For five years the Washington Spirit Reserves have been one of the class teams of the W-League. But in the post-season they’ve always been the bridesmaid, second or third while someone wins the crown. No more.
Today they claimed the W-League Championship in a tight, hard-fought battle with the Colorado Pride on two goals from Chilean National Teamer Yanara Aedo, the game-winner coming in the 89th minute.
On paper, it appeared that the Reserves had the stronger roster overall, though the Pride had both the better goalkeeper in W-League Goalkeeper of the Year Britt Eckerstrom and the most dangerous attacking player in Tara Andrews, the league’s leading scorer, leading goal scorer, and Most Valuable Player. In a game in which one big save or one opportunistic goal could turn the tide, there was no clear advantage. And certainly the Pride weren’t going to be intimidated by a strong roster after dealing with the Los Angeles Blues last year and the Seattle Sounders Women this year.
And that’s about the way it played out. Washington generally had the better of the play in the midfield but didn’t have the close-in teamwork or the killer instinct to get the ball in the net. Players would send in through balls without anyone making a run or with the run not matching where the ball was sent. Meanwhile, at the other end, Andrews lurked at the edge of the defensive line ready to pounce.
Andrews opened the scoring with just such an opportunity. After a Colorado free kick was redirected over the end line, Spirit Reserves goalkeeper Caroline Casey launched a goal kick into midfield. The Pride’s Erin Gunther ran forward and kicked the ball back where it came from. Andrews and Washington central defender Andi Sullivan got into a foot race for the ball, which popped up on the artificial turf rather than bouncing closer to the goalkeeper. Sullivan had a head start but was hesitant while Andrews went all out, got there first, and chipped the ball over Casey, who was caught in no man’s land.
The Spirit Reserves were no strangers to coming from behind, though, having had to do so three times during the course of the season, most notably coming back from two goals down against the Charlotte Lady Eagles to tie. It took them eleven minutes to do it this time. Sarah Zadrazil brought the ball forward on a counterattack, then passed to her right to a wide open Amber Stobbs coming up the sideline. Stobbs crossed the ball to the far post, where defender Adrienne Jordan dueled with Zadrazil for the ball and managed to head it away from goal but not very far. Imani Dorsey cut back and sent to ball to the left to a wide-open Aedo inside the top left corner of the box. Aedo fired a one-touch ball into the upper right corner of the net.
To give you an idea of how back-and-forth the game was, less than a minute before the goal the Pride’s Ally Watt had a shot bounce off the crossbar and back into play. The ball was cleared for a Colorado throw-in, and the goal was scored when the Spirit stole the ball and came in on the counterattack.
The next good chance was also Washington’s, as in the 35th minute Zadrazil sent a through ball to Dorsey making a diagonal run. Dorsey got past the keeper but took a strong touch on the ball to do so. By the time she caught up to it, defender Katy Oehring was able to get in the way of her shot.
Three minutes later, Aedo took a free kick that bounced right off of Eckerstrom and to the feet of the Spirit Reserves’ Meggie Dougherty-Howard about eight yards out, but her first-touch shot went high.
In the final minute of the first half, the ball came to Watt about fifteen yards out from the left post, but her shot didn’t have enough pace on it to get past Casey.
The half would end 1-1 with the sense that one second-half opportunity for either team could decide it.
It would take until the 77th minute for the next good chance, as Watt got a long through ball from Darcy Jerman. She got into the right-hand corner of the box but Sullivan was able to catch up to her and keep her wide right, where she took a shot from a tough angle but sent it weakly into the side netting.
The 84th minute was the match in microcosm. Dougherty-Howard brought the ball forward for the Reserves and sent it into the box to Dorsey, who had a moment of daylight but couldn’t get the shot off before being closed down. She kicked the ball out to Aedo, who curved a shot in from twenty yards out but right to Eckerstrom. Eckerstrom kicked the ball to the other side of the field. Watt headed it down to Andrews, who collected it and sent a beautiful through ball to Kaitlyn Johnson making a diagonal run. But she sent it just over the crossbar from twelve yards out.
The Pride’s best chance to take the lead came in the 87th minute. Gunther took a free kick from about forty yards out on the left sideline and sent it out from the near post. Renee Hurd headed it toward goal, but it bounced off the outside of the left post and out for a goal kick.
The game-winner came on the very next possession for the Spirit Reserves. Off a Jennifer Skogerboe throw-in on the left, the ball made its way to Ashley Herndon deep along the right sideline. Double-teamed, she seemed to hold onto the ball longer than made sense but then passed it to Dorsey at the top right corner of the penalty area, then cut hard toward goal, getting by both her marks. Dorsey led her with the ball, she got it back, and crossed it to Aedo in the goalmouth. Aedo was marked by Hurd but beat her to the ball and put it in from seven yards out.
Even that didn’t seem decisive. Off the ensuing kickoff, Watt sent a cross right into the goalmouth, but Casey was able to grab it first. The Pride got the ball back, and Johnson fired hard from just outside the box but right to Casey. In stoppage time, Jerman got the ball and put it in the path of Gunther making a hard run into the box, but Skogerboe made a textbook-perfect tackle to take the ball away from her. With seconds remaining, Watt was in the box deep on the right and sent a cross, but Casey grabbed it. The final whistle blew moments after the ensuing goalkick, with the Spirit Reserves remaining the only undefeated team in the W-League in 2015.
If you’d been told before the weekend that the championship MVP would score all three goals for her team, you’d almost certainly think it would be Tara Andrews. Even if you were told it was a Spirit Reserves player, you’d go with Imani Dorsey or Meggie Dougherty-Howard, the team’s leading scorers, or maybe Midge Purce in third place. But Yanara Aedo – after just one goal and two assists during the regular season – took control of this one and justly received the crystal globe.
As for the match as a whole, the Reserves claimed the trophy in their fifth year, while the Pride in only their second year made it to the final – and in their first year had the misfortune of playing in the same conference as the eventual champion and so were thwarted in their bid for the final four. One gets the impression that this will not be the last time these teams meet with a championship on the line.