For the fourth year in a row, the Washington Spirit Reserves (née DC United Women) will play in the four-team W-League Championship Weekend after downing the Braddock Road Stars Elite, 2-0.
The match was pretty much a must-win for the Reserves as a tie or loss would have allowed the Charlotte Lady Eagles to claim the conference championship with a win in their final game. I came in figuring that the worst-case scenario for Washington was a 0-0 draw as I didn’t see the attack-starved home team scoring on a back line anchored by U-23 national teamer Andi Sullivan.
Braddock Road seemed to think the same way as they came out in a very defensive formation with 8 field players on or just in front of the back line. It didn’t help. The Spirit Reserves repeatedly found gaps early particularly on the wing. Their first few chances failed, but in the 4th minute Sullivan got through on the right and, unchallenged, sent a perfect cross to Kara Wilson in the box, who had no trouble putting it in.
Opportunities continued for Washington through the first 20 minutes with just one good chance for Braddock Road, a nice through ball to Kahla Seymour, but defender Erika Nelson managed to clean that up.
The Stars Elite seemed to settle down after that and allowed many fewer chances. Seymour had their best chance of the match in the 36th minute when she stole the ball from Sullivan and brought it in but shot it wide right.
In the 41st minute the Reserves’ Midge Purce would receive the ball about 25 yards out courtesy of Leci Irvin. With three defenders in front of her, there didn’t seem to be much hope, but she dodged through them all and fired the ball in to double the lead.
Purce tried several times to repeat the feat in the second half but couldn’t manage it again. Reserves veteran Ashley Herndon – who’d already won a championship that day with her FC Virginia U-23s (ECNL nationals) – subbed in for her in the 61st minute but couldn’t get on the scoreboard.
The match would end with the same 2-0 score as at halftime, but it mattered little: The Reserves were on their way to Canada as the only undefeated team in the W-League this year.
Assistant coach JP Sousa was happy with the result. “Versus the last time we played Braddock Road, we did some better things on the field this time. Last time we were a little out-of-sorts. We knew what the job was here today: get the win, score early, release the pressure. And then we wanted to play as well as we could. They gave us some fits. They really played in a tight defensive shell. They were like five defenders, five midfielder, no forwards. But that was fine. We expected something like that, and we’ve been talking about how we need to break that type of thing down. We have the talent to do it, but we need to be a little bit more creative and dynamic in spots to create better scoring opportunities.”
Since the finals are at the tail end of the season, player availability is even more of an issue than it usually is, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Reserves. “We’ve got a good 20 or 22 to choose from,” said Reserves assistant coach JP Sousa. “We want to bring as many as we possibly can. So we’re going to sort that out over the next several days.” And what about key players like Andi Sullivan and Carson Pickett. “No, they’re in the mix. We’re good.”
If I have a concern about the team roster, it’s with the goalkeeper position. Unlike in the early years with DiDi Haracic and last year with Adelaide Gay, they haven’t had a steady, first-rate goalkeeper. “It’s been a challenge, just because of availability, some other things,” Sousa admitted. “But I’m going to give Katelyn [Jensen] all the credit. That girl’s just finished high school, and she’s stepped in and played, what, 6 games? And she’s done a great job, so we’re really happy with that. Caroline Casey, William and Mary player, we knew she could be here in the beginning of the summer, but it was dicey in the second half. We just never had the opportunity to have that one goalkeeper to ride us through all the way like we had with Adelaide last year. Not for lack of trying.”
As for a shot at the championship: “I think we feel good. We came from a tougher conference this summer than we did previous summers, the Southeastern Conference from top to bottom was more challenging, so we’re pleased with that, feel like we’re going to be in a better spot. So whoever we play in the semifinal, we’re going to go for it. To get to that championship, I think we’ve got as good a chance as anybody. We’re excited.”
Head coach KJ Spisak is kind of uncomfortable with interviews, but I did get her to concur about their goals for the Final Four: “I think any coach would say to win the whole thing, to win the national championship, and I believe that this team can do it.”
On the other side, I talked with forward Kahla Seymour, the most dangerous attacking player of the BRSE 95ers. When I talked with her last year, she was recovering from injury but is doing better now. “It’s been great. Last fall I was getting in but still having the injury I was kind of behind a little. But spring definitely I was getting in a lot more. I think it’s helped with lifting and getting strong with the whole college experience. So right now I’ve been injury-free for quite a while.”
She reiterated that the W-League helped her get ready for the NCAA level of play. “I think it helps to get the games because it also helps not just fitness-based but match-fitness-based, and playing against college players, too, so you’re getting the same sort of competition, so once you jump into preseason it’s a lot easier to fit in.”
