At 7 pm this evening just two of the twenty-five teams in the W-League still had but one blemish on their record. By 9 pm, it was just one, as the Spirit Reserves downed their Northeastern Conference rivals the Long Island Rough Riders by a score of 2-0.
And despite the score, the match wasn’t nearly that close – this was no “clash of Titans” but thoroughgoing domination by the home team everywhere except on the scoreboard. The Spirit Reserves took an astonishing 34 shots during the match and forced Rough Riders goalkeeper Samantha Whitney to make 15 saves, while the visitors got off just five shots, only two of which were on target. What kept it close was a combination of poor finishing by Washington and some backs-to-the-wall defending by Long Island – I counted at least three times that Rough Rider defenders blocked shots that would have gone in, including twice by goalpost defenders on corner kicks.
It didn’t help that the visitors lost two of their best players in the first half, defender Sue Weber going down on only the 2nd minute and having to be piggybacked off the field, while in the 24th minute forward Kim DeCesare was down and eventually limped off the field.
Fortunately, the reports are that it was only a sprained ankle in both cases. Update: Long Island has reported via Twitter that both players are expected to miss “at least two weeks” – that’s a big chunk of the W-League season, alas.
The Reserves struck for their first goal in the 18th minute, midfielder Katie Yensen sending a cross in from deep on the left that Amber Stobbs – whose family had arrived from England just the previous day to watch her play – knocked in at the far post. They would continue to dominate possession and harass the Rough Riders players all over the field, making them struggle even to get the ball out of their own end. I imagine the Long Island defenders having nightmares tonight about being swarmed by red-jerseyed opponents. But time and time again either the service was too strong or off-target, or the shot went wide or right into a defender or the goalkeeper.
“We need to be more clinical in the final third, myself included,” Stobbs said. “Just need to be more calm in front of goal, just know that it’s not the worst thing if you don’t put the ball away.”
Head coach Mark Parsons had the same evaluation. “Very good on the ball and very good in the defensive and central third but needed a bit more quality in the final third. But that’s not a bad thing to want to improve. So happy with everything but that final decision. We talked about it at halftime, a bit better final decision, a bit more quality, and didn’t quite come, but that’s okay. We’ll get back to work.”
The score would remain an unnerving 1-0 for 82 excruciating minutes, with the possibility always open that a single defensive breakdown or poor play would, despite the overall domination, give Long Island the equalizer. That moment almost came in the 57th, when an over-paced, under-aimed backpass eluded goalkeeper Didi Haracic and continued on toward the goalmouth, only to bounce off the post. It would take until the final minute of regulation for a sequence of passes – something the Reserves excel at – ending as one from Morgan Reuther finally found midfielder Jennifer Skogerboe with some time and space to work. Showing the composure that her striker teammates had been lacking on the evening, she took her time, chose her spot, and fired the ball into the left side of goal from near the top of the box, finally ending the suspense.
The victory means that if the Spirit Reserves win out – admittedly no guarantee in a season when last year’s three top teams (the Reserves, the Pali Blues, and the Ottawa Fury) already have three losses and two ties among them – they’ll be the regular-season champions. “It’s great,” said Stobbs when told this. “And I’m sure that will stay there through all the hard work we’ve been doing. And we’ve got a great team. Every individual is good enough to play.”
Parsons was more philosophical. “It feels okay. We’ve got a few frustrations and a few improvements to make. There’s a lot more to come.”
The Spirit Reserves are exactly halfway through their season with a 5-1-0 record. But all but one of their remaining games are on the road. They face North Jersey on Saturday, Long Island again the following Saturday (a match that will be webcast according to the W-League website), New York (the team that gave them their only loss) the next day, and New Jersey the Saturday after that. Then they finally return to the Soccerplex on Wednesday, July 10, at 4:30 pm to take on the Fredericksburg Impact as part of their third and final doubleheader with the NWSL Spirit, who play the Chicago Red Stars at 7:30.
All photos courtesy of Larry J. Clark/Soccer-Shots.