Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe was hands-down the Player of the Match Saturday evening.
Washington Spirit fans have suffered a good bit the last two seasons. In 2017 and 2018, their team went 7-32-9, the worst two-season record in US women’s professional soccer history (yes, even worse than the 2010-11 Atlanta Beat and the 2015-16 Boston Breakers). Obviously, changes were necessary, and – as discussed in my previous post – they were made. The question, of course, is how much difference did the changes make.
So far, the team looks pretty good. I don’t think anyone expects the Spirit to win the championship or even to make the playoffs, but they’ve battled in every game they’ve had so far, with crisp possession passing more reminiscent of the 2016 near championship season than their more recent play. The young back line has held up so far, helped in the crunch with some stunning saves by Aubrey Bledsoe, including two save-of-the-week candidates from just last night.
Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh grab a snack from the new player lounge.
When we last encountered the Washington Spirit, they had completed a dismal season in next-to-last place after a 1-1 draw with the last place team, Sky Blue FC.
Since then, they have hired a new head coach and several assistant coaches, acquired a new majority owner and new CEO, and churned over the roster yet again. Oh, and they’ve added a team mascot.
Arielle Ship scored for the Spirit in her first 2018 minutes at the Soccerplex.
In their final match of the 2018 season, in a match delayed from Saturday evening to Sunday morning due to unrelenting lightning, the 8th-place Washington Spirit played to a 1-1 draw with 9th-place Sky Blue FC with Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe setting an NWSL record with 108 saves in a season.
I still remember the first women’s professional soccer match in the District of Columbia. It was of course the inaugural match of the Women’s United Soccer Association, on April 14, 2001, as Mia Hamm’s Washington Freedom took on Brandi Chastain’s Bay Area CyberRays. My wife and I got to our front-and-center seats just in time for the breathtaking sight of a bald eagle flying over. The game was less breathtaking, a 1-0 win for the Freedom on a late penalty kick by the Brazilian Pretinha after Brandi was called for a foul in the box on Mia. But it was still quite an experience to be part of 34,148 experiencing history.
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For the next three years, it was the normal thing to go into the District to see women’s professional soccer. I’d get on at my local Metro station (back when Metro could be trusted to get you there on time) and take the 15-minute ride to Stadium-Armory, then the short walk to RFK Stadium where eight thousand or so of us – unfortunately the 34k number has yet to be duplicated anywhere – would gather in its seemingly cavernous confines to cheer on the exploits of Mia, later Abby Wambach, and the rest of the Washington Freedom.
From the 2010 Washington Freedom media day: Gabarra with players Caitlin Miskel, Abby Wambach, Cat Whitehill, and Becky Sauerbrunn.
Today’s firing of head coach Jim Gabarra by the Washington Spirit is a sad end (if it is an end) to a long and storied soccer career.
Even before becoming head coach of the Women’s United Soccer Association’s Washington Freedom in 2000, he had a long and varied list of accomplishments. He played soccer for Connecticut College and was inducted into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989. He played outdoor soccer for several second-tier teams as well as getting 14 caps with the men’s national team, including participating in the 1988 Summer Olympics.
But he made his real mark in indoor soccer and Futsal, captaining the US Futsal team 1986 to 1996, leading the team to third place in 1989 and second in 1992. He had several outings as a player-coach, most notably with the Washington Warthogs of the Continental Indoor Soccer League where – in a harbinger of things to come – he signed the league’s only female players, first Collette Cunningham and then Kristine Lilly.
He was perhaps a somewhat surprising choice to enter the WUSA coaching ranks, which mostly consisted of former college coaches like Mark Krikorian and Ian Sawyers. Bringing along former Warthogs teammate Clyde Watson as an assistant, he had a disappointing experience initially, as the Freedom – despite having Mia Hamm on the roster – finished tied for last in the league. But he revamped the roster in the offseason, drafted a promising young forward named Abby Wambach, and made a key roster acquisition in signing German national teamer Steffi Jones, who didn’t count as an international player due to her American father. Once Jones joined the team and Hamm returned from offseason knee surgery, the Freedom were almost unstoppable, though they fell just short in the WUSA championship, 3-2-, to the Carolina Courage.
