It wasn’t that long ago that a soccer version of Murphy’s Law seemed to govern the Washington Spirit: anything that could go wrong would, and even playing well didn’t ensure success. Playing as badly as they did Saturday night would have been a disaster on the scoreboard. Instead, in second-half stoppage time Crystal Dunn found Francisca Ordega with a long ball over the top that left Sky Blue goalkeeper Brittany Cameron in no-man’s land, too far out to protect the goal but not far enough out to get to the ball. Ordega collected the ball, dodged past Cameron, and put it away in the open net.
Head coach Mark Parsons, normally loquacious, was terse and pointed in the post-game interview. When asked why he only subbed twice in a game where the Spirit were struggling for chances, he said, “I couldn’t make more subs because I couldn’t decide who deserved to come off more. Because it was bad. Really bad. And they know it. About the 60th minute, I’m already thinking about training and I wouldn’t know where to start, because there were about 200 things you would want to touch on.”
He still had a feeling that the team was going to pull it out, though. “In the last five minutes, I kept saying to everyone, ‘We’re going to get one. If we were supposed to lose tonight, they would have scored by now.'”
On the other side, it has to be considered a compliment to the Spirit that Sky Blue head coach Jim Gabarra came up with an entirely new game plan for them. As Parsons described it: “I’ve never seen a team as direct as that, Sky Blue have never been that direct. I don’t think I saw a pass from them under 50 yards, 40 yards. And that was a big challenge to deal with. Center backs having to deal with first and second balls. In 2.5 years I’ve never ever seen a team play like that.”
Gabarra came up with the strategy to deal with the Spirit’s opportunistic scoring ways. “We were probably going to be direct the first ten minutes anyway, because 80% of their goals are turnovers in the final third, so we wanted to start on the front foot. It made a lot of sense for us to put two forwards up there, with a forward who can win a lot of stuff in the air. And I thought Kim [DeCesare] did an incredible job. She had a great game.”
He stuck with the strategy and lineup in part because midfielder Sarah Killion ended up being unavailable due to a knee injury. This led him to put DeCesare up top as a target forward to collect the long balls, leaving Nadia Nadim free to find openings. Gabarra was pleased with the effect. “It’s the best by far we’ve played, the most chances we’ve created.”
He also came up with a strategy to deal with Crystal Dunn. Longtime Washington fans might remember in 2002 that Gabarra regularly assigned defender Carrie Moore to man-mark the opposing team’s best striker. It was very successful then (Moore earned a spot in the WUSA All-Star match along with the nickname “white-on-rice”), and he tried it again now, with Maya Hayes shadowing Dunn. There was one big difference, though: Hayes is normally a forward.
“We had a player who’d never played right back in her life,” Gabarra said of her, “probably one of the best performances for a right back the whole season.”
Dunn was both impressed and amused with the attention. “I was joking with her, and I was like it is so weird seeing you back here. I think she did great. She’s really fast, really tenacious. It wasn’t easy getting around her, and I think she did a good job on me.”
The most dangerous field player, though, was Nadim, with three shots on goal and seven total. Nadim approved of the game plan. “I feel that it worked very well with Kim on the field because I don’t have to do all the tackles, so I can just run into space. I feel like we had a lot of chances tonight, so this is the way to play the game. We had to play both long and short, which made us not so predictable. So I felt that was a good call from the coaches.”
With Nadim on the attack, it took a sensational performance from Kelsey Wys to keep a clean sheet. She made eight saves in the game and got help from Dunn, who from her post position on a corner kick cleared a ball off the line. For one save she literally had to reach behind her back to corral a shot from DeCesare.
Speaking of disasters, in the 28th minute it looked as if the Spirit had lost another forward when Ordega went down and stayed down after a tackle by Cami Levin. She was helped to the sideline, where the trainer spent several minutes looking after her. She got up limping, then broke into a jog as she rounded the goal net on the way back to the fourth official. She re-entered the game, and the rest was history. “It hurt so badly but I had to do it because it was my last game before the World Cup. Just put my head down and make the sacrifice.”
Ordega will participate in one more team practice before joining the Nigerian national team, then will return whenever they’re eliminated.
The Spirit go back on the road, facing the Western New York Flash Saturday at 7, while Sky Blue play at the Boston Breakers Friday at 7.