It was a cold and windy night, and the fearsome Makenzy stalked the plains of the Soccerplex.
“Doniak, in the first half, gave us the runaround,” said head coach Mark Parsons when asked what made the difference between last week’s win and this week’s loss.
While she didn’t score, the stellar UVA forward set up the goal with a strong run down the right side in the 35th minute. She got past flank defender Estelle Johnson and sent in a cross that was either muffed or dummied by Kristen McNabb, then was put away from close range by Alexis Shaffer.
And while Parsons mentioned Doniak, he gave credit to the entire Virginia side. “Last week Virginia Tech tried to go after us, press us high, and that created a lot of gaps and I think we punished them for that. This week, Virginia, they were very organized. It was very tough to beat their block, whether it was getting behind them or getting between them. They dropped a bit deeper and were happy to defend a bit deeper. But UVA are a quality side: very well coached, very well organized, some very good talent.”
Virginia also had an almost intact squad from 2014’s national runners-up, while Virginia Tech was without much of its senior-dominated starting lineup.
Even so, the Spirit had their chances, most notably in the 16th minute when a Laura del Rio attempted chip of goalkeeper Jessie Ferrari went off the crossbar and bounced around in front of the open goal without a Washington player being able to put it in the net. Other attempts were also near misses, most notably a Christine Nairn free kick late in the game that she sent just wide.
“It’s just that final piece we’ve got to put together,” said Nairn, “and that’s the most fun to work on, especially the attacking, going to goal. Who doesn’t like that? Virginia’s a great team. Yes, we’re frustrated about the loss, but it gives us a lot to work on.”
Parsons echoed the same sentiment. “In the final third, we lacked some ideas, and we lacked quality. And I think that was us last week. We created. We got into the final third a lot very well, but we didn’t – I think we could have had about ten goals last week if we were sharp. We could have had three or four today if we were sharp. Last week I felt like it was the same problem, but we scored four so no one brought it up.”
He had some other criticisms as well. “They were a little bit tougher than us, so that was disappointing because there’s no excuse for that. In some of our ball movement, we got trapped a few times, which isn’t good. That’s good defending from them, but we should be solving new problems. I think over the next two weeks, heading into Houston, we wanted to be in the position where we are, put the final touches on how we attack and also on being a lot tougher, to break down those units.”
Despite a thorough overhaul from last season – only one starter was even on the team last year – the team seems to be coming together well. “Yes, absolutely,” said Nairn. “We’re still learning, as you saw tonight, about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. At times we had great spurts of showing how we can be so good, and then other times we broke down because we haven’t been playing together for very long. Just focusing on learning each other’s strengths and implementing them each and every game.”
I made a point to talk with Estelle Johnson, who retired after the 2013 season but has now returned to play for the Spirit. “I’ve always been interested in playing in Washington,” she explained, “and so once I heard there was interest there I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
I suggested that the quality of the Soccerplex pitch might have helped persuade her. “It’s always been so nice to come play here, especially on grass, which I think makes a huge difference. It’s a beautiful field, so why not make it your home field?”
She’s been very happy with the decision so far. “It’s been great. Everyone’s been awesome. There are a few returners, and they’ve been cool about leading the team. Mark’s been awesome. The coaching staff is great. Just being surrounded by so many talented players, so many players that I’ve played against in the past, and players that I’ve played with before. Everybody’s so talented, I feel like we have a great team, and I’m excited to see where we can go.”
In the short term they go up against North Carolina Saturday, April 4, at 7 pm at the Soccerplex in the annual Headers for Hope feature match. Admission is $10 in advance or $15 at the gate, with all proceeds going to charity.
Washington opens their regular season on the road on April 10 against the Houston Dash before their April 18 home opener against defending NWSL champion FC Kansas City.