W-League: Spirit Reserves close to playoff spot

The Washington Spirit Reserves approached the Fourth of July weekend at the top of the Southeastern Conference but with the knowledge that any slip could leave them without control of their outcome. Three games later and with one game to go they’re still in the same situation: in control but only barely.

July 2: Washington 3, Charlotte 3

The recent sequence began at home on Thursday, July 2, as they took on their primary conference rival, the Charlotte Lady Eagles. It proved to be a real battle, with Charlotte needing a win to get ahead of Washington, and the Reserves needing at least a tie to stay at the top.

In the 12th minute Charlotte’s Alex Brandt – formerly of the ASA Chesapeake Charge – found some space in front of goal, and Leah Fortune was able to get her the ball. Brandt sent it in past goalkeeper Katelyn Jensen.

Just 7 minutes later Charlotte doubled their lead on a corner kick from the left. The ball came to Annie Speese at the far post, who was able to get around Yanara Aedo and fire the ball in off the left post.

It took until the 30th minute for Washington to get on the scoreboard, when Schulyer DeBree sent a cross in from the right end line to Sarah Zadrazil in the goalmouth, who had an easy putaway.

In the 45th minute Zadrazil assisted on the tying goal, finding Imani Dorsey out from the right post, who sent the ball barely past goalkeeper Robyn Horner-Jones into the lower right corner to make it a tie ball game.

You’d think at that point that the Reserves had had their scare and would now take control the rest of the way. You’d be wrong. Charlotte came out strong in the second half with repeated strong attacks that eventually paid off in the 63rd minute when someone sent a terrific backheel toward goal for Fortune, who with only Jensen to beat put it in easily. (The goal is officially recorded as unassisted, which is a crock – this was one of the goals where the assist was the hard part, and the finish was relatively easy.)

Washington had another 11 minutes of playing down a goal before Dorsey managed to gather a ball in the box and put it away to tie up the score.

The Reserves had a great chance in the 90th minute when second-half substitute Ashley Herndon beat her defender on the left and fired a hard shot in, but Horner-Jones was able to dive and make the save. The final score was 3-3.

How does a back line with Andi Sullivan and Carson Pickett give up three goals? “Good question,” said assistant coach JP Sousa after the game. “To be fair, Charlotte’s a good team. They’ve got some really good forwards with skill. In the first half, we gave them just a little bit too much time, and they took advantage of what we gave them. We battled back to get two goals before half, so we were happy. That third goal that they scored was tricky. It’s just unfortunate – things happen. We certainly weren’t at our best today, but to come out of it with a 3-3 draw, we’ll take it.”

Charlotte Lady Eagles captain Amanda Naeher.

Charlotte Lady Eagles captain Amanda Naeher.

I made it a point to talk to Charlotte captain Amanda Naeher, who in addition to being the 2014 W-League Defender of the Year is the twin sister of backup national team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. I first asked her about the reaction to learning that the two playoff teams from the Northeastern Conference were joining the Southeastern Conference.

“Washington’s a great team,” she said. “We were like, well, there we go, if we’re going to go back to the Final Four, we’ve got to beat the best. No, we’re excited. It’s always fun to compete against good teams and they’re a quality team, and it was fun to play them both times. Not the result we wanted, but I’m sure it wasn’t for them, either.”

She had the same glass-half-full attitude about the game as Sousa. “I think we came out with a lot of energy and a really good rhythm, great game plan, and we just happened to jump on them early. Forwards did a great job capitalizing. Unfortunately, they picked up their pace a little bit, and we didn’t mark up as well as we should have in the box and they’re really good finishers, so they snuck two in. Well, now it’s a game, and now it’s tied up. We were fortunate enough to get a third goal, then, breakdown in the box, and they make you pay for mistakes. I was excited for us to get the three goals, but it was frustrating and unfortunate to give up three at the same time.”

