You can read Spirit owner Bill Lynch’s explanation of why he rescheduled the anthem to prevent Megan Rapinoe from kneeling during the national anthem over at Equalizer Soccer. And I’ve uploaded Rapinoe’s fifteen-minute post-game interview – of which less than a minute is about the game – to Youtube. Caitlin Buckley also has a transcription of key parts of it.
And Steven Goff of the Washington Post has a day-after followup.
I’m still formulating my own opinion on the situation and don’t want to focus on that at this point, anyhow, but I will note on a night that Lynch’s team ensured a home playoff game and the most successful regular season of any Washington team ever, thanks in considerable part to him there’s hardly any attention being paid to that. But I’ll try to remedy that from here on out.
Due to lightning delays, it started almost exactly an hour late, and I can’t say I was paying a whole lot of attention early on because I was in the midst of trying to take in Lynch’s statement along with the online reactions thereto.
Anyhow, head coach Jim Gabarra took the surprising approach of resting many of his regulars, subbing out six of the players who started in Saturday’s match against the Flash. Resting some of his players at some point made sense in this three-games-in-eight-days stretch, but why would you do it for a match where you already have the advantage of playing at home? I tweeted at the time, “We’re going to find out just how deep this team is.”
Two minutes in, and there was already an adjustment as Cali Farquharson went down and had to be stretchered off the field. (She eventually returned on crutches with one knee heavily packed with ice. Word came out late this afternoon that she’d torn her ACL.) Crystal Dunn ended up taking her spot.
Once I started focusing on the game, it was clear that Washington had found its rhythm again after spending almost all of the previous match lacking that composure.
The Spirit looked to go on the scoreboard in the 41st minute as Cheyna Williams was taken down from behind in the penalty area. Christine Nairn stepped up to take the shot. She fooled goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer, but she missed the lower right corner.
The home team would get on the scoreboard in the waning seconds of first-half-stoppage time, which was lengthy due to Farquharson’s injury. Nairn took a free kick from the right side of midfield and sent it along the sideline to Dunn, who ran toward the top right corner of the box and fired a rocket of a shot in that bounced off the underside of the crossbar and in. Seconds after the Reign kicked off to resume play, the referee whistled the half over.
In the 59th minute, Seattle’s Kim Little sent in a beautiful cross to the head of Naho Kawasumi in the goalmouth. She redirected it toward goal, but goalkeeper Kelsey Wys made a terrific reaction save.
Washington doubled the lead in the 61st minute. Dunn did a terrific job of outdueling Rumi Utsugi for the ball near the right sideline, then turned and ran to just inside the corner of the box and fired a hard shot in from the right from about the same angle as her goal. Kopmeyer blocked it but let it dribble away from her. Williams, a few yards out from the left post, was able to corral the ball and send it in.
At 66:03 the much beloved lightning warning horn at the Soccerplex went off again. Fortunately, it was just the one strike, and play resumed after just under half-an-hour, about the minimum given the waiting required and the necessary warmups.
Come the 70th minute and the Reign send it a hard cross from the left that hits Nairn in the arm. The referee has no choice but to point to the spot. Little stepped up to take it. Wys read the shot but still couldn’t reach it as Little roofed it into the upper left side. Suddenly the game is a lot more interesting, though not in a good way for Spirit fans.
However, the Reign seldom threatened, their best chance coming in the 76th minute off a Rapinoe free kick from about 30 yards out that came in hard, but Wys was able to snag it.
The whistle blew, and the Spirit clinched a home playoff. The “B” team had done its job.
“We worked hard all year,” said Williams. “To be able to have another home game in front of the fans is going to a be a huge advantage for us. We’re all really excited.”
Added second-half substitute Joanna Lohman, “Honestly, it’s a dream come true. Coming into the season you have great aspirations, but it really takes day-by-day hard work to get to it, so it’s a credit to our team and how hard we worked, and tonight we showed how deep we are, throwing in new players who do an amazing job.”
Gabarra was pleased with the performance, though he joked that he was off the hook for buying the team ice cream – Nairn would be buying after missing a PK and causing another. “It was a very good team performance and very rewarding for me to start seven different players and have a player like Line [Sigvardsen Jensen] step up there not having played in the league and play 90 minutes against the best midfield in the league and hold her own. I thought Kleiner was great at right back. Caprice, that was probably her best game of the season. And Shelina Zadorsky stepping in and leading the back line was just awesome. And upfront to have the unfortunate injury to Cali and then to have Crystal and Cheyna and Franny on the same field up front, it really prevented them from holding a high line like they tried in the first half and put them under a lot of pressure and kept them honest. They couldn’t throw everything at us.”
Personally, I’m hugely impressed with this team. The last time Gabarra was here, in the WPS era, he had a star-studded roster with two future FIFA Players of the Year in Abby Wambach and Homare Sawa, along with stellar players like Sonia Bompastor, Lisa De Vanna, and Cat Whitehill. But that team always seemed to be less than the sum of its parts, with players forced into uncomfortable roles. Sawa played defensive midfielder much of the time, De Vanna was never given the chance to break down back lines, and there seemed to be no proper place for Bompastor: put her on the back line and the team stopped scoring, move her to midfield and the defense became porous.
“The deal is you have to be a good team first, no matter how good your individual players are,” said Gabarra. “I think we’re in a good place, playing a team game, with good role players, and our star players have bought into that and are willing to accept their roles and play the way the team’s been playing rather than what suits them individually.”
“I love these girls and respect them so much,” said Dunn. “If one person isn’t getting the job done, other people are going to step up. That’s what’s gotten us to the point where we are now.”
“We all are a tremendous part of this team,” Lohman summed up. “No one person is greater than the other. And to see everyone step in with such confidence, it’s great as a veteran to see the young players step in and step up. Line has just recently joined the team and comes in and plays a vital role in this game. I think it’s just a testament to our team chemistry and the dynamic we have here. We all love each other so much. We all root for one another.”
The Spirit have two regular-season matches left, both on the road: Sunday against Seattle in an immediate rematch, then Saturday the 24th against the Chicago Red Stars. The Portland Thorns are the only team that can catch them in the race for first place, and they’re four points behind. If Washington wins either match, or Portland loses either of theirs, the Spirit claim the Shield for the best regular season record.