DC-Area AmWoSo: Three Teams in the Playoffs; Youth Championships Coming to Town

Ashley Herndon in her fourth year with the Spirit Reserves helped them to their first undefeated season. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

Ashley Herndon in her fourth year with the Spirit Reserves helped them to their first undefeated season. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

You couldn’t ask for much more from the local teams this year: with three playoff spots available in the WPSL and the W-League, all three were filled by teams in the area. The ASA Chesapeake Charge some time ago claimed first place and the sole playoff spot in the WPSL’s South Atlantic Division, and the Washington Spirit Reserves did likewise with first place in the W-League’s Northeastern Conference. (Don’t ask me why the WPSL thinks Pennsylvania and Maryland are South Atlantic.)

Braddock Road Stars Elite

The only serious suspense was whether or not the Braddock Road Stars Elite could – after being in last place with five games to go – rise to claim the Northeastern Conference’s second-place playoff spot. With a surprise loss by the second-place New Jersey Wildcats to the Long Island Rough Riders on Tuesday night, the Stars Elite had a chance to clinch with consecutive New Jersey road wins on Wednesday and Thursday. They beat the Wildcats, 3-0, on Wednesday with two goals from Rachel Moore and one from Kristen Meier, but then fell to the last-place North Jersey Valkyries on Thursday, 1-0.

“It was pouring rain; it was a tiny field,” explained head coach Larry Best. “But I give them credit – they played well. We still had our chances. I think we hit the crossbar twice, just different things. We could have scored two or three goals up there. They got one, and that was the difference.”

So it all came down to a Saturday afternoon rematch with the Valkyries at their home field at Robinson High School. A win would put them in the playoffs, while a North Jersey win would give the visitors a shot at the #2 position.

The Valkyries were held up in traffic, still stuck on I-66 when I arrived about half-an-hour before game time. (It was never explained why I-66 would be part of their route from North Jersey.) As a result, their warmup time was limited despite the match starting almost a half-hour late.

Braddock Road came out in a very aggressive 3-4-3 formation. Central defender Elysse Branton explained, “We just really wanted to push numbers and attack because we played this team on Thursday, and they beat us, 1-0. So we just wanted to attack a little more and get more numbers in. We played well in the three-back on Wednesday.”

It took 15 minutes or so for the Stars to get their rhythm, and 20 minutes to get their first tally. Meier sent a nice ball through to Marisa Park, who with only goalkeeper Katherine Courter to beat drew her out, dodged past her on the right, and then sent a perfectly placed ball into the bottom left corner. The second goal came five minutes later, with Jenn Boyles bringing the ball in toward the left post, drawing the defense’s attention, then lobbing the ball over defenders to the right where an open Maire Shine fired it in.

Braddock had several more chances in the second half, then scored their third in first-half stoppage time when Park sent a through ball to Shine on the left. She brought it into the box with a defender on her back and tucked it into the left side to make the halftime score, 3-0.

Looking at the first half, I was thinking that the Stars Elite could give just about any team lessons in how to create chances in the final third. They probe and probe and pass and pass, then see an opening, and the ball is through to an open player. I must confess that I didn’t register until I saw the team’s press release that Shine registered a brace – scoring for Braddock Road is such a team effort most of the time that the identity of whoever actually puts it in the net seems incidental.

With a comfortable lead, though, the team seemed to take it down a notch in the second half. Some strong efforts from the Valkyries and some sloppy turnovers gave the visitors a chance to get back in it. In the 53rd minute, North Jersey’s Fiorella Doglio fired a shot from the left side that goalkeeper Tina Cardamone had to leap up and push off the crossbar. In the 70th minute, a poor square pass was intercepted by Ani Sarkisian, who brought the ball in but had no support as the defense quickly swarmed her. Two minutes later, another poor turnover gave the Valkyries a 2-on-1 break, but Branton somehow managed to intimidate one attacker in passing to the other, then dispossessed the second one. The final whistle would blow with the score still the 3-0 it was at the end of the first half.

After the match, I talked with the hard-working three defenders who with goalkeeper Cardamone kept a clean sheet: Branton, Claire Robbins, and Kat Bukovsky.

Defenders Kat Bukovsky, Claire Robbins, and Elysse Branton helped Braddock Road to the team's second-ever shutout.

Defenders Kat Bukovsky, Claire Robbins, and Elysse Branton helped Braddock Road to the team’s second-ever shutout.

Branton is another of the 95ers who form the core of the team. She’ll be heading to Wake Forest William & Mary in a few weeks, as will Stars teammate Kahla Seymour and Spirit Reserve Maddie Huster Rachel Moore. She’s on Best’s short list of players on the U-20 national team bubble. “Elysse Branton is very good. She’s solid back there.”

