Spirit vs. Thorns: Battle for 1st ends in scoreless draw

Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is pleased that the Spirit have three clean sheets on the season.

Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is pleased that the Spirit have three clean sheets on the season.

The Washington Spirit are still waiting for production from their bevy of forwards. Other than a late tap-in last week from Katie Stengel on a ball that looked to be going in already, all the goals have come from defenders or midfielders. Against the Portland Thorns, the failure to get the ball in the net cost them two standings points in a match when they were clearly the better team on the night.

The good news – surprising given the past for both the Spirit and head coach Jim Gabarra, whose teams have been much more known for scoring than prevention thereof – is that the defense has been stalwart, allowing just one goal in four matches and currently riding a 204-minute shutout streak. But for a perfect sequence of passes that led to a Maya Hayes goal for Sky Blue in the 66th minute of that match, they could have four clean sheets instead of just three.

The credit for that probably goes all over the field. Teams can’t throw too many players forward lest Crystal Dunn break free as she did repeatedly last year. Then to muster an attack you have to get past midfielders Joanna Lohman and Tori Huster. Lohman is a pesky ball-hawk, chasing the action all over midfield, disrupting attacks, and stealing the ball – acting more like the youngest player on the team than the oldest. Huster is less active but sees the attack forming and gets in the way before it can get going.

Only then do you get to a back line with national teamers Ali Krieger (US) and Chelina Zadorsky (Canada), alongside Megan Oyster – a stellar rookie last year – and Alyssa Kleiner. It’s no wonder that goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé hasn’t been terribly busy this year, facing only eleven shots and few of them challenging. It’s a big change from last year, when Ashlyn Harris had to put on an acrobatics demonstration week after week to keep the team in games.

This match was typical for the home team in a lot of ways: Washington had the better attacks but couldn’t do anything with them, while Portland was seldom dangerous.

The Spirit strongly dominated the first half, keeping Tobin Heath in check except for a run in the 17th minute where Oyster was yellow-carded for fouling her just outside the box. Heath’s free kick was headed for net, but Kleiner headed it over the bar.

In the 25th minute, it was close to an instant replay at the other end as Dunn totally smoked defender Emily Sonnett, who took her down just outside the box and received a yellow card as well. Huster got a nice header in off the ensuing free kick, but Adrianna Franch tipped it over the bar.

Five minutes later, a Thorns corner kick sailed into the box. Labbé tried to corral the ball but couldn’t and after being knocked down had to get up quickly to block the ensuing shot from Dagny Brynjarsdottir. Heath came to the rebound but went down before she could get a shot off.

In the 35th minute, it looked as if Dunn’s scoring drought was over as she headed in a Krieger cross, but the flag was up.

Five minutes after that, Dunn sent a beautiful feed to the feet of Cali Farquharson in the box, but Franch came out to cut off the angle, and the ball went wide.

“They demolished us in the first half, but it wasn’t through soccer,” said Thorns head coach Mark Parsons. “It was with pressure and direct play. They owned the first half, but still it was choppy and messy because no one really got rhythm. The second half, I think we got some rhythm. We had some spells. We did build some momentum and put them on their back foot a little bit.”

Possession was indeed better for Portland in the second half, though marred in the 58th minute when Heath got her first yellow card for foolishly charging in on a Krieger free kick.

The 67th minute brought a play similar to the Farquharson one late in the first half, with Lindsey Horan sending a ball to the feet of Allie Long, who came into the box with a defender on her heels, then went down in a collision with Labbé, then Labbé quickly collected the ball.

In the 73rd minute Dunn got the ball at the top of the box from sub Cheyna Williams, then made a quick turn and half-volley that Franch had to deflect wide right.

In the 87th minute, Heath came down the left with the ball but had it taken away by Oyster. She shoved Oyster down, then threw the ball into the ground when she was whistled for the foul. The referee took her aside for a chat, then showed her a second yellow and then a red.

The Spirit poured it on against the shorthanded visitors in stoppage time. Despite an injured left foot, Christine Nairn had come on for the last twelve minutes. “The plan was actually not to play her at all,” said head coach Jim Gabarra after the game, “but we felt we might get a free kick at the end, or maybe we can get some shots from her from distance. But she hadn’t trained all wee, so maybe the two chances she had she wasn’t as sharp as she’d normally be.”

After some magic from Dunn on the left, Nairn got the ball at the top of the box but shot weakly with her sore foot right to Franch. A minute later Dunn weaved her way across the top of the box and sent a shot in that bounced off the left post. A minute after that, Dunn got the ball in midfield, brought it toward the box, and bounced it off a defender. It bounced over to the left in front of an onrushing Nairn, who facing an onrushing Franch sent the shot high, again with her sore foot.

“We certainly created enough chances to get a goal,” said Gabarra. “I thought we defended really well. The game was a top-class game, anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t call it chippy – it was competitive. We’re not going to play against a better midfield in the league.”

Asked after the game if the glass were half-full or half-empty, Dunn said, “Half-full! Always look at the positive. I’m very proud of my team today. I think we played the best we’ve played all season. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a goal, but we played some great soccer, and we played a really great team tonight. I’m very happy.”

Asked about the defense, she said, “We just play so hard for each other. I’m not surprised that we haven’t let in that many goals this season. All throughout preseason I knew this was a tough bunch of girls, and they never made it easy for me in training. I’m super-excited: being a defender myself I know clean sheets are something to be definitely proud of. I’m excited for our back line. They brought it tonight, and I’m very proud of them. ”

Labbé was pleased with the clean sheet but deflected credit for it. “The team played so well today. You could see all the chances we were getting. I think the biggest thing about the clean sheet is that offensively we played really well. I had a few saves to make, but especially the second half there wasn’t too much for me to do. All props to the team in front of me for being really well organized offensively and getting their chances.”

Meghan Klingenberg was less pleased with her team’s performance. “I don’t think we played up to the potential that we can. We’re capable of much more. We’re capable of getting in behind. We’re capable of keeping the ball. A credit to the Washington Spirit for making it really difficult for us tonight.”

Both Parsons and Long contrasted the first half with the second. “The second half, I think we got some rhythm,” said Parsons. “We had some spells. We did build some momentum and put them on their back foot a little bit.

“We were just under pressure so much the first half,” said Long. “We just needed to settle down, release the ball more, and play a little bit more direct just to get them off of us and to close the gap. [In the second half] we just started connecting passes. We were a little bit more fluid in our movement. Tobin helped us out by coming into the middle more. We played smarter. We played the game plan that we wanted from the beginning.”

The Spirit face the Houston Dash at home next Saturday at 7 pm EDT, while the Thorns go to Seattle for a match at 7 pm PDT.

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