Playoffs at the ‘Plex

Lori Lindsey holds off Marta, from a gameday program cover for the last team to have a women's professional soccer match at the 'Plex, the 2009 Washington Freedom.

Lori Lindsey holds off Marta, from a gameday program cover for the last team to have a women’s professional soccer playoff match at the ‘Plex, the 2009 Washington Freedom.

Based on what I’ve read on Twitter and elsewhere, Spirit fans have a definite glass-half-empty feeling about losing the first-place spot the last weekend of the season after having held it for several weeks previously. But look on the bright side: this is the best regular-season finish in the history of Washington women’s professional soccer.

Yes, Abby Wambach never managed it in four years here. Heck, Wambach and Mia Hamm combined never managed it. But this bunch of no-names – certainly with no one of the marquee value of the aforementioned – did the job.

However, though this Friday’s home playoff match is a first for the Spirit, it’s not a first for Washington (or the Soccerplex). Back in 2009, the Freedom finished third in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) on the strength of a 4-1-1 finish to the season, which included a barnburner, 4-4 match against Sky Blue at Yurcak Field that the Freedom tied up in the final minutes off a goal from Cat Whitehill. (I got held up at halftime behind the stands chatting with someone at that match and got back late only to find that I’d missed not one but two goals.) It’s a team with a few players familiar to Spirit fans: Joanna Lohman, Lori Lindsey, and Ali Krieger were all on the roster.

Incidentally, a 4-4 result was not all that out of character for the 2009 Freedom. With Abby Wambach, Lisa De Vanna, and Sonia Bompastor, they had three of the top ten goal-scorers in the league and led the league with 32 goals. On the other hand, their defense – not helped by missing primary goalkeeper Erin McLeod for several games early in the season – was the worst in the league, giving up 32 goals. The definitive game for the team might have come in the second-ever professional women’s match at the Soccerplex on May 3, facing off against the St. Louis Athletica and Hope Solo. The team fell behind 1-3 but scored a goal in the 79th minute off De Vanna’s head, then a second in the 90th off Bompastor’s head (both diminutive players not known for their heading ability) to tie it up and steal a point. But I digress.

The WPS had a distinctive playoff structure. Instead of the more typical semifinal/final setup that the NWSL uses (#4 at #1, #3 at #2, winners face off in final), WPS had #4 play at #3, the winner of that play and #2, and the winner of that play at #1. So the Freedom hosted Sky Blue, whom they’d beaten at the Soccerplex, 3-1, the last game of the season.

Unfortunately, they were unable to repeat the victory. Natasha Kai scored in the 56th minute and Francielle in the 85th for the visitors. Lisa De Vanna got one back in the 79th minute, but it was not enough, and Sky Blue would go on to win the next two playoff matches and the championship, something everyone thought beforehand would be almost impossible for the fourth place team. (It’s probably just as well that this scheme has been abandoned as it’s hard on both the #4 team, who have to play three matches against playoff opponents in quick succession, and the #1 team, who has to sit idly while the other teams play to decide who will face them.)

The season that might be most reassuring to Spirit fans, though, is 2003. Like the 2016 team, the 2003 team clinched a playoff spot with two games to go. But the final two matches were on the road, and they lost both to finish in fourth place. Sound familiar? I’m not at all optimistic at that point: first they have to play the regular season champion Boston Breakers, whom with new coach Pia Sundhage has been ruling the league. And Washington has never won in Boston. So I go to the viewing party in downtown DC instead. The match is scoreless for 90 minutes, then 120. It goes to penalty kicks with goalkeepers Siri Mullinix for the Freedom and Karina LeBlanc for the Breakers. That phase was scarcely a contest: Maren Meinert missed high and Mullinix saved Kristine Lilly’s attempt. Meanwhile, Jenni Meier and Jacqui Little made theirs for the Freedom. Dagny Mellgren finally made one for the home team, then Mia put hers away. A limping Heather Aldama stepped up needing to score to keep her team in it. Siri made the save, and the Freedom were on their way to the championship.

The final is in San Diego against the Atlanta Beat. The Freedom take the lead in just the 7th minute off a trademark Wambach header off a long cross from Sandra Meinert – it even looks a bit like the famous Rapinoe to Wambach goal of 2011. Washington continues to dominate the first half but in the 45th minute are called for a foul in the box. Charmaine Hooper puts it past Mullinix, and we’re tied at one.

