Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is pleased that the Spirit have three clean sheets on the season.
The Washington Spirit are still waiting for production from their bevy of forwards. Other than a late tap-in last week from Katie Stengel on a ball that looked to be going in already, all the goals have come from defenders or midfielders. Against the Portland Thorns, the failure to get the ball in the net cost them two standings points in a match when they were clearly the better team on the night.
The good news – surprising given the past for both the Spirit and head coach Jim Gabarra, whose teams have been much more known for scoring than prevention thereof – is that the defense has been stalwart, allowing just one goal in four matches and currently riding a 204-minute shutout streak. But for a perfect sequence of passes that led to a Maya Hayes goal for Sky Blue in the 66th minute of that match, they could have four clean sheets instead of just three.
Paul Riley insisted Amanda DaCosta (near the top in this image) was offside on her game-tying goal. You be the judge.
It wasn’t the most elegant game, but then the Spirit aren’t an elegant team. This one went to the team that worked harder, and that was Washington. It was was even more of an accomplishment given that Tori Huster, their captain and one player above all who exemplifies their work ethic and toughness, was out with an injury.
The visiting Portland Thorns struck first in the 18th minute when Allie Long sent a perfectly placed through ball to Genoveva “Ayo” Añonma. Defender Megan Oyster slowed up, expecting an offside call, but Añonma continued with the play and tucked the ball into the lower left-hand corner. It was the first NWSL goal for the recently signed player from Equatorial Guinea.
Eight minutes later, Christine Nairn sent a ball over the top in the direction of Crystal Dunn in a clearly offside position, but it bounced off defender Kat Williamson and landed right at Amanda DaCosta’s feet at the top of the box. Da Costa let it bounce, then chipped it over goalkeeper Michelle Betos. It was another of the sort of breaks that the Spirit never seemed to get until this season. (And claims that Da Costa was offside seem invalid – see the screen cap at top.)
Just two minutes after that, Betos had trouble controlling a back pass, Crystal Dunn came swooping in, took it away from her, and had an easy putaway. It was roughly the nine-zillionth time the Spirit had gotten a goal off a Dunn steal, though she doesn’t usually do it singlehandedly. Dunn is now leading the NWSL in scoring and has either scored or helped score all four of the game-winning goals for the Spirit this year. Thorns head coach Paul Riley: “Crystal Dunn was exceptional. How she’s not on that plane to Canada is absolutely beyond me.”
But that would conclude the scoring. The second half would be hard-fought and scrappy, with four yellow cards issued to Portland players, two of which looked to be for professional fouls to take down Laura del Rio before she did something dangerous with the ball.
Yael Averbuch took a long time to make her presence felt, but when she finally did, it really counted.
Go figure the Spirit. A couple of weeks ago with a golden chance for points against weaker teams, they went to Houston and played to an uninspired draw, followed by an embarrassing loss in New Jersey that was 4-0 late in the game until Washington rebounded with two late goals. Some fans were about to give up on the team’s playoff hopes, even wondering how much the players really wanted to make the playoffs.
But maybe they just wanted to do it the hard way. They returned home for three matches against playoff-contending teams and got points out of all three: a draw against Portland followed by comeback wins against Kansas City and Chicago – all three secured by late goals, the last in the waning seconds of stoppage time.
And if you want to see a team that wants to make the playoffs, just look at the replay of that goal. Diana Matheson runs all out for forty yards to chase down a ball before it can go out-of-bounds, then has to slide to keep it in. (“There’s maybe three players in the league that have that thought process and that quality,” said Chicago head coach Rory Dames admiringly.) She then passes it into the box to Lisa De Vanna. De Vanna – one of the most volatile and emotional players I’ve ever seen on the field – corks her emotions and hangs onto the ball until Yael Averbuch comes open to her left, then passes it to her. Finally, Averbuch – a player who’s been as much detriment as benefit to the team so far this year despite her allocated status – instead of launching a field goal sends in a rocket of a shot perfectly aimed into the upper left corner, out of the reach of a leaping Karina LeBlanc.
Late heroics have been a hallmark of the team, though. They’ve scored four goals in stoppage time, and every single one of them has been good for standings points: for a tie against Sky Blue on May 21, a win against Houston on May 26, a tie after twice being down two goals to Boston on July 2, and then Averbuch’s shot for the win. If NWSL matches ended strictly at 90 minutes, the Spirit would have 28 standings points and be in 5th place instead of 3rd.
In a pivotal game with significant playoff implications and revised lineups for both teams, the Washington Spirit fell badly, 6-1, to the Portland Thorns. From being in playoff position for several weeks, after losing three straight Washington dropped to fifth, while Portland slipped past them to take fourth.
If at the end of the season the Spirit fail to make the playoffs, we might well be looking back at the 69:49 mark of this game. After giving up two goals early, DC had fought hard for the next hour, gotten one goal back, and looked the more likely team to get another. Then backup goalkeeper Chantel Jones muffed a backpass from Niki Cross, sending it right to Alex Morgan, who quickly settled the ball and chipped it over the Jones and into the net.
“The third goal was a killer,” said Spirit head coach Mark Parsons. “I thought we were going to get that second goal. When that third goal went in, we changed the shape, went to three at the back. Soon as we went three in the back, we lost our rhythm, and they looked more dangerous.”
The Spirit were largely able to hold Morgan and Sinclair in check, but it still wasn't enough
So if Portland Thorns head coach Cindy [Parlow] Cone wanted to upgrade her starting lineup, how many players would she take from the Spirit? No more than three, I would think: goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, defender Ali Krieger, and Diana Matheson, who’s down as a midfielder but should probably have a position designation all her own since she’s all over the field.
And it showed in this match, as Portland generally held sway over every part of the field. You mostly hear about their world-class forwards Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, but the Thorns midfield control and back line were as dominant if not more so, as the Spirit somehow managed to keep the terrible twosome from scoring in the run of play.