And while the season results might not have been what they wanted, that isn’t the main point. “The goal is definitely development, and I think for the younger players especially it’s been helping a lot, and for the older kids it’s just keep the fitness base up and stuff like that. We do have a really young team, so that’s hurting us a little, but overall our possession style is still the same. ”
I then talked with Braddock Road head coach Larry Best about the match. “We changed things up. We went to a 3-5-2 formation, which was a little bit different for us, so we said let’s challenge our kids with something new.
“Then they got that early goal, which was disappointing. It just seems like every game from 2 minutes to 4 minutes they get that goal. Besides that, I thought our kids did well. They worked hard. They never quit.”
As always, for Best and Braddock Road it’s about development more than the score. “Each one of them, they know they got something out of this season. They’re better players than they were when they started. Rewarding season again, and we’re very happy with what went on. And that’s the goal.
“They could have been better in some areas, but put Kristen Meier in there, put Parkie [Marisa Park, last year’s captain] in there. Without Parkie and Kristen from last year, it was tough. Those senior players complement our younger players.”
I asked if he was going to try to go back to more of a mix of senior players and younger players like last year, instead of almost all BRSE youth players as with this year. “We are. But the difference was, this conference was much, much more difficult. Yes, we’re going to try to get some more senior players, some more college players. We’ll probably do the U-20s again and make that club-specific, and then open it up a little more to the W-League. So we’ve got a year to work on it now, and we will.”
Player Spotlight: Lina Granados and Yanara Aedo
The Reserves have two players with South American ties: Chilean National Teamer Yanara Aedo and Colombia National Team member Lina Granados. And thanks to Granados for acting as translator for my interview with Aedo.
I first asked Aedo how she ended up with the Reserves.
“Mark Parsons recruited me. He saw me play, asked me to come. I was really intrigued by the league you have here.”
Parsons (in a later interview) explained how he decided to bring her on board: “First, we were scouting for Estefi [Estefania Banini of the Argentina National Team], and Yanara was on the same club team, clearly the two best players. She had a lot of the same qualities as Estefi, and we thought she could be as good in the future.
“Second, it’s hard to be on your own in this league. You look at the Brazilians around the league, for example, there’s never just one. We didn’t want Estefi to be on her own, so we figured we’d bring along one of her teammates.
“The offer was that she’d sign for the Reserve team but try out for the pro team. We talked with her early on and said we didn’t think she was ready for the pro team, but she could play for the Reserve team alongside players her own age.”
(It’s clear from Aedo’s Facebook page that she and Banini have been good friends for several years now. Aedo will turn 22 next month while Banini is 25.)
I asked what she was looking to get out of it.
“First off, the speed of play here is a lot quicker than what I’m used to, so I get a lot out of that. On top of that, the US are world champions, so if you get to play in any US league, you’re going to learn something out of it.”
Did it work out?
“Yes, very much so. It’s been a great experience.”
Parsons explained why he wanted to bring her into the Spirit fold. “There are only a couple of players in the league who can find the pockets, who can find the spaces between defenders, between the defenders and the midfield, and exploit that. She can create, she can dribble, she can pass. What we’ve been working on is her decision-making in areas of the field. If she’s down low, she needs to pass the ball out of there. But if she’s up top, we’re encouraging her to dribble and create and make something happen. She’s a true #10, even though the Reserves are using her out wide just the way we were using Estefi out wide. She also needs to get used to the speed and size and movement off the ball of the American players in the league.
“We’ve seen improvement in her. She’s on the radar for the pro team in 2016.”
Aedo had to run off after my previous question, so I turned my attention to Granados, who was part of the Colombia national team at this Women’s World Cup.
“That was a great experience. Just being able to support my team and go play on the world stage, it was just amazing being there.”
She was called up to the team on about a week’s notice.
“It was crazy. We got the call June 1, and they were like, ‘One of the players got hurt. There’s a possibility we’re going to call you up. You just need to get all the paperwork in.’ I didn’t want to get my hope up because I know the paperwork can be hit or miss, but I definitely was excited.”
Despite her ties to Colombia, she’s practically a DC area native.
“I was born in Bogota. I moved to the US when I was 5 years old, to the Reston area, then Ashburn. But I started playing with them when I was 15, for the U-20 team, and just kind of went up in their programs.”
And this is her second year with the Washington Spirit Reserves.
“I love playing in the summer league. It’s some of the best collegiate players in the country. We’ve got a great speed of play, a great coach, and it’s just a lot of fun.”
The W-League Championship
The Final Four will take place July 24-26 hosted by the Laval Comets, who get a bye into the tournament. (If you’re wondering where Laval is, it’s pretty much a suburb of Montreal.) Despite getting a bye, the Comets should not be discounted as they finished in first place in their conference.
In addition to Laval and Washington, the Western and Northeastern Conference champions – still to be decided via playoffs – will participate. The pairings have not been determined, but Washington will be no worse than second seed and will most likely play Laval in the first round.