Spirit Reserves Tough It Out in WPSL Regional Semifinal

Washington, Boston reserve teams will face off for WPSL East Championship

Midge Purce picked up two assists but should have had a lot more

Midge Purce picked up two assists but could have had a lot more.

Unlike last season in the W-League’s fiercely competitive Southeastern Conference, the Washington Spirit Reserves have seldom been challenged this year, with their toughest opponent being the Spirit Academy. That changed tonight when they faced the regional hosts the Penn Fusion. They came away with a 3-1 victory, but it was hard-fought.

It didn’t look to be that way at first. If there’s a knock on the Reserves, it’s that they’re slow starters. That wasn’t a problem this time as they scored only 18 minutes in. Midge Purce got through on the right and sent in what looked like an off-target shot, but Ashley Herndon ran onto it at the far post and put it in.

For the rest of the half, though, they gave a master class in how to almost score. In the 33rd minute, it looked to be a replay of the first goal: Purce was through on the right again and sent in a cross, but somehow Krystyna Sikora missed high from about six yards out.

Shortly thereafter Purce was through and 1-on-1 with the goalkeeper. She tried to chip but got the ball only about head-high and right at the goalkeeper, who made the easy grab.

Four minutes later, she was through again, 1-on-1 again, and chipped again. This time she got it over the keeper but sent it wide right.

Two minutes after that Mia Gyau brought the ball down the right, did a terrific job of beating her defender to send in an open cross, but somehow the ball went right through the goalmouth no more than waist-high, untouched.

In the 44th minute, Purce was at point-blank range at the right post with the ball but couldn’t get it in past the defenders clogging the way.

In first-half stoppage time, Purce stole the ball from a defender about thirty yards out, brought it in toward goal, deked out the goalkeeper with a move to the right, and shot toward the open net, only to have the ball blocked by a defender and bounce right out to the retreating goalkeeper.

The half would end with the score 1-0 when it could easily have been more. “We definitely had more play in their half of the field in the first half,” said assistant coach JP Sousa. “We probably should have put four in by halftime. We had the ball. We had a lot of it in their half. We had the chances. We just didn’t stick it in the net.”

In the 57th minute it appeared that the Reserves had come up with yet another way of almost scoring as Meggie Dougherty Howard had the ball just outside the top of the box with only one body between her and goal – the referee. She tried to dodge around but then slipped the ball to her left to Yanara Aedo, who popped it matter-of-factly into the upper right corner from 20 yards out as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Imani Dorsey in the 64th minute sent in a rocket of a shot that the goalkeeper had to punch over the bar. The resulting corner kick came in well out from goal and sprung the Fusion on a counterattack. That didn’t succeed, but it seemed to give life to the hosts. For the first time all season, the Reserves seemed to be on their heels, struggling even to get the ball out of their own end. It might not have helped that they had only 13 players available, while the hosts had at least 18 and were substituting liberally.

It finally cost them in the 72nd minute as they committed a foul about 35 yards out. The ball was sent in, and Rebecca Sherry sent it in just inside the left post. That gave even more life to the home team, and for close to the next ten minutes it looked as if they wanted the win more than Washington.

The tide possibly turned in the 81st minute. It was another Fusion free kick, but this time the Spirit Reserves mounted a quick counterattack that took hard work from Penn to keep from being dangerous.

The clinching goal came in the 89th minute, Purce on the left this time passing into the goalmouth where Dorsey put it away.

“We said at halftime that if we score the second goal of the game then we should be in control, and we did that,” said Sousa. “But then we let them slip one in, and it got a little interesting. So then the momentum shifted, and we were chasing the ball for a bit. The first half we definitely played better than we did the second. The second half, we just gutted it out.”

I noted that it had to be tougher preparing for the playoffs this year than last given the comparative competitiveness of the regular-season teams. “We were better prepared a year ago for the championship round. This year, the makeup of the league, the division we’re in, our two toughest games were against the Spirit Academy team. We knew that this was going to be a jump. We talked about that in training. That’s why we had to do some things with the pro team to give us that little bit extra to prepare us for this weekend.”

