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the reasons soccer karma owes the Spirit more than a few favors:

1. The central defense conundrum. In the allocation process, the Spirit got Alina Garciamendez, the Stanford All-American who surely would have been a top draft pick had she not been allocated. But she went to Frankfurt instead.

The Spirit’s biggest free agent signing was Candace Chapman, longtime Canadian international and two-time WPS champion. She played 45 minutes a few weeks ago, but the team saw that she was not yet fit to play more than that. They tried her again on Saturday, and she spent most of the first half grimacing.

One thing that went right for the Spirit: Toni Pressley was cleared to play, an important piece of good timing given Robyn Gayle’s engagement with the Canadian national team. So after one practice, she was tossed into the mix alongside Chapman. Individually, Pressley was fine, showing a few flashes that justified the Spirit’s hype. And in the second half, when she was paired with former Florida State teammate Tori Huster, the defense wasn’t bad at all.

But in the first half, having a hobbled backline leader with a newcomer is far from ideal.

Which leads to …

2. What the heck was that first goal? Looks like it hit Ashlyn Harris’ glove, then the FRONT of the post, then spun in. I know we’re near Washington, but that’s a lot of spin.

3. What made Tori Huster go flying on this corner kick?

We might trust the ref a bit more if he hadn’t somehow failed to notice a couple of Flash players with socks around their ankles and no evident shin guards. (Ironically, the Spirit Reserves’ Alex Doll was sent to the sidelines in the first game of the doubleheader so that she could produce the mandatory protective equipment.)

The Spirit can take a couple of positives in the sense that they were creative in the second half, and Pressley settled in nicely. Conny Pohlers is on the way. But it’s getting a little late in the season for moral victories and a general notion that the team is improving. I think the Spirit would be a dangerous team in the playoffs, but the math dictates that it’ll be a difficult climb to get there.

I might have a heightened sense of empathy for unlucky soccer teams after coaching an All-Star team over the weekend in which we had one ref who let our opponents knock us all over the field, then another ref who would arrest people for driving 66 mph in a 65 zone. (Nothing like two PKs and a direct free kick just outside the box to rattle a 9-year-old goalkeeper.) The team made great progress in a short time, and while they weren’t going to earn a trophy, the final score of their last game really wasn’t fair.

And so when you look at the Spirit — and sure, my sense of empathy may be heightened by being around the team all the time — you see an organization doing a lot of things right. They have the best playing surface in the league. They’re committed to an attractive style of play. They’re selling tickets. And they’ve yet to win a home game.

These things even out at some point, don’t they?

Washington Spirit vs. Western NY Flash: Dan Borislow was wrong

Those of you who recall WPS may remember that Dan Borislow was an immense supporter of U.S. national team players. Other players, not so much. The idea of fans cheering for anyone other than Abby Wambach almost struck him as repugnant.

I never asked Borislow how much WPS he watched before buying the team formerly known as the Washington Freedom. He would have seen ample evidence that fans can embrace players who aren’t the U.S. stars. Washington’s crowd favorites included those who had put down roots with the organization (Rebecca Moros) and those from overseas (Sonia Bompastor).

Tonight proved the point once again. The fans turned up and screamed for Abby. By the end, they were also screaming for the home team, which got a late penalty kick and another 1-1 draw.

Make no mistake — Abby Wambach gave a complete demonstration of why she’s a star, and I don’t just mean the time she intimidated the experienced international referee Kari Seitz into blowing a whistle on a questionable call. (No such luck when she sprinted 80 yards, the fastest Wambach sprint I’ve ever seen, to complain about the PK call in the Spirit’s favor. Strange thing to do when you’re not even the captain.)

Wambach won balls in the air, as you’d expect. Someone a couple of seats away from me marveled at her accuracy and precision. Put the ball near her head, and she’ll flick it to a teammate in a good spot. I’m not sure TV does any justice to this remarkable skill.

She had her chances, too. One clanged off the crossbar. Another produced a jaw-dropping save from national teammate Ashlyn Harris. (Note to self: We forgot to ask Harris about that play in postgame, so remember to ask her some other time how the hell she managed to keep that ball out.)

So let’s spare a thought for Washington’s Tori Huster, who has drawn the most difficult and thankless job in women’s soccer aside from explaining it to Sepp Blatter. The midfielder had never played center back before preseason. Tonight, she spent 90 minutes going up against Abby Wambach. And she deflected praise for keeping Wambach scoreless on the season: “I know that I have the girls around me that will cover me.”

Wambach did get an assist, as Ashlyn Harris confirmed. A long Flash free kick floated into the box, and Wambach ever so slightly nudged it with her head. Sam Kerr was equal parts lucky and good, knocking it in as Harris scrambled to cover the post.

