Two MD teams each one win away from their Final Four

W-League leading scorer Shan Jones of the Piranhas (left) battles Spirit Reserves defender Jennifer Skogerboe (right)

As we head into the postseason for the elite amateur women’s leagues, two Maryland teams – the Washington Spirit Reserves in the W-League and the ASA Chesapeake Charge in the WPSL – are each just one win away from going to their league’s Final Four. And the latter game may will include an appearance by Gatorade’s High School Athlete of the Year.

In the W-League, the Washington Spirit Reserves play Friday night at 8 pm against the Virginia Beach Piranhas at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex. The Reserves have had a somewhat uneven season, sometime bursting forth for wins of 7-0 or 8-1, but more often struggling to put the ball in the net. In fact, except for those two matches, the team has never scored more than two goals in a game. On the flip side, they have one of the stingiest defenses in the league, having given up just nine goals.

The three players to watch in the attack are Amber Stobbs, Ashley Herndon, and Tiffany Brown, who are generally arrayed up front with Brown in the middle and the other two on either flank. Stobbs leads the team in scoring with 4 goals and 9 assists – and the latter figure is tied for tops in the entire league. Herndon is the primary beneficiary of Stobbs’s assists with 6 goals. She also has 1 assist. And despite having taken 34 shots, Brown has just 2 goals and 2 assists. Her putting her shots on target could be a key to victory.

Washington has a solid midfield with Hayley Siegel and U-20 national teamer Alex Doll. But the strength of the team is the back line. With Jennifer Skogerboe, Shannon Collins, Jordan Grant, Meghan Cox, Molly Menchel, and Danielle Hubka, they have a plethora of solid options as well as players who can contribute on the attack – Skogerboe in particular has 1 goal and 3 assists. Didi Haracic is the regular goalkeeper, but she is seldom kept busy and has faced only 41 shots all season.

The team is on its third coach in the last two years: Mike Jorden moved up to coach the pro team at the beginning of the year and was replaced by U-20 coach Mark Parsons. When Jorden was fired, Parsons moved up, which put the team in the hands of JP Sousa. But several players have stated that the transition has been smooth.

The Piranhas are higher-scoring but less stingy. They’ve averaged close to three goals per game and have only been shut out once, but that was against the Reserves. Their go-to player is Middle Tennessee State grad and Welsh national teamer Shan Jones, who led the W-League in both points and goals. The heart of the team, though, is a clutch of Nigerians: midfielder Esther Anyanwu, midfielder Linda Chukwuji, and forward Nkese Udoh. The former two were signed sight-unseen last year by head coach Wendy Waddell.

They have a reputation for being a very physical team, and last year’s DC United Women (who had to play them four times) never looked forward to the matches. Their last match this past Saturday was a 2-1 win for the Piranhas, but the Spirit Reserves were missing a host of key players, including Brown, Hubka, Menchel, Ashley Spivey, and Andi Sullivan. We’ll find out Friday evening how the teams match up when they’re at full strength with a trip to Florida at stake.

The Mutiny's Nicole Rodriquez (left) and the Charge's Riley Barger (right) will face off on Saturday

On the WPSL side, the teams facing each other Saturday night at 7 at Arundel High School have some experience with each other. Last year they faced off in the WPSL-Elite for the unofficial crown as the top team in that league without a professional heritage. The Mutiny won that contest with a 4-2 win at home and a 3-3 draw at the Charge. This year, though, both teams have had to win two playoff matches just to get to this point. The host ASA Chesapeake Charge squeaked past the Long Island Fury, 1-0, then put on a dominant performance to down the New York Athletic Club, 3-1. The visiting New England Mutiny, meanwhile, beat the Syracuse Lady Knights, 1-0, followed by the Empire Revs WNY, 2-0.

The goose-eggs are an indication of the team’s defensive strength – that they’ve given up a mere five goals on the year is another. On the other hand, they’ve only scored 22. The low scoring has led to a plethora of draws: they’re undefeated but half of their regular-season matches ended in ties – two of which were scoreless – for a 5-0-5 regular-season record. Forward Mikaela Howell, who played last year for the DC United Women and played against the Mutiny this year for the CFC Passion, said about them, “They are very well organized tactically. They have strong athletic players, and their goalkeeper is a solid last line of defense. They have a couple of consistent defenders who hold the back line together and also have some strong offensive options.”