2014 U-20 USWNT captain and Spirit Reserve Andi Sullivan.

2014 U-20 USWNT captain and Spirit Reserve Andi Sullivan.

The Spirit Reserves have a lot of great players this year, but the marquee one has to be Andi Sullivan. Considered the top recruit in her age group, she just finished her freshman year at Stanford. From Lorton, VA, she’s been with the team since their second season, when she scored a key goal despite being just 16 at the time. She’s away a lot of time, though, busy with things like, oh, captaining the U-20 WNT at last year’s World Cup. In fact, her eyes got quite large when I asked her to try to list all her national team callups. For that reason, this was the first chance I’d had to talk with her since that aforementioned goal almost exactly three years ago.

“Been great,” she said about her experience with the Reserves. “I’ve gotten to come back and play here every summer. This organization has been really great to me, and it’s been fun to get together with really great players, some different faces every year but a lot of the same faces. It’s just a great time.”

I noted the team giving up three goals, and she graciously took some of the blame for that. “I think that’s part of playing in a summer league is that there’s some pieces you’re not used to, you’ve got to get used to playing together, and that’s probably on me, I haven’t been around super-much. It’s the first game I got to play a lot in, so I was just sharpening up some things. Charlotte played a great game. They’re probably the best team I’ve played against in the W-League, I think. Some great players, so they challenged us. I didn’t expect us to give up three goals, either, but I’m pleased with how we responded to giving up three goals.”

Obviously, she could do whatever she wanted over the summer, but she relishes the chance to keep playing competitively. “It’s hard over the summer to get touches in and be able to play at a high-level pace by yourself, so you want to be ready for the college preseason, and I think this is the best way to do it, just getting to play games. Because you can run on your own and train on your own, but there’s nothing like playing in a game. Luckily, we get to play in a lot of games with a lot of really great players. It’s fantastic.”

So is this team the one that can go all the way? “I think so. I think we have it in us. We’ve got a great group. We’ve had great groups many years and made it pretty far. I think this year could be it.”

July 5: Washington 3, Braddock Road 0

On the Sunday after Independence Day, Washington went on the road but not very far, to Robinson High School in Fairfax, VA, to take on the Braddock Road Stars Elite.

It took only 7 minutes for the visitors to get on the scoreboard as Imani Dorsey fired in a shot from distance that goalkeeper Rose Chandler couldn’t quite corral.

The lead was doubled in the 45th minute on a complex play I can only approximately describe. Amber Stobbs brought the ball in and looked to have a good chance to score, but Chandler made the save without corralling it. The ball pinged around in the box among various players, with Dorsey kicking it out to someone with a better angle. It looked for a moment as if the Stars Elite had managed to stifle the attack, but then Meggie Dougherty-Howard sent it back in to Dorsey, who put it away from about 8 yards out. My tweet noted “that was about the 3rd try for WSR.”

Midge Purce came on in the second half and made an impact 12 minutes later, stealing the ball from Annaugh Madsen, coming in 1-on-1 with Chandler, and sending it on off the bottom of the left post.

Some heroic defending from Braddock Road kept the score from getting any worse. Highlights included Kaleigh Riehl somehow stifling a 4-on-2 break by both forcing the pass to the open player and then blocking the shot, and 5’2″ Nat Larkin somehow shouldering 5’7″ Ashley Herndon off the ball.

Washington had a chance to pad the score in the 85th minute as Yannara Aedo sent in a terrific bending free kick around the wall from about 30 yards out, but Chandler was able to dive and save at the lower left corner.

Sousa again was philosophical about the result. “We had some moments. It wasn’t our best performance. We just wanted to be better after the draw against Charlotte. To be fair, we had different players out there, we tried a couple different things. All said and done, it’s three points. It is what it is. We didn’t set the world on fire. We’ve got two games to go. They’re both winnable games, so that’s how we’re approaching it.”

Braddock Road head coach Larry Best, as always, looked at it as a learning experience. “We’ll take the 3. We really shouldn’t have given up the one right before half-time. But credit to them, they’re just so good all over the field. But we had a game plan. We did want to keep the score down, but at the same time we wanted to try to play. The difference is, they’re good all over the field. We’re good in areas. And if you look at our midfield today, all three of our midfielders are 16 years old. Just look at our midfield. It’s girls against women. But as I’ve said before it’s great experience for those kids in there.

