Two months ago – recovering from an ACL tear – Ashley Cuba couldn’t play soccer at all. One week ago she wasn’t sure she was going to make the team. In this game, she came in as a halftime sub and scored two insurance goals in five minutes – plus a third that went in the net, but the flag was up. Pretty good for someone who wasn’t sure she could play without a brace, after being forced to do without because the one she had with her didn’t fit well enough.
Early on, though, it looked as if Cuba’s efforts would scarcely be needed. The Braddock Road Stars Elite back line had trouble adjusting to the speed of the Reserves and repeatedly found their passes intercepted and turned into attacks. Head coach Larry Best pointed out the personnel situation: “We’re playing with two center backs who aren’t center backs. One’s our central midfielder, and the other’s our outside back. And if you look at who our outside backs were, we’ve got high school kids. We have five or six high school kids out there. But it’s good for them. It’s a baptism of fire. They have to learn what the speed of the game is like.”
Team captain and midfielder Marisa Park agreed. “We have a lot of young players right now, and I think they were just getting adjusted to the speed of play. It’s nothing they can’t handle – it’s just a little nerves coming out at the beginning.”
It reminded me a lot of the WPSL-Elite opener two years ago, when the amateur ASA Chesapeake Charge took on the professional-caliber Boston Breakers. They gave up a goal practically off the opening kickoff and continued to be on their heels in the early minutes. And, like the Stars Elite, they had several key players who had yet to graduate from high school.
The situation was similar here but without the finishing by the Spirit Reserves, who missed several golden opportunities. Then after about ten minutes Braddock Road raised their game – just like Chesapeake – and were no longer gifting the Spirit with golden opportunities.
It took until the 16th minute for the home team to get on the board. A minute earlier defender Sam Lofton had sent a corner kick straight into the near side netting, never getting it into play. She more than made up for that with her next opportunity, an olimpico that swerved directly into the upper left corner untouched by any player.
Braddock Road had a couple of chances around the 23rd minute: Claire Robbins made some nice moves to get some space on the right, but sent a ball right to Washington goalkeeper Adelaide Gay. A minute later, Jackie Stengel got behind the line, but Gay blocked her shot.
In the 31st minute, Olivia Fiegel – whose speed gave the Reserves’ back line fits all afternoon – got around her defender on the left and sent a shot in, but Gay was there again.
Washington would get their second goal in the 34th minute after several passes in the box. The ball was sent in to the right of the penalty area from the left where Katie Yensen collected it. She sent it back out to Ashley Herndon, who with defenders and goalkeeper Jessie Ferrari converging sent it to her left where Kara Wilson fired it into the open net.
Fiegel had another chance in the 39th minute after beating her defender but fired just wide.
The Stars Elite would have a couple of promising opportunities in the second half. In the 53rd minute, Stengel sent a ball across an open goalmouth after Gay had committed to defending her, but no one was there to put it away. In the 66th minute, Kayleigh Stallings sent a shot off the crossbar and over. The Spirit’s best chance in that interval was a 59th minute shot from Aaran Parry just inside the right post that Ferrari had to dive to save.
In the 64th minute, Niomi Serrano would come in as the right flank defender, replacing goalscorer Lofton. The combination of her with halftime sub Cuba would prove deadly.
Come the 77th minute, and Serrano managed to push the ball through the defense to an unmarked Cuba at the top of the box. She chipped the ball over Ferrari, and it bounced into the netting. Just five minutes later, she sent in a cross to Cuba at the right post, who dodged around Ferrari to the left and slipped the ball in.
In the penultimate minute of regulation, the visitors would finally get on the scoreboard with their inaugural goal. Ironically, it came with the same sort of casual defensive play from the Reserves that the Stars had committed early: Central defender Meghan Cox sent a square ball across to the other central defender Monica Mendes. However, Park saw the play developing, got to the ball just as Mendes did, took it away from her, ran in, and sent it past Gay.
A minute later, another ball would come through with Cuba breaking behind the line, and she put it away, but the AR called offside – unfortunately, it appeared from the pressbox more that another player in the box was behind the last defender than Cuba, who timed her run well. “I wasn’t. I checked before I ran,” she protested after the game, seemingly more unhappy about the denied hat trick than the two goals she did score.
Spirit Reserves assistant coach JP Sousa was happy with the outcome. “I’m happy to get a win on our first game. That’s what we wanted.” Asked what the team needed to work on, he said, “Things need to be quicker. Certainly on the defensive side we need to close down the spaces quicker. And we could certainly be more creative in the attacking third.”
Best wasn’t particularly disappointed with his Stars Elite, despite the result. “I thought it was okay. It was great for our kids to play at this level. That’s the biggest thing. Kind of a baptism of fire, as we talked about. We had some chances as well. We had some good chances. But they finished theirs, and we didn’t finish ours. But I’m happy for our kids. I’m very proud of them.”
Captain Park had similar sentiments. “We’re getting our feet in the water. We’re missing a lot of players. It’s just good to come out here and play, definitely. The result isn’t what we wanted, and we know what we have to improve on.”
Braddock Road now actually have three weeks off until their next game. That will be on June 8 at 4 pm at Robinson High School against the storied New Jersey Wildcats, the inaugural home match for the Stars Elite. “Now it’s going to be like a preseason for us,” said Best. “We’re going to use the next two, three weeks to really work on a lot of things, get fitter. We’ll have a few more players coming in. It’ll be a good three weeks of work.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Spirit Reserves will be participating in the inaugural US Soccer National Women’s Amateur Championship, representing the W-League as they take on the WPSL representative Real Salt Lake Women at 9:30 pm Friday, May 23, at Arundel High School’s Carroll Field. That match is so late because first the USASA Women’s Amateur Champions the ASA Chesapeake Charge will be playing the USASA Women’s Open Champions the Houston Aces first, at 6:30 pm, also at Arundel High. It’s a great chance to see several of the top women’s club teams – and players – in the country, so don’t miss it.