The second half is dominated by the Beat, but they are unable to score. So we go into golden goal overtime. Other than an early shot from distance by the Beat that goes just over the crossbar, dominance goes back to Washington. In just the fourth minute Wambach charges onto a long ball over the top and is taken down by Nancy Augustyniak barely outside the penalty area. As the last defender, Augustyniak – who had done yeoman work for most of the last 90 minutes shutting Abby down – is shown a red card. Mia Hamm takes the free kick and sends it off the crossbar. The Beat bring the ball upfield, but it’s taken away, and Meier is sprung behind the defense down the right-hand side. She crosses the ball over to the left, where both Abby and Mia are waiting, and Abby puts it in to give the Freedom the championship.

Other seasons, other results:

2001: The Freedom had an inept inaugural season, not helped by Mia Hamm playing hurt most of the year. They would finish tied for last place, well out of the playoffs.

2002: The second year was a big turnaround, particularly after Steffi Jones joined the team and Mia Hamm came back from off-season knee surgery. Rookie Abby Wambach led the team in scoring and had a double-double for the team (10 goals, 10 assists). The team started off 2-4-2 but then finished the season on an 9-1-3 tear. Still, their 38 standings points – a Washington record that stood until this year – were good only for third place as the Philadelphia Charge finished with 39 and the Carolina Courage with 40.

The Freedom would go on the road and down the Charge, 1-0, then face the Courage in the WUSA championship. Unfortunately, Carolina was the only team that had beaten them during their run, and the match was hosted by the Atlanta Beat in a city where Washington had yet to win a match. They fell, 3-2.

2003 and 2009 I’ve already talked about.

2010: This was a painful year. It’s a star-studded team featuring not one but two future FIFA Players of the Year in Wambach and Homare Sawa and outstanding internationals Bompastor and De Vanna. But with Lindsey and Lohman lost to expansion teams and Krieger back in Germany, the pieces never quite fit, and the team doesn’t perform up to its roster. This season starts off respectably at 4-2-1 but then goes on a ten-game winless streak that ends in a five-game losing streak. It creates a major shakeup in the organization, with Clyde Watson – assistant coach since 2001 – stepping down and Emma Hayes being hired as a “consultant”. The team would recover enough to finish 4-1-2, good enough for fourth place. This puts them on the road against the third-place Philadelphia Independence, an expansion team that has done remarkably well under the coaching of Paul Riley and the captaincy of once and future Washington player Lori Lindsey. The game is scoreless until the 120th minute, thanks in large part to some spectacular saves from Washington goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, pressed into service late in the season after Erin McLeod tore her ACL. I’m figuring that if we can hold on for penalty kicks, we’ve got this one in the bag with Harris in goal. But Amy Rodriguez got a beautiful feed from Tina DiMartino with seconds left on the clock and put the ball in the upper left corner.

Amateurs:

The Washington Freedom’s W-League team would win the 2007 championship, albeit without a home game as they had to go on the road to face Ottawa for the conference championship, then on to Rochester, hosts of the league’s final four, where – appropriately enough – they triumphed over Atlanta’s elite amateur team, the Silverbacks, for the trophy.

The 2009 amateurs would beat the pros to a playoff match at the Soccerplex, and they did it twice in a row. It’s a different format for the league’s final four this year, more like the pros where the higher-seeded team hosts. For the semifinal, this means Washington faces the Ottawa Fury Women again, though this time as the home team. The match is scoreless in regulation and overtime and goes to penalty kicks. I’m again confident in our goalkeeper and proven right as Chante Sandiford lets just one attempt in, and the Freedom prevail, 3-1.

With the Pali Blues easily downing the regular season champion Hudson Valley Quickstrike Lady Blues in the other semifinal, the Freedom are again the higher seed and host, coincidentally on the same night as the professional team’s meet-the-team event for season ticket holders. Sandra Matute scored for Washington in the 14th minute, but Pali came back with two unanswered goals for the second of their four wins (and no losses) against Washington.

Playoff soccer returned to the ‘plex in 2012 when the DC United Women – the direct precursors to the Spirit – hosted the Eastern Conference final four. The Charlotte Lady Eagles won the first semifinal over the Long Island Rough Riders, 4-0. Then the DCU Women made easy work of the Virginia Beach Piranhas, 3-0, with goals from Hayley Siegel, Lianne Sanderson, and Joanna Lohman.

The final was not terribly competitive, either, another unsuspenseful 3-0 win for the home team with Sanderson scoring a brace and Siegel adding a third. Alas, the black-and-red would have to face the host Ottawa Fury Women in the league final four, and they lost, 1-0.

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