“The difference is, whoever we face up top, we’re not big enough, strong enough, fast enough. Every back four, back three we play is bigger, stronger, faster than us. So we have no attack.

“It was 7 last time. And the difference is we folded the tent last time and kind of gave up. This time this was our challenge, we’re not going to give up. And I don’t think we did. And to me that’s the quality of the kids who are learning something this summer.”

Forward Maire Shine of Braddock Road and William & Mary.

Forward Maire Shine of Braddock Road and William & Mary.

I talked with young Braddock Road forward Maire Shine, who just started at William and Mary in January and has had to shoulder the heavy burden of being the primary attacking player for the Stars Elite with Kahla Seymour unavailable and Olivia Fiegel nursing a hamstring injury. She says the W-League experience has been very helpful. “I think it’s good. It’s good experience. Definitely a lot of game fitness, getting a lot of games in, and because so many players on our team play for William & Mary I get more comfortable playing with them. It definitely helped me to become more physical, and it’s just always good playing games.”

Midge Purce of Harvard and the U-23 USWNT.

Midge Purce of Harvard and the U-23 USWNT.

Getting back to Washington, like Sullivan, Midge Purce is both a local product (Olney, MD) and in the national team pool, but she only joined the team this year after spending two years at Harvard. “It’s been awesome. KJ and JP are incredible coaches. Practice is great. It’s really high-level. The girls are so much fun to be around. I met a lot of people in the DMV who I didn’t know were in the DMV, so it was really awesome.”

A lot of the players are familiar to her. “I’ve played against Kaleigh my entire life, since I was like 6. So it was really fun to play against her again. So you run into a lot of opponents who become your teammates, so it’s really exciting.”

As for goals for the summer: “We want to win nationals. We want to go to Canada to win, clearly. Who doesn’t? And I’m trying to get better. There’s so many phenomenal players on this team and every day I’m just trying to learn things from them and see what I can pick up from them.”

Five-year DC W-League veteran Ashley Herndon.

Five-year DC W-League veteran Ashley Herndon.

Sullivan may be the Reserves’ marquee player, but the defining player is Ashley Herndon, the only one who’s been with them every year of their existence. “Every year it just keeps getting better and better. I mean, I cannot believe how much talent there is on this team. It makes it fun, it makes it tough, but it’s getting better, so that’s always good.”

Are they finally going to go all the way? “I think we are. I think this is our year.”

A rising junior at James Madison who’s been with the team since she was a high school junior, she’s deeply appreciative of what the team has done for her. “The W-League has made me a better player in so many ways. Speed of play just so much better. The talent is amazing. I just love coming back every summer. I feel I’m getting better and better every summer.”

July 11: Washington 4, Dayton 2

The Spirit Reserves headed out to Ohio to face the Dutch Lions, who needed a win to stay in the playoff hunt. It was not to be. Washington was up 3-0 by the 57th minute on goals from Midge Purce, Meggie Dougherty-Howard, and Andi Sullivan. Dayton got one back just a minute later from Randi DeLong, but in the 73rd minute a Dougherty-Howard shot was knocked in and ruled an own goal. Ode Fulutudilu would get one back in the 83rd minute for Dayton, but it was too little too late.

The Playoff Race

The Charlotte Lady Eagles are 1 point back of the Washington Spirit Reserves, and each team has one match left in their season. Washington plays at Braddock Road Wednesday night at 8 pm (note schedule change), while Charlotte hosts Dayton Friday at 7.

Charlotte’s winning scenarios: The Lady Eagles first need the Spirit Reserves to lose or tie, then need to win against the Dutch Lions.

Washington’s winning scenarios: The Spirit Reserves are in with a win. If they tie or lose, they need Charlotte to lose or tie against Dayton. (If Washington loses and Charlotte ties, then they’re even on standings points but Washington wins the tiebreaker based on head-to-head record.)

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