Bukovsky, another 95er, is heading to James Madison to join teammates Stephanie Hamilton and Izzy Chang, as well as Ashley Herndon and Sam Lofton of the Spirit Reserves. Though she played left back, that’s not her accustomed role. “We like to attack, and I’m not a main defender, so I like to play forward, I like to get up in the attack and back to the defense.”

Right back Robbins is actually a 96er, a rising senior at Oakton High School, who often plays with the 95ers and will be part of the team for the upcoming U-18 national championship. She’s the third-youngest player on this very young team. “This is the first time I’ve played in a league like this,” she said.

Branton appreciated the experience. “Playing against older players, I think, physically, it showed us what college is going to be like and prepare us for what we’re going to have in about three weeks in preseason.”

And all were happy about earning a playoff spot. “It feels pretty good. We’re excited,” said Bukovsky.

“We’re excited to come out and play ball,” Robbins agreed.

“I think we kind of shocked people because we’re such a young team,” added Branton.

Best was, of course, delighted. “They’ve shown that they know how to play this game. And they’ve stuck together. We’ve never had the same starting lineup twice – never, not once. So I’m really proud of the group, how they’ve come together, how they’ve continued to believe and play the same style. Our style hasn’t changed since day one. They just got better at it and started to understand each other, especially the new players who are playing with us.

“Couldn’t be prouder of the team – first year in the league, and we get in the playoffs. I’m excited for the kids. Great first season.”

ASA Chesapeake Charge

Veteran Ali Andrzejewski is leading her ASA Chesapeake Charge into the playoffs.

Ali Andrzejewski scored the game-winner in the Charge’s final regular-season match of 2014. (Photo by Ken L. Harriford)

At about the same time as the Braddock Road match, the Charge were also closing out their season, on the road against Buxmont Torch FC, the #2 team in the South Atlantic Division of the WPSL’s East Conference. They’d already clinched first place but needed a win to ensure the top seed in the conference and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The game was scoreless through 86 minutes, but with time running out Cheyenne Skidmore came through on a breakaway and took a shot. Buxmont goalkeeper Brittney Gadd successfully blocked it, but the rebound fell to Ali Andrzejewski, who put the ball into the open net. The game ended as a 1-0 victory for the Charge, who finished 10-0-0, the first perfect record in the team’s five-year history.

As the #1 seed in the East Conference, they get to host the conference Final Four at their home venue of Arundel High School. The semifinals take place this Saturday, the #2 (9-0-1) New England Division champion Boston Breakers Reserves taking on the #3 (9-1-0) Tri-State champion New York Athletic Club at 11 am, and the Charge playing #4 seed CFC Passion – champions of the Mid-Atlantic Division with a 6-0-4 record – at 2 pm. The winners will play Sunday at 4 pm for the right to go on to the WPSL Final Four.

Washington Spirit Reserves

With everything settled in the W-League’s Northeastern Conference, the Reserves were playing Sunday morning for pride and to try out some new players.

“It gave us a great opportunity today to mix the lineup up,” said head coach German Peri, “and give the kids some different looks in preparation for the playoffs. We added a player, Emily Bruder from UNC, just to try to get her into the mix and get her timing right.”

It was a strange hour for soccer, the match moved from 4 pm to 10 am, presumably so the visiting North Jersey team could get back home at a reasonable hour (at least if they stayed off of I-66).

The Reserves' first goal would come off a free kick after Jen Mihok (left) took down Aaran Parry (right) just outside the penalty area. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

The Reserves’ first goal would come off a free kick after Jen Mihok (left) took down Aaran Parry (right) just outside the penalty area. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

It took just 18 minutes for the Reserves to get on the scoreboard. In the 17th minute, Aaran Parry came in on a breakaway and was taken down from behind by defender Jen Mihok just outside the penalty area. Mihok was whistled for a foul and shown a yellow card that – considering she was the last defender – could easily have been a red. Ashley Herndon lined up to take the free kick but stepped over it, then Kelsey Pardue fired it around the wall and into the lower left corner.

The lead would only last about 8 minutes. In the 25th minute Herndon received a pass while standing in an offside position. The flag went up, and the resulting free kick went deep into Spirit territory and was cleared for a Valkyries corner kick. That landed in dangerous territory. Adelaide Gay blocked the first shot, then a defender blocked the second, but without the ball being cleared it fell to North Jersey’s Ani Sarkisian, who tapped it in.

In the 37th minute, Washington’s Maddie Huster got a nice through ball down the left sideline. She sent a cross over to Herndon, who fired it into the lower left corner to give the Reserves the lead again.

Recent acquisition Emily Bruder scored a goal in one of her first appearances for the team. (Photo by Larry J.  Clark)

Recent acquisition Emily Bruder scored a goal in one of her first appearances for the team. (Photo by Larry J.

Bruder came in at the start of the second half and had a great chance in the 60th minute on a beautiful cross from Lina Granados, but from 10 yards out she sent it wide left.

