It wasn’t the most elegant game, but then the Spirit aren’t an elegant team. This one went to the team that worked harder, and that was Washington. It was was even more of an accomplishment given that Tori Huster, their captain and one player above all who exemplifies their work ethic and toughness, was out with an injury.
The visiting Portland Thorns struck first in the 18th minute when Allie Long sent a perfectly placed through ball to Genoveva “Ayo” Añonma. Defender Megan Oyster slowed up, expecting an offside call, but Añonma continued with the play and tucked the ball into the lower left-hand corner. It was the first NWSL goal for the recently signed player from Equatorial Guinea.
Eight minutes later, Christine Nairn sent a ball over the top in the direction of Crystal Dunn in a clearly offside position, but it bounced off defender Kat Williamson and landed right at Amanda DaCosta’s feet at the top of the box. Da Costa let it bounce, then chipped it over goalkeeper Michelle Betos. It was another of the sort of breaks that the Spirit never seemed to get until this season. (And claims that Da Costa was offside seem invalid – see the screen cap at top.)
Just two minutes after that, Betos had trouble controlling a back pass, Crystal Dunn came swooping in, took it away from her, and had an easy putaway. It was roughly the nine-zillionth time the Spirit had gotten a goal off a Dunn steal, though she doesn’t usually do it singlehandedly. Dunn is now leading the NWSL in scoring and has either scored or helped score all four of the game-winning goals for the Spirit this year. Thorns head coach Paul Riley: “Crystal Dunn was exceptional. How she’s not on that plane to Canada is absolutely beyond me.”
But that would conclude the scoring. The second half would be hard-fought and scrappy, with four yellow cards issued to Portland players, two of which looked to be for professional fouls to take down Laura del Rio before she did something dangerous with the ball.
In stoppage time, the Thorns had a free kick from the left of the box. That was sent in and kicked around, then out for a corner kick. With seconds remaining, the visitors brought up all eleven players including goalkeeper Betos. The ball bounced around in dangerous territory but was cleared out and possessed by the Spirit as the whistle blew.
Riley was thoroughly displeased with his team’s performance. “Washington outplayed us. We lacked that fight tonight. We just didn’t show up. No pride in the uniform tonight, very disappointing performance. We were outrun, outfought, outkicked. We had no answer to them. They worked their tails off tonight.”
Thorns midfielder Mana Shim agreed that they were outplayed. “We got beat for sure in the midfield. I think we got beat everywhere, to be honest. Unfortunately, we really didn’t come up today in the midfield, and that’s usually where we have the most success, that’s where we find the ball, that’s like the center of the team.”
Spirit captain Christine Nairn – wearing the armband for the first time with Tori Huster benched due to injury – praised her team for its toughness. “The first half was good, we were connecting passes, we were extremely successful in that, and I think Portland changes things going into the second half, and we had to take wave after wave, and I think that shows how strong this team is mentally, physically, emotionally when we’re not going to have the best game. We’re going to put our bodies on the line, we’re going to battle, and scrape out a win. At times I think they were the better team, and at times I think we were the better team. It’s all about who wants it more, and I think today it was us.”
Nairn also had a few words about the significance of winning at home, which the Spirit have done without fail so far this season. “We come here, and we play in front of these fans, we want to put fans in the seats, we want to make people proud to wear this jersey in the stands and around the DC area.”
Washington head coach Mark Parsons was pleased that the Spirit defeated the Thorns for the first time ever. “The bigger picture, end of 2013, one team was NWSL champs, the other team was rock-bottom without much going for them. In 18 months, to go from that and put this number on a club like Portland that’s a huge club and a great team, it’s a really proud night for the players, the staff, the owner, all the people behind the scenes. This is such a huge thing for the club.”
“We thought we deserved to win at Portland last time,” Nairn noted, a sentiment Parsons echoed.
Other than the win, the most notable event of the night was Tiffany Weimer returning to the pitch for the first time after being signed by the Spirit before the beginning of the 2014 season. She came to the fourth official around the 88th minute but since her teammates were doing their best to kill the clock, it was the beginning of stoppage time before she could step onto the field.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Nairn. “We’ve seen her in practice, and we’re just so excited to have her back. She’s such a class player, fun person, great player, great teammate, overall a great person to have on this team, and we’re so lucky to have her back, and I can’t wait to see what she does for the rest of the season.”
Weimer was quietly emotional after the game. “It’s been a long year, and a lot of these guys and a lot of people who aren’t here tonight have been behind me the whole way. So to be able to come out and even get a couple of minutes, to hear my name announced, to hear them [gestures toward the Spirit Squadron section] cheer my name, to step on the field was quite a rush. I’m not ready to stop playing no matter how old I am, and tonight was a step forward for me.”
And she wasn’t the only one. “I found out after the game that Tori Huster had tears in her eyes when I went on the field.” Huster also made it a point to give Weimer a hug before she came on, hugs being something Weimer had been teasing her about for some time. Said Weimer, “That hug meant a lot.”
On the other side, the Thorns after winning their first two games failed to win their next five and are on a three-game losing streak. “I think there are a couple of things going on,” said Shim. “We’ve been facing different challenges in each game, so I think it’s not necessarily like the same thing happens over and over and over again. Each game has been very different. Losing is never fun, and it’s never good, but it’s better to lose early in the season than later. We really still have our future in our hands. We can determine the way our season ends because there are enough games left. ”
I pointed out that Portland had lost the most players of any NWSL team due to the Women’s World Cup. “I don’t feel like when we’re training anything is that different. I don’t feel that the level gets dropped that much, and part of it is because we haven’t had all of our World Cup players together at one time. We haven’t felt what it’s like to have our whole squad in together. I think the players who are filling in and our team makeup right now is we have what it takes as a team but are just not getting it done. It’s not that we don’t have the personnel.”
Portland heads to Houston to play the Dash next Saturday, while Washington stays at home and plays Boston the same evening. So far this year the Spirit are 3-0-0 at home.