W-League: Spirit Reserves claim Northeastern Conference Championship

Ashley Herndon would tally a goal and three assists in the conference championship.

Ashley Herndon would tally a goal and three assists in the conference championship. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

A Braddock Road Stars Elite team missing four of its best players was no match for a Washington Spirit Reserves team nearly at full strength and intent on returning to the W-League Final Four as the Northeastern Conference champion. The Reserves won, 6-0, with Kelsey Pardue and Emily Bruder each scoring a brace.

Both teams were missing their U-20 national teamers, but whereas Washington can get by without Andi Sullivan and Brittany Basinger, Braddock Road’s Carlyn Baldwin and Kaleigh Riehl are core members of the team. In addition, regulars Natalie Larkin and Kahla Seymour weren’t healthy enough to play.

To the runner-up’s credit, they didn’t change their style and try to bunker the way so many teams have done against the Reserves – I swear on Sunday the North Jersey Valkyries retreated into a 9-0-1 formation whenever the Spirit had the ball. Braddock Road played a 4-3-3 from minute 1 through minute 90.

“They came, they want to play,” said Reserves assistant coach JP Sousa admiringly. “They do a good job. They’ve got really good players. We’re excited to play matches like this.”

It took just 9 minutes for the home team to get on the board, left flank defender Sam Lofton sending a cross in that forward Ashley Herndon fired in past goalkeeper Tina Cardamone.

Meanwhile, Braddock Road was still able to work their offensive magic even against the almost indomitable Washington defense: pass-pass-pass and all of a sudden there’s a through ball to an open player darting behind the defenders. Even the Reserves assistant coach who keeps score in the pressbox and normally confines his remarks to his team’s shortcomings exclaimed “nice” several times in response to the visitors’ attacking strategems.

Even then, though, you’ve got to deal with goalkeeper Adelaide Gay and an extremely quick bunch of defenders who close openings quickly. Kristen Meier got through in the 8th minute but Gay got to the ball first, then in the 25th Allie Wisner got through and got off a shot that Gay had to save. Other promising-looking chances were snuffed by retreating defenders like Satara Murray without even getting that far.

The Reserves doubled their lead in the 28th minute, Herndon sending a corner kick from the left mark to Aaran Parry near the far post, who headed it in easily.

At the half, Best asked his team if they wanted to be more conservative in the second half, but they’d have none of it. “If you’re going to lose 2-0, you might as well lose 6-0. You might as well just go for it. And our kids just have that attitude.”

Kelsey Pardue - here battling with Marisa Park for the ball - scored twice for the Spirit Reserves. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

Kelsey Pardue – here battling with Marisa Park for the ball – scored twice for the Spirit Reserves. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

Alas for the visitors, the game was pretty much settled just 4 minutes into the second half, Parry sending a cross over that Kelsey Pardue sent in.

The Spirit would score three times late to turn the match into a rout: 65th minute substitute Emily Bruder scored in the 76th and 79th minutes, both off feeds from Ashley Herndon, who finished with a hat trick of assists. And finally in the 83rd minute the Stars Elite were called for a handball just outside the top of the penalty area. Herndon and Pardue stepped up to take the free kick. Herndon dummied it, then Pardue fired it in.

Braddock was comparatively quiet in the second half but had a chance in the 81st minute with Marisa Park open on the left. She made it into the box, but substitute defender Melissa Downey stripped her before she could get off a shot.

Despite losing by such a dramatic score, there weren’t many unhappy faces on the first-year Braddock Road. Utah senior Allie Wisner, who came all the way from her home in Montana to play for a team she hadn’t been within a thousand miles of, was pleased.

Allie Wisner defends against Kara Wilson.

Allie Wisner defends against Kara Wilson. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

“I’m really glad I came out here,” she said. “It was definitely the right choice, and it’s been a great experience. These girls are great, and they’re young. That team is a very good team, but once these girls go off and have a year under their belts in college, they’ll come back and definitely be hard to beat next year. Once they go, learn some new things, come back, come together, they’ll definitely be hard to beat.”

Asked what she got out of it personally, she said, “It’s been a learning experience for me to be a leader for these younger girls and just continue to be positive. We started off the season rough, always kind of trying to lift them up, help them any way I can on and off the field. So continuing to do that in whatever environment I’m in, whether it’s Utah or out here, always trying to help younger girls, help them get experience, and help them grow as players.”

And of course I had to ask her what she thought she’d be doing next summer. My next interviewee standing to one side was clapping her hands and shouting “Stars Elite!” in response, but Wisner was a little more guarded. “Hopefully still playing, keep playing, keep on moving up, wherever it leads me. This summer led me out here.”

She finished by singling out Braddock Road’s head coach for praise. “Larry was great – great coach, great man. He taught me a lot as well, both as a coach and as a person.”

Maire Shine, meanwhile, besides wanting Wisner back next year, is yet another Braddock Road 95er, though a more recent one, having switched over just this year from the McLean club. The forward just graduated from McLean and is planning a gap year before starting at William and Mary in 2015.

“It’s been amazing,” she said when asked about playing in the W-League, “just being able to play against such quality players, just watching the Spirit you learn so much. I think it’s going to be really helpful for experience with what the college level is going to be like – more physical, faster – and I think it was just a great opportunity that Braddock Road can provide for us.”

