Driving to the Soccerplex on Saturday, I was already composing this article in expectation of another lackluster performance. “Should the Spirit change their name? Spirit is the one thing that they’ve seemed to lack this season.” I was also going to note that Francisca Ordega seemed too fragile for this league, too often being bumped off the ball.
Shows what I know.
An almost unrecognizable team showed up Saturday evening, especially in the first half: completing passes, making runs off the ball, and showing an intensity that had been lacking in their previous three matches. And far from being a fragile flower, Ordega was muscling defenders off the ball in what some were calling the best NWSL performance of 2017 as she played a role in all four Washington goals: scoring two, assisting on one, and contributing to an own goal with a shot across the goalmouth.
Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé had been the team heroine so far, and she made her mark again just 1:15 in, getting in the way of a point-blank shot from Samantha Kerr.
But it took under six minutes for Ordega to take over the show as she saw Line Sigvardsen Jensen settle a bouncing ball about 35 yards out. She took off toward goal at top speed and got a nicely weighted through ball that she one-touched into the back right corner.
Unfortunately for the home team, it took Sky Blue just six minutes to knot the score as Taylor Lytle was left wide open to take a shot from the top left corner of the penalty area. Labbé was able to block but not control it. The rebound came to Kelley O’Hara – also totally unmarked – on the other side, and she fired it into the upper netting from the top right corner of the goal kick box.
The Spirit would get their second in the 25th minute as Tori Hunter sent a ball in from midfield that Jensen possibly tapped lightly toward Ordega. Ordega drove defender Mandy Freeman to the ground while fighting her for the ball and was able to shoot toward the right post from the left side past goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. The ball looked to be going just barely wide, but defender Erin Simon ran onto it and sent it into the net instead of clearing it.
Nine minutes later on a counter Ordega caught the back line flat-footed and sent a ball over the top to Havana Solaun making a run down the left side. Solaun came in on Sheridan one-on-one, switched the ball to her right foot, and sent it in toward the upper right back corner.
Sky Blue had a chance in the 42nd minute to get one back off a hard shot from Kerr from the top of the box on the left, but Labbé was able to parry it over the crossbar. The half would end with the Spirit ahead, 3-1.
Sky Blue looked to have one back in the 48th minute as a long cross was headed in, but the flag was up.
That would only last about two minutes as O’Hara was able to find Sarah Killion making an unchallenged run toward the right post, and Killion easily put the ball into the back left corner.
Ordega made her final mark in the 56th minute, getting a long ball from Solaun and then outrunning Freeman to a one-on-one with Sheridan, who made a play for the ball and missed. Ordega with an open net but rapidly running out of real estate managed to tap the ball into the back right corner with just a foot or two to spare before the ball went over the end line.
Sky Blue would make things interesting in the 71st minute. McKenzie Meehan, just subbed into the game, was taken down from behind in the box by by defender Kassey Kallman. Killion authoritatively fired the ensuing penalty kick into the back left corner. Labbé guessed correctly but still couldn’t reach it.
Meehan would get through on the right in the 75th minute, but Labbé made the initial block, then defender Estelle Johnson cleared the ball away from the goalmouth.
As the game clock ticked over to 90 minutes, the fourth official held up a sign indicating six minutes of added time, resulting from a stoppage in the 67th minute after the two team captains, O’Hara and Shelina Zadorsky, knocked heads. It would be a nerve-wracking few minutes for Spirit fans.
Four minutes into stoppage time Sky Blue was awarded a free kick. O’Hara sent it in just under the crossbar, but Labbé was able to tip it over. Kerr had a chance from the top of the box in the 95th minute, but a defender tipped it wide. And Meehan in the 96th minute had a shot from about 15 out but sent it high. The final whistle would finally blow on the ensuing goal kick.
Labbé – named to the NWSL Team of the Month for April – was happy with the win. “It’s a big relief. It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been putting in a lot of work. The biggest thing is to get it at home and I think stepping out here we really wanted to score for our fans and give them something to cheer for. We gave them that four times today, so that was good.”
Ordega indicated that she felt healthy for the first time this season. “It’s a good feeling because I’ve been playing with an injury so I couldn’t fit into the team right away.”
I asked Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra if they’d put Ordega on a Wheaties diet. “That’s the Franny we thought we were getting from the beginning of the season. It’s good to see that she got into her form.”
He noted that Sky Blue almost came back in the second half. “They came out with almost desperation and aggression and fire. I don’t think we had that same level of intensity.”
All in all, it was a good showing for the Spirit, particularly on the offensive side with scoring four goals after only scoring three in their first three matches. Ordega was a multifaceted threat until she tired late in the game, challenging Sky Blue with her speed, her strength, and her playmaking. “To see her individual effort on at least two of the goals was pretty awesome,” said Labbé. “You could see that she was a big threat to them and they were having trouble dealing with her strength and her speed. It’s fun to see a player have those games. It doesn’t happen on the time, but to see a player on their game and just feeling it is really fun to watch.”
There might be a bit of an asterisk on the performance, though: with veteran leader Christie Pearce out with a concussion, Sky Blue ended up starting two second-year defenders, two rookie defenders, and a rookie goalkeeper. But at the same time the Spirit were hampered on the attack without Katie Stengel and Kristie Mewis. Mewis is expected back next week, but there’s no timeline on Stengel yet. Meanwhile, it was good to see Cheyna Williams get some minutes.
On the other hand, giving up three goals and repeatedly leaving attacking players wide open was not a good sign, as Labbé noted. “Unfortunately, we gave up three goals, so there’s still a lot to look back on this game to fix and work on.” And this was against a team missing attackers Daphne Corboz, Natasha Kai, and Raquel Rodriguez.
All in all, it’s a good start and an indication that fans won’t have to endure another season like 2013. But there’s still a long way to go.