That was in the 85th minute. Shortly thereafter, the Spirit got a call in their favor, as Jasmyne Spencer fell in the box. Some Twitsters say dive. The Flash folks in the postgame interview wondered if the ball was too far away from Spencer. Come on — she’s Jasmyne Spencer. If the ball’s on the playing surface, she can get to it.

Adrianna Franch, the terrific young Flash goalkeeper, guessed correctly. But Diana Matheson placed it perfectly.

And the crowd went wild.

That’s a crowd of 4,569, packed into the Soccerplex stands and grass. The beer garden was full. The hill under the beer garden was full. And maybe a few fans showed up knowing no one but Abby Wambach, then learned to love some of the home team’s players.

Matheson continues to be one of the best players on the field, looking dangerous whenever she gets the ball. Ali Krieger gets forward to join the attack, then returns for timely defensive interventions. Lori Lindsey was an effective midfield general tonight.

Both teams will be better by summer. Good plays alternated with miscommunications. The young Spirit attack had an off night, though Stephanie Ochs had an entertaining battle all evening with right back/team president Alex Sahlen. Harris spoke frankly about her need to keep yelling to keep her young teammates dialed in. (If Harris switched to MMA and fought Ronda Rousey, I think Rousey would get her in an armbar, only to relinquish it in fear of Harris’s wrath.)

But this was a great night. The fans came out in strong numbers and got a dramatic, entertaining game.

Just one thing marred the evening. Around the 90th minute, a hard-struck ball nailed Wambach in the head. She slowly got up and kept playing hard all through stoppage time, but at the final whistle, she needed help. Diagnosing head injuries from afar is a stupid and pointless thing to do, but we can only hope she heals fully and quickly.

The Flash were the first team to play the Spirit in the Soccerplex, and they’ll be the first team to play here twice, returning in June. Maybe Wambach will get some time to spend with the fans then. And maybe the fans will know more of their Spirit team, which is proving to be more resilient and dangerous than the preseason prognosticators imagined.

Midweek Myriad: Marta, Nadal, handball, 1260s, etc.

One of the joys of following a hundred sports or so is that you’re not stuck dissecting the Super Bowl to the point that it becomes joyless. Instead, we have all this:

Marta signs with Western New York. A WPS shocker. Good news from a media point of view because it means more of us will be paying attention to veteran Rochester reporter Jeff DiVeronica, who jokes on Twitter that Marta will push him up to 1,000 followers.

The conventional wisdom would be that Marta would sign with The Club Formerly And Still Partially Known As The Washington Freedom But Also With Magic Jack In The Name (TCFASPKATWFBAWMJITN) so that Dan Borislow would have a marquee player to market in South Florida and perhaps somewhere in Washington once the team hires marketing and sales staffs and finds venues in which to play. Instead, Borislow has given us the best WPS smack talk in the league’s brief history, via Our Game: “This came as a total surprise. I am glad she will be playing in the league. She will discover we are the team to beat, so I hope she is at the top of her game when she plays us.”

For all the talk in MLS about “Rivalry Week,” maybe we should be circling the calendar for TCFASPKATWFBAWMJITN’s visit to Rochester.

Nadal loses. And it’s a pity. Tennis could use a Grand Slam charge from the charismatic, humble Spaniard, but an injury has derailed his Australian Open campaign. Nadal didn’t want to use the injury as an excuse, but he wasn’t fooling opponent David Ferrer. Class acts all around. (NYT)

– Winter X Games time. And the NYT notes that several more X sports may be joining the Winter Olympic program. No word on women’s ski jumping, though that sport has a better-defined set of rules and so forth.

The Summer Olympics might be too big. The Winter Olympics aren’t, and it’s hard to begrudge slopestyle its place. But if the IOC adds the X sports without women’s ski jumping, the excuses will ring hollow.

Handball heaven. It’s only $20 away. At least the highlights are free, so I was able to scout semifinalist France in their win over my buddies from Iceland in a rematch of the 2008 Olympic final. (Dan Steinberg also enjoyed covering that team in Beijing and linked to my highest-read blog post ever.)

Iceland plays Croatia for fifth place on Friday. The semifinals the same day: France-Sweden, Denmark-Spain.

Also this weekend:

  • Cyclocross World Championships. The muddier, the better.
  • U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in my former hometown of Greensboro.
  • Luge World Championships. U.S. sliders not having a particularly good year.
  • Paralympic Athletics World Championships.
  • Millrose Games.
  • Strikeforce: Middleweight and welterweight title fights, plus Herschel Walker.
  • Final weekend of Tata Steel chess classic, where U.S. player Hikaru Nakamura shares the lead in an elite group.