Meanwhile, at the other end, North Jersey’s Stephanie Scholz was using her speed to challenge the Spirit’s back line, and even Satara Murray was having to scramble to keep her from getting open shots off.

The clincher came in the 65th minute when Amber Stobbs fought through several defenders on the right, then slipped a ball through to Bruder who from close range put the ball on target and into the net.

The scoring wasn’t over, though. In the 86th minute North Jersey got one back when Fiorella Doglio sent a cross to Sarkisian near the top right corner of the box. Sarkisian maneuvered until she found an opening, then fired the ball in to make the score 3-2, which is how it finished.

The first player I talked with after the match was Aaran Parry, a first-year player whose early breakaway led to the first goal. She’s a rising sophomore at the University of Tennessee and has played locally since she was 3, starting in Urbana, then moving to FC Frederick and finally to Bethesda for the last two years.

“My college coach wanted me to play over the summer,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I think I got better. I’d like to do it again next year. ”

And if the team has a flagship player, it’s Ashley Herndon, who despite being just a rising sophomore at James Madison is the only player who’s been with the team all four years of its existence (the first two as the DC United Women).

She’s very satisfied with the season. “It’s our first undefeated season. Every year we’re getting more and more talent, so that’s really helpful.”

I asked what they needed to do going into the playoffs. “We’re playing Braddock Road for the fourth time. We’ve just got to go in thinking we’re not going to win the game that easily.”

Peri was more specific about what they needed to work on. “Timing in the attacking third, and set pieces – defending them and attacking them.”

Herndon also plays on the VSA Heat, a U-19 team that will be competing for its second national championship later this month, in the youth national championships that are being held this year at the Soccerplex. “Happy that we get to play on these fields,” was her first comment when I asked her about that. “The fields for regionals were terrible.”

“We have a good chance of winning,” she went on. “It’s a good team – I’ve played with them forever.” Two other Spirit Reserves are also on the team, Morgan Reuther and Meghan Cox. When pressed to name other players worth paying attention to, she mentioned Anna McClung, who’ll be starting at Florida State in the fall. The team previously won a national championship two years ago, as U-17s.

Finally, I asked her if she was going to continue to play for the Washington Spirit Reserves for as long as she possibly could.

“Yep!” she said with a firm nod. “I will.”

Ashley Herndon could finish the month with two national championships. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

Ashley Herndon could finish the month with two national championships. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

The W-League Northeastern Conference championship match will take place this Friday at 7 pm at the Maryland Soccerplex. The winner will go on to represent the conference in the W-League Final Four in Bradenton, FL.

It should be a good match. Braddock Road isn’t the team that lost 4-1, 3-1, and 3-0 to the Reserves early in the season. In fact, if you look at recent results, you might think that the Stars Elite were the better team: When the New York Magic came to town the weekend of June 21, they tied the Reserves 0-0 but lost to the Stars Elite, 2-1. When the Long Island Rough Riders came along the next weekend, it was 3-0 Washington but 5-1 Braddock Road. And this past weekend with the Valkyries, it was 3-0 Stars Elite, 3-2 Spirit.

And, frankly, if you made me pick a team to watch, I’d pick the new one. They may lack the technical polish and overall talent of the Spirit Reserves, but they make the most of their abilities and are always working together. Too often Washington seems less than the sum of its parts.

That being said, this is definitely the most talented lineup the team has ever fielded, particularly in the back with the addition of Satara Murray, Sam Lofton, and Adelaide Gay. You can count on the thumbs of three hands the number of players who have scored on them this season (though one of those is Braddock Road’s Marisa Park, who’s done it twice). Additionally, some of the returning players like Kelsey Pardue and Katie Yensen have come on strong this season. If they can live up to their potential, they’re going to be very hard to stop.

Youth National Championships

I’ll probably write more about this closer to the date, but I want to give people a heads-up: the 2014 Youth Soccer National Championships are being held right in our back yard, at the Maryland Soccerplex from Tuesday, July 22, through Sunday, July 27. Multiple local teams are participating, the most notable for those keeping up with my writeups being the aforementioned VSA Heat U-19s – with three players from the Washington Spirit Reserves – and the Braddock Road Youth Club ’95 Elite U18s – with a bevy of players from Braddock Road’s W-League team. Both teams are two years off winning a previous national championship, as U-17s and U-16s, respectively.

The U-18s play on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at noon (Fields 17, 14, 15 for BRYC), with the semifinals at 8 am Saturday on Fields 4 and 5, and the final on Sunday at 9:40 am on Field 9.

The U-19’s play at 2 on the same days (Fields 4, 4, and 11 for the VSA Heat), with the final at 6 pm on Saturday on Field 14.

For complete schedules and results on all matches, go to the Youth National Championships website .

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