WPSL East Conference Final: Washington Spirit Reserves 3, Boston Breakers Reserves 1
It was everything you’d expect the first-ever match between two NWSL reserve teams to be: hard-fought, high-quality, and suspenseful. But the 2015 W-League Champion Washington Spirit Reserves came out on top on the strength of two goals from Imani Dorsey and a strike from distance by Maddie Huster that Carli Lloyd would have been proud of. Boston’s Katie Lenz countered with a well-placed goal, but it wasn’t enough.
How important was this game to the Spirit? Bill Lynch – owner of all three Spirit teams – was there (and on both days credited as the team’s head coach). Pro coach Jim Gabarra rode the bus home from Rutgers after the pro game Saturday night, then turned around and drove back up from his Annapolis home. And players Alli Murphy and DiDi Haracic were back with the team by whatever route after spending Saturday evening with the pro team as pre-Olympic backups.
It was a hot but not sweltering afternoon on host Penn Fusion’s turf field in West Chester, PA. The Spirit kicked off just before four pm and were promptly fouled. It took just four minutes for the first decent attempt, a shot from distance by Midge Purce that seemed hopeful but had so much mustard on it that Boston goalkeeper Caroline Kelly could only parry it.
The Breakers had a chance just three minutes later when Gilda Doria stole the ball at midfield and tried to shoot before Haracic could position herself, but she missed wide.
Washington struck first in the 15th minute off a superb team goal. Purce started the play by bringing the ball down the left flank, then passed it clear over to the right flank to defender Mia Gyau. Gyau brought it to the top right corner of the box, then slipped it over to Yanara Aedo. Aedo looked for a shot, then slipped it to her left to Imani Dorsey, who cut to her right, found an opening and fired it in from about 18 yards out. “The movement to get the ball up to that point,” said Dorsey, “like I was playing center mid but I had moved wide and switched with Yanara, so she was in the middle. So a lot of good movement up top and then just a ball got slotted out to the 18, and I was able to put it away.”
Far from discouraging Boston, the goal only seemed to make them more determined, and they spent the next several minutes in DC’s end working hard to get off a decent shot. But the Spirit defense worked just as hard to keep that from happening.
Washington had a chance to double the score in the 27th minute. On a corner kick from the left spot, Murphy came up quickly from her spot on the day as left flank defender. Before Boston could react, Aedo sent her the ball near the top left corner of the penalty area. Murphy corralled it and shot it in, but the ball just missed the upper left corner.
The Spirit doubled the score in the 34th minute. Purce got through but well out on the right. She took the ball to the end line on that side, then angled it into the box to a wide-open Dorsey, who fired it off the goalkeeper and in.
The Breakers’ Sonia Basma had a chance for a spectacular goal in the 37th minute. It wasn’t quite a bicycle kick because she didn’t actually flip over, but she did kick the ball back and over her head while facing away from goal, just didn’t get enough on it to trouble goalkeeper Haracic.
Boston had their best buildup of the match to that point in the 41st minute. After moving the ball around and trying to find a gap in the Washington defense, finally a player came open on a flank run down the left. She was able to send in an unchallenged cross, but the resulting header was wide.
Two minutes later another buildup had Basma through on goal from about twelve yards out, but Haracic did a terrific job blocking the shot.
In stoppage time, Murphy from the left side of the midfield stripe spotted Ashley Herndon making a slashing diagonal right-to-left run into the box and sent in a perfectly weighted ball right to Herndon’s feet. But her shot went right to the goalkeeper.
The half ended with the Spirit up 2-0 but with the sense that they were a little fortunate to still have the zero. Still, assistant coach JP Sousa was happy at halftime, which has not been his usual mood with this team at that point. “But like we said after yesterday’s game, we want to come out in the first half early and do something, establish ourselves, and two goals in the first half were crucial. And that gave us some momentum.”
They had two good chances early in the second half: Two minutes in Herndon stole the ball at midfield and led a counterattack that got Purce in the box with the ball, but a defender challenged her and took it away. In the 52nd minute, Purce and Dorsey led a two-on-one break, but Kelly did a terrific job of blocking Dorsey’s shot.
After that, the Breakers seemed to step it up a notch while the Spirit dialed it down, spending less time challenging possession in midfield. The difference might have been that the former had made half-a-dozen subs, while the latter – with just three field players on the bench – had yet to make any.
Haracic punched away a corner kick in the 55th minute, then a defender blocked a shot in the 56th. A scary moment came in the 58th as central defender Julia Phillips completely whiffed on an attempted clearance. The Boston forward got the ball and came in, but her shot went into the side netting.
But even before I could finish typing that up, Lenz fought her way into the left side of the penalty area and from a tough angle fired the ball off the right post and in to put Boston within one. “That was a great shot,” said Sousa. “They deserved that one.”
The second half water break came in the 67th minute, which seemed to settle Washington a bit. “Even though we gave up that one, we had the advantage,” said Sousa. “We were able to regroup at that water break and just kind of tightened it up a little bit.”
Lenz would get another opportunity in the 74th minute from about 15 yards out, but she didn’t get much on it, and Haracic had no trouble making the grab.
Two minutes later and somewhat against the recent run of play, midfielder and team captain Maddie Huster was left unchallenged close to 40 yards out and decided to give it a try. Her shot sailed neatly into the upper left corner over a leaping Kelly to restore the Spirit lead to a much more comfortable 3-1. If WPSL had a Goal of the Year contest, that one would be on the short list. “Maddie hit a gem there to seal it,” said Sousa. “That was what we needed in that moment, and then everybody was able to exhale, just close out the game.”
