Spirit show promise in preseason opener

Bianca Sierra, coach Parsons's Player of the Match

Bianca Sierra, coach Parsons’ Player of the Match

In a match that was less about the score and more about developing team cohesion and checking out players trying to make the roster, the Washington Spirit nevertheless downed the North Carolina Tarheels, 2-0, on two second-half goals.

The opening roster had a lot of the marquee players sitting:

Forwards – Adams, Cuellar, Weimer
Midfielders – Angeli, Averbuch, Nairn
Defenders – Sierra, Pressley, Huster, Morris
GK – Jones

Carolina had somewhat the better of play in the first half, though with some impressive moments from some Spirit players. UNC’s midfielder Cameron Castleberry in particular is probably going to have nightmares about Bianca Sierra and Toni Pressley for some time to come. Sierra was all over her at every opportunity, and even when she managed to intercept a poorly-aimed Pressley pass and go in on goal, Toni just caught up to her and shouldered her off the ball as if she wasn’t there.

Pressley and Sierra almost teamed up for a sensational play, as the former lofted a long ball over the top that looked to be getting past everyone, but Sierra turned on the jets and managed to get to it just before it went over the sideline. Not surprisingly, though, her first touch was poor, and the ball went out over the end line.

On the attacking end, Tiffany Weimer looked alternately brilliant and inept, at one point dribbling through and around four UNC players to find some space only to pass the ball right to another Tarheel. Renae Cuellar looked promising but was called offside several times, as was Sierra, who repeatedly got into the attack from her left flank position.

And despite being ostensibly a forward, Danesha Adams was all over the field disrupting the Tarheel attack. (Though the formation was officially a 4-3-3, players repeatedly noted that they were given the flexibility to play wherever they needed to.)

Spirit head coach Mark Parsons started to transition to the A team to start the second half, with Lori Lindsey, Ali Krieger, Jodi Taylor, and Cecilie Sandvej coming on for Jordan Angeli, Meg Morris, Cuellar, and Pressley.

The best chance for Washington in the game to that point came in the 55th minute when a nice buildup gave Lindsey the ball with some room deep in on the right. She sent a perfect cross to Yael Averbuch in the top left corner of the box, but she whiffed it.

In the 66th minute, Adelaide Gay came in for Chantel Jones, and Diana Matheson came on for the hardworking Adams. It took a mere three minutes for the team’s leading scorer in 2013 to score 2014’s first goal, as she totally smoked her defender deep in the right corner and sent in a waist-high ball right along the endline that bounced off UNC goalkeeper Lindsey Harris and in.

Two minutes later Candace Chapman came on for Tori Huster, and six minutes after that the Canadian contingent was complete with Robyn Gayle giving Sierra well-deserved relief.

Taylor had two great chances last, in the 78th minute getting a nice through ball from Weimer that she sent just wide left. In the 86th minute, Sandvej sent a ball back into her after a Nairn corner kick was cleared. Taylor was wide open at the top of the box, but she was so stunned that she was both open and onside that she hesitated, and her eventual shot was saved by a leaping Harris.

Matheson figured in on the final goal as well, in the 89th minute sending a nice cross from the left corner in to Weimer about 15 yards out, who fired a shot that bounced off the goalkeeper and snuck just inside the near post.

Matheson was very happy to be back and pleased with the team so far. “There are a lot of great players out there.” Asked about teaming with Weimer, she laughed. “Tiff and I already have a big connection. We keep ending up in the same spot all the time. Whenever I look over my shoulder, she’s there, and vice-versa, so there’s already a great foundation there, and we’re going to build on that.”

Weimer had a similar sense of humor about the mutual teamwork. “We’re hoping to kind of trick the other team by being so little that they can’t see us.” (Weimer is 5’3″, while Matheson is just a hair over 5′ even.)

Parsons was pleased with the game but admitted things weren’t polished yet – “we’ve got so much to do.” He was delighted with the triallists, though. “Meg Morris has been surprising everyone every single day. Bianca was probably player of the game. She played at left back and she doesn’t ever play there, and she had more rotational movement and tactical understanding than any other player on the team. Then she went in at center back, and every pass she played had purpose, had menace, got to people’s feet the right way.” He admitted there were going to be problems trying to fit everyone on the roster, but “that’s a good problem to have.”

In roster news, Parsons said that Shasta Fisher decided to leave the team on Wednesday to pursue other opportunities, but as far as he was concerned “the door is still wide open.” He said the same about Molly Menchel, who’s currently trying for a spot on the storied Olympique Lyonnais team.

Off the field, the best news might be that 2,534 fans – a substantial minority of them Tarheel supporters – showed up for a meaningless preseason match, so many that the concession stand ran out of hot dogs and had to shut down until someone ran out and got more.

The next match for the Spirit is against the Virginia Cavaliers, next Saturday at 7 pm back at Maureen Hendricks Field at the Maryland Soccerplex. (Regrettably, I expect to miss this game due to personal obligations.)

Thanks to Jennifer Gordon of the Equalizer for providing me with recordings of the post-game interviews.

Other coverage:

Jennifer Gordon, The Equalizer: Weimer, Matheson lift Spirit past UNC in preseason

Sarah Gehrke, The Soccer Desk: Washington Spirit defeat UNC 2-0

Danielle Grote, WSN: Spirit See Off UNC In Preseaon Match

Official team writeup: The Washington Spirit Overtake UNC for First Preseason Win

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