It’s not hard to tell when the Spirit are going to win: they’ll be pinging the ball around from player to player, players always on the move to make themselves an open passing target, everyone calmly keeping possession and looking for an opening. I knew from the start of last week’s game that they’d beat Orlando because they came out playing that way.
Tonight against the Western New York Flash it was like that for only about ten minutes late in the first half. Other than that and a few minutes in the second half, the team seemed to be on their heels the entire evening. For both halves I sat near the goal Washington was attacking, and for both halves my dominant recollection is peering into the distance as the Flash went after the far goal.
The starting lineup for Washington didn’t include the recently returned Canadians, while the American Olympians Crystal Dunn and Ali Krieger, who had – ahem – been back for a while, were in the lineup.
Dunn had a chance off a beautifully weighted feed from Christine Nairn in the 5th minute. Coming in she dodged charging goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo, then with a good chance at her first goal of the season albeit from a tough angle sent it high.
Krieger was called for a handball just outside the penalty area in the 10th minute, but Lianne Sanderson shanked what should have been a dangerous shot well over the goal.
Washington had a corner kick in the 26th minute. In what looked like a scripted play, Nairn sent the ball low to Katie Stengel toward the near corner of the box, Stengel sent it back out to Nairn, who sent it back in from a much better angle. But Joanna Lohman’s header was just wide left.
Kelsey Wys made a spectacular save in the 37th minute. Samantha Mewis brought the ball up and sent a beautiful through ball to Jessica McDonald, who took it to the far left corner of the box, then kicked it out to Lydia Williams, who fired a low shot in. Wys managed to move quickly to her left from covering McDonald and dove to get a hand on the ball, sending it wide.
In the 39th minute – during the Spirit’s brief period of first-half dominance – Cheyna Williams and Crystal Dunn found some space to attack on the left, but Flash defender Elizabeth Eddy took down Williams to foil the attack and earned a yellow card for her pains. Christine Nairn stepped up to take the free kick from a very similar position to Sanderson’s. Hers was a lot closer but still went just high.
The half would end scoreless.
Diana Matheson subbed in for Williams in the 55th minute. Come about the 60th minute and Katie Stengel – not normally known for her speed – seemed to find another gear and was giving the Flash back line serious trouble. She would hit paydirt in the 64th minute, sprung down the right by a nice feed from Dunn. Goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo came out and slid to try to block a shot. Stengel deftly leaped over her and retained possession, with her very next touch sending the ball into the left side netting from a tough angle.
In the 75th minute, Western New York had a golden opportunity as Wys came out for the ball and missed it. It came to Willams, who with Wys on the ground had an open look from just inside the top of the 18 but sent it high.
Washington elected to bunker starting in the 79th minute, subbing in defender Shelina Zadorsky – a second Canadian bronze medalist – for forward Stengel. But all that seemed to mean was that the Western New York had to worry even less about the Spirit attack. “I thought we had a one-goal lead and thought we could manage it,” said head coach Jim Gabarra. “We changed our shape a little bit but didn’t really address their serves into the box.”
In the 85th minute, Christine Nairn headed a Samantha Mewis shot off the crossbar and out of the goalmouth. There was some discussion after the match over whether or not it was actually in, but the point was made moot seconds later as Mewis took a shot through a crowd at the top of the box. Wys had made far tougher saves this evening but perhaps screened by the players in front of her could only slightly redirect this shot, and it slipped into the left side of goal.
The match would end, 1-1, despite Western New York dominating the statistics: shots 25 to 8, shots on goal 13 to 4 (Wys had to make 12 saves total), corner kicks 7 to 2.
Gabarra was worried but not disappointed in his team’s performance. “I am more concerned about going back and watching this and seeing exactly what went wrong and what adjustments we can make,” he said, “because the next team that we play is certainly going to look at this and say, ‘That’s a way you can beat them.’ ”
“They’re a very athletic team and very good in the air. Huge challenge and that’s what you’ve got to expect coming down the stretch here when you’re sitting at the top, everyone’s going to come after you with all they have. They put us under a lot of pressure and we really had a hard time getting a hold of the tempo of the game in the first 25 minutes.”
Paul Riley, head coach for the Flash, was pleased to get a point on the road. “I thought the midfield played really well tonight. We looked dangerous. We had a lot of chances, hit a couple of posts and crossbars. I think the fact that we came back, it almost feels like a win,” he said. “I’m hoping that kind of adrenaline will keep us going. The overall effort tonight was outstanding. We created enough chances to sink the ship, but we just weren’t able to sink the ship.”
After all the weekend’s games are done, the Spirit remain in first place, though their lead over the Portland Thorns has dropped from six points to four. The Flash are in fourth place, four points clear of the Seattle Reign in fifth. Every NWSL team plays Wednesday night, with Western New York on the road against Boston and Washington in their final home game of the season against Seattle.