Is history repeating itself? Twelve years ago the WUSA-era Washington Freedom came off a miserable first season and entered their second having overhauled their roster in the hope of doing better. They started out well against the visiting New York team, scoring an early goal. But when the Power equalized, the team lost all composure and ended up losing, 4-1.
The following week the defending champion CyberRays came to town. The Freedom gave up an early goal but held tough and scored two unanswered goals to pull out an upset win.
The story for the Spirit has been similar in their sophomore season, letting an opposing goal rattle them last week while shrugging the same off this time for a 3-1 win over FC Kansas City. It helped that for once Washington struck early, as in the fourth minute Crystal Dunn made a terrific run forward that had the formidable KC back line scrambling. They managed to get the ball away from her, but it fell right to Diana Matheson, who knocked it in.
The lead didn’t look to last long as just three minutes later Kansas City’s Amy Rodriguez was through on goal and fell down as Ashlyn Harris challenged her in the box. Though Harris after the game denied touching her (and photos seem to bear out her claim), center referee Matthew Franz immediately pointed to the penalty spot. 2013 NWSL MVP Lauren Holiday stepped up to take the kick and sent it low and to her left. Harris read it perfectly and was able to block the shot, then the ball was cleared by the defense.
Rodriguez would get another chance in the 29th minute and not fail this time as she got through on the right. Her initial shot was saved by Harris, but she was able to collect it and send it in before the defense recovered.
Three minutes later Dunn had a chance to score as Taylor fed her on a counterattack, but KC rookie Kassey Kallman did the only thing she could to stop her and knocked her over, earning a yellow card in the process.
Six minutes after that Christine Nairn would trigger a Spirit attack with a beautiful long ball from midfield on the right to a wide open Robyn Gayle on the left flank. Gayle brought the ball forward, then sent it to Dunn near the top left corner of the box. Despite having four defenders around her, Dunn managed to slide it along the top of the box in front of an onrushing Matheson, who fired a rocket into the upper left corner.
The final goal was set up when in the 44th minute KC rookie Kassey Kallman knocked Jodie Taylor down in the penalty crescent just outside the box. The free kick was delayed as an injured Nikki Phillips was seen to, but then right before the game clock ticked over to 45, Nairn sent a bending ball around the wall and over Rodriguez – standing parallel with the wall but not part of it – and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart.
It was as exciting a half of soccer as been seen at the Soccerplex in a long time. However, in the second half, the Spirit – despite subbing in forward Danesha Adams for holding midfielder Lori Lindsey – went into pure defensive mode for most of the remaining 45 minutes. It’s not the ideal strategy at the NWSL’s level of competition, but they gave it their all, and it worked. Said Harris, “We were out here getting the 50-50 balls, throwing our bodies around to save blocked shots. Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest football but we fought hard, and we wanted it more.”
They did have just a couple of good chances in the second half, most notably a 68th-minute header by Adams that beat Barnhart but was blocked by Becky Sauerbrunn. The best chance for Kansas City was a low ball in the 73rd minute that looked to be rolling into the lower left corner from a crowd of players until Harris made a full-stretch diving save to stop it.
Washington went into full bunker mode in the 81st minute, subbing in defender Bianca Sierra for forward Taylor and going to what appeared to be five in the back: Gayle, Pressley, Huster, Krieger, and Sierra. But it worked, with Kansas City never able to claw back.
The final stats defied the scoreboard: the visitors had 17 shots to the Spirit’s 5, and 9 corner kicks to the Spirit’s none. Harris made 8 saves in the game to keep her team in it.
Positive notes: Well, obviously, Washington shook off whatever funk they were in last week. They’ve already scored four goals this season, 25% of their total for all of last season. Matheson and Nairn remained excellent. Crystal Dunn went from looking like a nervous, uncertain rookie last week to a dangerous five-year veteran this week. And Harris had a terrific game in goal.
Negative notes: To be honest, the team didn’t put together a full 90 minutes of soccer. Nairn saw this as a mixed bag: “We’re looking forward to not defending the second 45 minutes completely and really putting a complete game together, but this is the right foot forward.” Matheson summed it up as, “The last 45 wasn’t pretty, but we did the job we needed to do to get the win.”
They have yet to get a goal from a forward this season. And the defense still needs work. The entire back line could share the blame for the Rodriguez goal: Gayle – who was solid but didn’t look 100% – got caught forward; Pressley was slow covering for her; Krieger was behind the other defenders, letting A-Rod stay onside; and Huster could have gotten there in time to clear the rebound off of Harris but didn’t start hustling back until it was too late. Still, a win is a win, and it’s yet another sign that 2014 will be much better than 2013.
And if history does continue repeating itself? Well, the 2002 Freedom struggled a bit early, but once Steffi Jones joined the team and Mia Hamm returned from knee surgery they would lose only two games the rest of the year, though alas one of those would be the championship. I was pleased with that outcome, and I daresay the Spirit would be happy to match it.
Washington’s next game is on the road against the Seattle Reign this coming Wednesday, April 23, at 10 pm EDT. They then play at the Chicago Red Stars Saturday the 26th at 8 before returning home on Saturday, May 3, at 6:30 for a rematch against the Reign.