The first player I talked with after the match was Harvard rising senior Midge Purce, whom I thought might be in a cranky mood after a frustrating first half. But Midge doesn’t do cranky. “I didn’t have a great day finishing, so I’m looking to pass the ball more. You just have to get back to your groove. The team did a really great job. It was good.”

She’s had a good summer. “I’ve really enjoyed it. KJ is a great coach, and we’ve been getting to it every practice. I’ve learned a lot. I’m definitely looking to improve my fitness. I also want to make sure my finishing is sharp, and I just play to get faster. One of my first priorities right now is combination play.”

Over the years, the Spirit Reserves have had some marquee names on the back line: Sam Lofton and Satara Murray two years ago, Andi Sullivan and Carson Pickett last year. This year, though, all the “name” players are in the midfield or up top. Still, the defense has been very successful, giving up just two goals so far, and young Julia Phillips has been one of the linchpins.

Julia Phillips has been key to the Spirit Reserves back line.

Julia Phillips has been key to the Spirit Reserves back line.

Phillips comes from FC Virginia and will be starting at Florida State next month. “We play at a fast pace, so it’s going to help translate into play down at Florida State.”

Asked why the defense was doing so well, she said, “We just talk well back there, let each other know where the player is. We’ve been switching a lot defensively with players in and out. The biggest thing in practice is just building that chemistry in the back line regardless of who’s there.”

One of the surprise switches for me in this game was moving forward/midfielder Ashley Herndon to left back for the second half. “She did good,” said Phillips. “There’s not much difference between left back and left wing except you’re the last defender. But we talked to her, and she kind of already knew what she needed to do.”

Said Sousa, “Today we just felt it was necessary, and she was like, ‘I’ll do whatever I need to do,’ which says a lot about her.”

“She did well,” added head coach KJ Spisak.

Asked what the team needed to to better the next day against Boston, Sousa said, “If we can finish chances early and then control the ball in the middle portion of the field.”

That match is set for 4 pm, Sunday, July 24, again at Penn Fusion’s turf field, 601 Westtown Road, West Chester, PA.

Boston Breakers Reserves 3, New York Athletic Club 0

In the other semifinal, played earlier, the Boston Breakers Reserves downed the New York Athletic Club, 3-0. Roselord Borgella scored in the 6th minute on a play very similar to the Reserves’ first. Gloria Douglas scored in the 45th minute on a mirror image of it. And former Northern Virginia Majestic Sonia Basma added some icing in the last few minutes when she got the ball about 30 yards out in the left, took it in, beat her defender with a dodge to the right, and put it into the netting.

Former Northern Virginia Majestic Sonia Basma now plays for the Breakers Reserves.

Former Northern Virginia Majestic Sonia Basma now plays for the Breakers Reserves.

I talked briefly with Basma after the match. She went to school at American International College in Springfield, MA, and now works at Nichols College in Dudley, MA, so she’s with the Breakers Reserves because that’s the most convenient elite team for her.

About what it’s doing for her, she said, “Right now I’m coaching, and I think playing is helping me a lot with coaching. And coaching is helping me a lot with playing. So I’m getting a lot out of doing both.

“We’re doing well this season. We’ve pretty much blown out every game, so we’re hoping to continue the streak. We’re working hard, and we have awesome training sessions. Hopefully it will just continue.”

At one point I looked at the flank midfielder for New York on the bleachers side for the second half and thought, “She looks a lot like Mikaela Howell.” Turns out she was Mikaela Howell – a familiar face to some of us after a couple of seasons with the DC United Women – so I talked with her as well.

Mikaela Howell was once a star of the DC United Women and played this summer for the New York Athletic Club.

Mikaela Howell was once a star of the DC United Women and played this summer for the New York Athletic Club.

“I thought you’d retired!” I told her.

“I tried to retire,” she said with a smile, then belied that with further comments. “It’s just great competitive. I’m holding onto that career for as long as I can. It’s tough to play competitive throughout the fall and winter, so it’s just nice to play with a group of players that are all on the same page through the summer.”

She remains an assistant coach with Monroe College, one of the top two-year programs in the country.

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