As the champions of WPSL’s Colonial Conference, the Washington Spirit Reserves earned the right to host the East Region final four on their home turf at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, MD. Unfortunately, it did them little good as they fell to the visiting Cleveland Ambassadors, 3-0, in the first match of the weekend.
It wasn’t entirely for lack of personnel. Though they were missing some key players like Kaleigh Riehl, Paula Germino-Watnick, and Chinyelu Asher, they still had ones like Bridgette Andrzejewski, Meaghan Nally, Marissa Sullivan, and Jessica Berlin. “I had to beg people to stay and come, so we did have more people than expected,” said head coach KJ Spisak. “That was just me begging.”
The Washington Spirit Reserves’ final regular-season match, against Williamsburg-based Legacy W76, looked to promise a real battle: two teams tied atop the standings fighting for the conference title when the previous match was a (0-0) draw. However, the reality was much less suspenseful, as the Reserves ran away with a 6-0 win, leaving little doubt as to the best team in the Colonial Conference.
Kristin Schnurr had two goals and an assist on the day.
I wasn’t expecting a particularly exciting match at Stone Ridge today given that the Reserves had already played opponents Old Dominion Cesena FC on the road and won easily, 6-0. That tally was matched in this match but for the first ten minutes it didn’t look that way, with Cesena much more on the attack than Washington and forcing goalkeeper Jess Berlin to make a save early on.
In the 10th minute, though, an attempted Old Dominion clearance fell right to an open Bridgette Andrzejewski on the right flank. She drove to the end line, drawing the defense to her, then sending a cross in to an open Paula Germino-Watnick in the goalmouth, who had an easy putaway.
Less than a minute later, it was close to an instant replay despite the defense looking better organized: Andrzejewski to the right end line, cross, PGW shot in the net. There was then a long discussion between the center referee with the linesman, who had raised his flag for offside, but the CR overruled him and let the goal stand.
Come the 16th minute, and another poor Cesena clearance comes to Germino-Watnick at the top of the box. Unchallenged, she took her time to settle the ball and fired it into the upper back netting to pick up a hat trick inside of seven minutes. “She’s on fire right now,” said assistant coach JP Sousa. “She’s been able to train with the pros a little bit, been invited in for a few days, did really well. Then she played today, and you saw what she did. Three goals in six minutes is no joke.”
This year’s Spirit Reserves schedule is a bit nuts even by WPSL standards: just six matches, the first three on the road, the next three all at home. The road matches are now done (draw-win-draw), and the homestand began with a solid 2-0 win over Virginia Beach City FC.
Back in 2014, the storied Braddock Road organization – which spawned players and coaches like Amanda Cromwell, Jill Ellis, and Mia Hamm – decided to establish a W-League team to give their outstanding 1995ers some high level experience between graduating from high school and heading off to college.
But now it’s 2018. Former U-20 national teamer Carlyn Baldwin is playing in Portugal. Washington Spirit draft pick Rachel Moore is in grad school. Nat Larkin, Elysse Branton, and the rest have also graduated and moved on. Kaleigh Riehl is still an undergrad but – as noted in my previous article – is with the Spirit Reserves this year. And according to head coach Larry Best, BRYC’s girl’s soccer flagship age group is now the 2006ers, currently competing at the U-13 level. “They’re way better than the 95s were,” he said.
“The 95s are graduated,” said Best. “Matter of fact, I was at a wedding the other night – one of our 95s got married! So we had a little reunion. Yes, that group really founded the team, when we started in the W-League. But this is about development for our young players. Our college players still come home. The bulk of our players will be college players, but then we fill in with all of our youth players. We start with our graduating seniors to make sure that they get ready for college, and then we work down the line to our youth players, rising seniors and rising juniors.”