Nikola Dieter of Central Connecticut State University is their primary and almost sole goalkeeper, having played all but ten minutes of the season while compiling a 0.33 goals-against-average. Forwards Tori Sousa and Jenna Fisher are the top goalscorers for the team, while the key defenders appear to be Sarah Brochu, Alie Fitzsimmons, McKenzie Hollenbaugh, and Jewel Robinson. The marquee name on their roster, though, is Gatorade’s National High School Athlete of the Year Morgan Andrews, who’ll be entering Notre Dame in the fall. She played for the team last year, signed with the Boston Aztecs for the regular season, then returned to the Mutiny in time for the playoffs after the Aztecs failed to make the postseason. Last night she was in Los Angeles to receive the award. so I don’t know if she’ll make it back in time for Saturday’s match. [I’ve since received confirmation that Andrews will be in uniform Saturday evening.]

The Charge don’t really have any comparable marquee players, and it’s hard even to pick particular standouts. But their teamwork is exceptional, something head coach Tim Wittman emphasizes. “I get the email saying, pick the five players you want to be on the East All-Star team. I’m not going to. Because how am I going to say one’s more valuable than the other? One scores, but how does she get the ball. One’s working her tail off, maybe doesn’t have any points. It’s a team effort.”

The team scores plenty of goals while giving up few: 40 vs. 6, though the former number is padded by getting to play a couple of the weakest teams in the league. They’re also undefeated, with an 8-0-2 record not counting the playoffs. One player definitely to keep an eye on is Towson grad Cheyenne Skidmore. For my Twitter updates of the game, I’m tempted to install a shortcut so I just press a couple of keys and out comes “Skidmore smokes the defender on the right and gets off an open shot/cross” because it happens on a regular basis. Maryland sophomore Alexis Prior-Brown, who generally plays more centrally, is the other notable goalscorer. But the bottom line is that the scoring on this team can come from just about anyone: there are only 7 healthy players on the team’s 24-player roster who haven’t scored, 3 of whom are goalkeepers and 2 more of whom have played very few minutes. In a late-season 7-0 win, the 7 goals were scored by 7 different players.

The stingy defense is anchored by the “twin towers” of Jess Hnatiuk and Jennifer Gillette, both of whom also serve as target players on set pieces. Hnatiuk has been with the team all four years and frequently served as captain. Despite her height, she’s surprisingly deft with the ball and frequently takes close-in set pieces, particularly penalty kicks. The flank defenders platoon, but Caylin Dudley is a regular with Alexa Quaranta, Sofia Read, and Amira Walcott getting significant minutes. Wittman even platoons at goalkeeper, with Towson’s Erin Quinn usually playing the first half while George Mason’s Lyndse Hokanson comes in for the second.

Team captain Laura Kane, despite being listed as a forward, has usually played defensive midfielder this year, taking position just in front of the back line and both disrupting opposing attacks and quarterbacking Charge attacks from there. She’s also scored at least 4 goals (the WPSL stats are not up-to-date). Other key midfielders include Maryland sophomore Riley Barger and Florida Tech’s Kelly Whittaker, who are both bundles of energy.

Both teams have well-received new coaches this year, the aforementioned Tim Wittman for the Charge, and Roy Gurnon for the Mutiny.

To sum up, regardless of the outcome, both matches should be tough, exciting competitions with plenty of talented players participating. While the Spirit Reserves are playing several hours’ drive away, the Charge are playing close by, at Arundel High School in Gambrills, MD, Saturday at 7 pm. If you’re up for a notable women’s soccer match between two teams eager for a trip to California – and would like to have a look at Gatorade’s High School Athlete of the Year – come on out.

Thanks to Mikaela Howell for her contributions to this article (in addition to the quote).

W-League photo courtesy of the W-League and Larry J. Clark/SoccerShots.

WPSL photos courtesy of the WPSL, Mutiny Media Relations, and Ken Harriford.

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