It’s interesting how one moment can change the complexion of not just a game but a series. Late in Monday’s match, I was already trying to compose a lede reflecting on the disappointment of an underachieving three-game homestand. But then Christine Nairn fired in her rocket of a shot, and suddenly all was right in the Spirit world.
That seemed to be something of a theme for the whole series. Jodie Taylor scored with under 12 minutes to go to regain the lead against Western New York. Diana Matheson put away a penalty kick in stoppage time to salvage a draw with Sky Blue. Without the late goals, Washington would have accumulated just 2 standings points instead of 7.
Going in, I think it’s fair to say that 6 points was the objective. The Spirit had never beaten the Flash, but a struggling Sky Blue team and the expansion Houston Dash were for once teams Washington had to be favored against, particularly at home.
First, though, Mark Parsons had to reconfigure his defense after the loss of Toni Pressley to injury. He made the somewhat controversial decision to move Ali Krieger into the center and have Bianca Sierra take over as right back, while Tori Huster and Robyn Gayle stayed at center and left, respectively. Asked after the game when she’d last played there, Krieger said, “Senior year, Penn State. I actually got Defensive Player of the Year that year, in the Big 10.” (She also played center back in a few games for the W-League Washington Freedom in 2007 – I have the video to prove it.)
That lost much of Krieger on offense, but put her in a better position to make plays and to direct the defense. “I felt better in the middle to be able to organize. I could see the game a little bit better. I think my voice was heard a little bit more on the pitch, and we needed that tonight. I felt very comfortable.” She made some key defensive plays to stymie Abby Wambach (most of the time, at least), and other offensive players took up the slack.
Spirit followers had been waiting for Taylor to finally start scoring, and she broke out with a vengeance, scoring two goals and sending a third in off a defender that was officially scored an own goal. The result was a series of franchise firsts: their first-ever win over the Western New York Flash, their first game ever with multiple goals from the same player, their first game ever with multiple goals from forwards. (I was thinking it was the team’s first-ever comeback win, but actually the team’s very first win – 4-2 in Seattle last May – was a comeback victory.)
“They made a real statement as a group of players. I couldn’t be more proud,” said Parsons.
That of course raised expectations for the rest of the homestand – maybe 9 points weren’t out of reach. At halftime of the Sky Blue match, those hopes seemed to be in the process of being fulfilled. Despite being largely outplayed by the visitors – “the best half of soccer we’ve played this year,” said Sky Blue head coach Jim Gabarra – they went into the locker room with a 1-0 lead thanks to a terrific goal by Robyn Gayle, who given a feed by Crystal Dunn – now the right flank defender instead of Sierra – managed to maneuver to find room in a crowd and fire the ball in.
Two minutes into the second half, though, and the lead was gone, thanks to halftime sub Jonelle Filigno. Five minutes later a bending Katy Freels free kick gave Sky Blue the lead, and in the 65th minute Kelley O’Hara added another off a quick counterattack.
But in the 74th minute Lori Lindsey took a long bouncing shot that went off a defender, off goalkeeper Jill Loyden, off the post, and in. Then after a handball call in the box Matheson made yet another penalty kick to make the final score 3-3.
“To come back like that shows character, said Parsons. “It shows how far we’ve come. The first game of the season, 3-1 down against New York, and it stays that way. To come back to 3-3 against a team that was inspired tonight, Sky Blue, really stepped things up, caught us on our heels. So you’ve got to be proud of the comeback, you’ve got to be proud of the character and the mentality in the second half. Now we’ve got to work on that from the start.”
Said Krieger: “We have to start being more consistent. We’re too inconsistent right now. We have to prove ourselves every single time, and I think that comes from within. We’ve got to stay positive and stay hungry and play like we did Saturday.”
Come Memorial Day, and the Houston Dash came in and should have been easy pickings as an expansion team that had just played Friday evening. Additionally, they’d be without their coach as Randy Waldrum was ejected from that match.
It started well. Matheson scored in the 4th minute when Taylor rushed a poor back pass by Kaylyn Kyle that goalkeeper Erin McLeod had to clear in a hurry. It came right to the Canadian midfielder, who with McLeod out had plenty of room to chip the ball into the net.
But as too often with the Spirit they gave up a goal just 8 minutes later, Kyle feeding forward Nina Burger. It took until the 38th minute for them to regain the lead as Matheson sent in a beautiful long ball over the top that Taylor ran onto and put away. Once again, they went into the locker room with a 2-1 lead. And this time they managed to hang onto it for a while, until in the 77th minute Osinachi Ohale headed in a Stephanie Ochs corner kick.
The Spirit had a chance to take the lead in the 82nd minute after Taylor was fouled in the box by McLeod, but Matheson for once sent in a weak shot that McLeod saved easily. It was Matheson’s first failed PK attempt in her professional career.
A 2-2 tie seemed to be all but certain until Nairn reared back and fired from the left into the upper right corner. “I just put a lot of anger behind it and swung for the fences,” she said afterwards.
So what can we take from this? First off, the offensive problems of last season are ancient history. By halftime of the Houston match, the Spirit had already scored as many goals in 8.5 games as they did in 22 last year. (They’re also just one standings point short of where they finished last year.) They scored 3 goals in each of these matches and are third in the league in scoring.
On the other hand, they’re giving up 2 goals per game, something only 3 teams in women’s professional soccer history have done for an entire season. But help is on the way. Parsons expects defender Niki Cross to arrive around the 10th of June, probably not in time to play at Boston the next day, but most likely ready for the match at Portland on the 15th. He also says they’re close to signing another American player and working on an international, all of whom will be bolstering the defense.
You can say they’ve had an easy schedule so far with 6 out of 9 games at home, and things will get tougher as their next 4 games and 8 of their next 10 are on the road. On the other hand, they have yet to play cellar-dweller Boston, and they’ve only played the 7th and 8th place teams – Sky Blue and Houston – once each, while they’ve already played the high-flying Seattle Reign twice. So a playoff spot remains a definite possibility.
Asked about calling up Reserves to fill in during the USWNT training camp for the France matches, he said that Kelsey Pardue and Jennifer Skogerboe would be joining the team.
Oh, and I just wanted to close by saying – though is scarcely seems possible – Diana Matheson just keeps getting better and better. Yes, she missed the PK, but you knew that had to happen sooner or later. Meanwhile, her feeds during the Houston match were things of beauty. Time and time again she sent the ball in with just the right weight and just the right location. If the Spirit forwards could finish, she would have had close to a half-dozen assists on the night, in addition to her goal. If they do start finishing, look out.