She was pleased with how the team did. “It was good that we were able to come back and turn our season around, end up second place. That’s big. It’s our first time in the league, definitely the youngest team. Our first year, a young team. I think we did well. ”

And she’s not done for the summer yet, as she’ll be playing for the Braddock Road U-18s next week as they compete for a national championship, which – since she just joined the team – will be another new experience for her. “I’m so excited. We’ve got injuries and stuff like that, but I think we’ve got a good shot at it, and I’m just so excited to get out there and compete.”

Head coach Best didn’t see any downside. “Our kids did great. Nobody expected us to be in this final. I’m happy with our kids, and it’s been a great season. I’m happy for the experience. And going into next week for our youth nationals, it’s a wonderful experience for these kids.”

He’s already looking forward to next year. “This group will come back. And a lot of these guys will come back with a year of college experience. And that’s the difference between the two teams. They bring a lot of college experience to it, and we don’t have that. So now our players come back with college experience. Our players come back with World Cup experience. And then we blend them in with the Parkies and the Wisners and Kristen Meier, and we become better each season.

“Our kids got a world of experience, and we’re excited to go into next year with that type of experience.”

Central defender Meghan Cox helped the team to a clean sheet. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

Central defender Meghan Cox helped the team to a clean sheet. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

On the Reserves side, I talked with central defender Meghan Cox, who despite being just a rising sophomore at Virginia is in her third year in the W-League and the second with the Spirit. “It’s been awesome. The girls are fantastic. We’ve come together as a team both years and just put on a pretty good show for everyone. The training’s great. I couldn’t ask for anything better from the coaching staff or the program.

“I think playing in the W-League helped immensely with my transition into college and my transition into playing at a higher level. My game really shot up.”

She’s also going to be competing next week. “My VSA Heat club team, we’re U-19 going to the USYS Youth National Championships for the third year in a row. We were U-17 champions, U-18 finalists, and we’re hoping to get our crown back this year.”

She had to choose between going to Florida with the Reserves to play for the W-League championship and that team. “It’s a tough call, but this is the last year for USYS soccer for me, and I wouldn’t want to go out any other way.”

Emily Bruder scored twice  despite playing just 25 minutes. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

Emily Bruder scored twice despite playing just 25 minutes. (Photo by Larry J. Clark)

By contrast, Emily Bruder just joined the team a few weeks ago but has been extremely impressed so far. “Playing with these girls right here is really fun, and it’s high-level soccer, it’s quick. And we all have the same common goals: to win, work hard, and get ready for college. It’s really exciting.

“Everyone is just on the same page at all times. We find each other. The forwards make really good runs, and we always keep the defense on the lookout where to defend, and we beat them. Our defenders are running down the sidelines. Our midfielders find the right balls to play through. The team is just on the same page every second.”

The forward, who hails from Utah, will be a sophomore at North Carolina this fall and was looking for a quality summer experience. “I wanted to get the best training, and here was where I had to come to get it. I’ve been practicing with the pro team. It’s really good training, and it’s helping me get where I need to be.”

Assistant coach Sousa is happy to head to the Final Four with a 6-0 win under the team’s belt. “It’s going to be an eye-opening affair, I’m sure. Just going down there, the festivities of it, it’s definitely going to feel bigger. But the core group of players with us now made it last year, so they’ve been there once, and they know that. And we’ve got some other players who’ve played in some really successful college programs, so they’ve been around big soccer events. So we feel that it’s going to be okay.”

He did admit they still needed to work on some things. “We going to try to tighten things up in the middle of the field. We want to be sure that we’re in good defensive shape and that our transitions are quicker. We want to exploit space. We want to make sure that we can be dangerous as much as possible. Whoever we’re playing in that semifinal, we want to be able to take it to them right away.”

But he was optimistic about their chances and thought this was the best team they’d had in their four years of existence. “We’re deep this year. We’re deeper than we’ve ever been.”

Best had a similar sentiment when reflecting on Washington’s superiority. “They can bring five people off the bench, and their level doesn’t drop, it gets raised.”

Sousa’s last words were determined ones. “We want to play in that championship game on Sunday. We’re not going there just to show up.”

The seedings for the W-League Final Four are: LA Blues #1 with a 12-0-0 regular-season record, Ottawa Fury #2 (11-0-1), Washington Spirit Reserves #3 (10-0-2), and the Charlotte Lady Eagles #4 (5-1-4). Thus in the two semifinals on Friday, LA will host Charlotte, and Ottawa will host Washington. Both games, and Sunday’s final, will take place at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL.

The same venue is also hosting the W-League’s “W-20” U-20 national championship from Thursday to Sunday, and the Spirit has representation there as well in the form of their U-20 team, the Washington Spirit Academy, which won the South Atlantic Division with 9-1-0 record.

If the LA Blues win tonight’s game, the Spirit Reserves would be the #3 seed in the Final Four and play the #2 Ottawa Fury in one of Friday’s two semifinal matches. If the Colorado Pride manage an upset, they’d be the #3 seed with the Reserves moving to #2, and those two teams would play each other. The fourth team involved is the Charlotte Lady Eagles, who will be the #4 seed regardless, and will play either the LA Blues or the Ottawa Fury in the other semifinal.

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