The Breakers earned two corner kicks in the next few minutes. The first one wasn’t dangerous, but the second one was headed from near the right post to near the left, and then headed toward goal. Haracic had to leap to keep the ball from sneaking inside the post.
Lenz tried to be a heroine again in the 86th minute, singlehandedly taking the ball from deep in her own end into the goalmouth, but her shot went right to Haracic.
The Spirit looked to get a bonus goal in second-half stoppage time when Aedo stole the ball at midfield from the pressing Breakers and went in one-on-one against Kelly but sent it right to her.
The whistle blew shortly thereafter on a match that was fought at every corner of the field – a description of the scoring chances doesn’t begin to express the feel of this match, as every ball was challenged, every one-on-one fight for possession was played with a determination as if the loser would be executed. Both sides had quality players who were used to winning, well-trained to win, and expected nothing less of themselves and their teammates.
The score – and overall rhythm of the game – was the same as the previous match, but against a much tougher team. The Spirit Reserves coaches – Sousa and head coach KJ Spisak – were rightfully pleased with their players. “Extremely proud, yes,” said Sousa. “That was the best team we played all summer. And our girls really stepped up. They took that challenge head on. It was great. We did a lot against two quality teams, hot conditions, thin squad. Our girls wanted this. They really did. We talked about it this morning at the hotel. They wanted to win this and advance on to win another national championship. ”
The first player I talked with was central defender Lizzie Raben. A rising senior at Duke from Denver, CO, who played in the U-17 WWC, she’s been key to Washington’s stingy defense. “This is definitely the best team we’ve played so far,” she said. “They were a really quality side and a really challenging opponent. We’ve had trouble with starting early in the first half, and I thought we did that today. So I was really happy with that. Came out with a bang, got two really good goals, so that was really important for us. And then that gave us momentum to weather their momentum when it came, because shifts are going to happen in the game. I think we were prepared for that, weather the storm. Even when they got a second goal, the team stayed really positive. We were able to get that third goal, so overall a really positive performance from us against a really good side.”
“It was a great game,” said Dorsey, a rising junior at Duke and a local player from Elkridge, MD. “We came out hard in the beginning and got a couple of good goals in the first half. We had to weather a couple of storms in the second half. They had a good goal and were really bringing the pressure on us, but we got through that and stayed together as a team. And eventually Maddie hit a great shot.”
None of the 100+ teams in the WPSL gave up as few goals during the regular season than the Spirit, who yielded just one. I asked Raben the secret of their success. “I think we’re all just really committed to defending from the first forward all the way through the back, and that’s really important. If our forwards aren’t defending, it’s a lot more work for us, but luckily they work their butts off on defense. And then defensively you just try to be on the same page. As long as everyone’s communicating, and you know what your job is, then it makes it a lot easier on everyone. KJ’s been good about getting us all on the same page defensively and what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Raben ended up with the team partially because it was recommended to her by her Blue Devil teammates. “We’ve had a lot of players come through here in the past, and they’ve all had a really, really positive experience. I’m also working in DC, and I have family in DC, so it all came together really nicely for me. Best of all worlds!”
I asked her what she was trying to get out of the experience. “For me, it was to work on a few areas technically and individually, some decision-making, and then just get better physically and fitter for my preseason. That’s definitely been accomplished. The practices have been awesome. The quality of players that we have on this team is unbelievable for a summer league team. We have some of the best players around the country who just happen to be playing for the Spirit, so it’s been an amazing experience. KJ and JP have been wonderful, and the whole Spirit organization has been really welcoming.”
I asked Dorsey the same question. “It’s great to play over the summer between my college seasons. It’s a good way to keep my game fitness up and keep me sharp and focused over the summer and help prepare me for the college season.”
The next question was what they could take from this weekend, either in terms of what to keep doing or what to improve on.
“We don’t want to have that lull, that middle of the second half lull where we give something away and are kind of on our heels for a while,” said Sousa. “That happened in both games this weekend. If we can be a little more consistent through the ninety minutes, that would certainly help us.”
“If we can keep the energy up throughout the entire game,” agreed Dorsey, “and really keep our focus and not to have to weather so many long and hard storms, I think we’ll be good.”
“Getting a feel for the game,” said Raben. “Knowing when to keep it, when we need to rest, and when we need to go forward and how to exploit the other team and vary our attack a little bit. But I think for the most part keeping doing what we’re doing, keep playing to feet, keep playing a lot of possession, and just doing what we do best. And then I think most of all just finishing our chances. We’ve created a lot of really great chances this weekend, and we would have had the opportunity to have even more of a cushion. It’s probably the biggest thing for us, just putting those chances away when we get them, because I’m sure it’s going to be two really good teams in Ohio that we have to get through to win this, so putting our chances away is going to be really important.”
The WPSL championship final four is set for next weekend in Columbus, OH. The other three teams, representing their respective conferences, are the San Diego SeaLions (West), the Chicago Red Stars Reserves (Central), and the Atlanta Silverbacks (South).
Chicago will play Washington at 2 on Saturday in the first semifinal, and San Diego will play Atlanta in the second, at 4:30. The winners will meet in the final at 2 pm Sunday.