(All game photographs courtesy of Larry J. Clark)
The big match of the weekend looked to be the July 7 match with the Richmond Strikers versus the Washington Spirit Reserves, big enough that I decided to drive down for it – on a Friday afternoon, no less. Both teams were vying for first place in the Colonial Division and the sole playoff spot that went with it. For the Reserves, it was close to a must-win as they’d already dropped points in two matches while the Strikers had only dropped points in one.
While I was driving down, meanwhile, the resurgent Braddock Road Stars Elite were taking on Virginia Beach City. Out of goalkeepers, they drafted defensive midfielder Rachel Moore to play in the net. “Rachel was brilliant in goal,” said head coach Larry Best. “Rachel saved a PK. And nobody knew that she wasn’t a goalie, 5’10”, 5’11”, and she’s a good athlete. And she catches. She played basketball, so she’s got good hands. It was against Virginia Beach, and they didn’t realize until the last five minutes of the game that she wasn’t a real goalie. Because the kids were laughing every time she’d get the ball.”
Braddock Road would pull out a 2-1 win despite giving up the first goal, making it a three-game undefeated streak – starting with the 2-2 draw with Washington – after losing their first five matches of the season.
But on to the Richmond match. Both teams were short-handed this time, Washington again without Douglas, Germino-Watnick, and Schnurr while the Strikers’ U-17 national teamer, Jordan Canniff, was also away.
The Reserves controlled most of the first half, earning six corner kicks. In the 11th minute, the ball came to Maddie Huster about 30 yards out off a corner kick. She had some space and reared back to take a shot but sent it off the crossbar.
In the 19th minute, Lauren Lazo had a chance from the top of the box but missed wide right. Four minutes later, she had another chance and sent that one off the crossbar.
In the 33rd minute, Cammy Murtha got through out from the right post, pulled the goalkeeper out, then sent a clinical-looking ball toward the bottom left corner of goal. But it bounced off the bottom of the left post.
At this point I had the same sinking feeling I had during the 2011 World Cup Final, as Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan missed one easy shot after another.
Richmond picked up the pressure late and had a few chances but nothing especially dangerous. The half ended scoreless.
Six minutes into the second half, the Strikers earned their first corner kick of the match. Emily Crozco took the corner kick and sent it into a dangerous spot in the goalmouth where Natalie Maurer put it in from close range. That seemed to inspire the home team, and they played tough most of the rest of the way, yielding few chances to Washington.
With six minutes to go in regulation (but after a water break, so it was clear there’d be significant stoppage time) and the Reserves apparently on the verge of losing a regular-season game for the first time since 2013, Mia Gyau took the ball down the left sideline, then brought it into the penalty area. After attracting defensive attention, she kicked the ball to the top of the box, where defender Julia Phillips ran onto it and fired it in the net.
The game would end, 1-1, putting the Richmond Strikers in first place in the division four standings points short of perfection (the two draws with Washington) while the Spirit Reserves were second with six dropped points (the two draws with Richmond plus the draw with Braddock Road).
After the game, I first talked with Lauren Lazo. From Phoenix, AZ, she attended Princeton (a teammate for two years of Braddock Road’s Natalie Larkin), then played professionally in 2015 with the Boston Breakers before going to Switzerland and then returning to the US to play for the Reserves. “I talked to Jim about coming in for preseason. I knew there were a lot of changes to the roster, and I have a lot of family and friends in the area. It just seemed like a great place to play. I’d heard great things about it.”
About Richmond, she said, “Very competitive, very physical. A very direct team, which is pretty much the opposite of what we try to do. So sometimes being the best team and trying to play the right way doesn’t always work out in your favor, and they were definitely physical and just kind of kicked the ball. So they were a tough team to play against.”
Brenna Connell is easy to spot on the field. Just look for the player with the gleaming blonde hair, a deft touch on the ball, and something a little off with her right arm. (She has Ollier’s disease, which affects bone development.) From Olney, MD, she just graduated from George Mason after growing up with the Bethesda Soccer Club. Despite this being her third year with the Reserves, this was the first time I’d talked with her. “I’m pursuing a professional career,” she told me, “so wherever I can find a place to play I’d like to play as long as I can.”
Asked what her goals were for the summer, she just said, “Just going to see how the summer plays out with the Reserves and talk to my coaches and see what they think after that.”
As for the Strikers, she said, “They’ve been pretty frustrating to play. They’ve done a good job of just giving us a lot of bad luck. We’ve had a ton of opportunities, controlled all the play. The ball just doesn’t seem to bounce our way against them.”
And I caught up with Maddie Huster, – the younger sister of Spirit professional midfielder Tori Huster – who in her fourth year with the team was away early with schoolwork but is now a regular. I first asked how things had gone since the last time we talked. “It’s good. I’m going to be entering my senior year at Wake Forest. I’m really excited about it. We should have a pretty good team. I’m just pumped to get back to school and get started.”
She’s working on “Getting on the half-turn and getting forward and just helping my team get chances toward goal and need to get some goals myself and just help the team in whatever way I can.”
As for the game, she said, “We were lucky tonight to get the point. Julia had a great finish. We were really lucky to come away with that result. A little unlucky in certain spots but happy to get the tie.”
Head coach K. J. Spisak had mixed feelings about the match and the opponent. “Physical, very direct. I’m proud of my girls for actually continuing to play and stepping it up and sticking to our game plan. We kept pressing and going and going and playing good soccer. Unlucky bounces, unlucky touches, blocked shots. The game could have gone the other direction.”
When I noted that the team was now out of playoff position, she was philosophical. “We’re here to win championships, but we’re also here to get a good look at kids that we want to track during their progression through college. Them being in first place is fine by me. I’m here to teach soccer, not direct and physical play. Unfortunately, that’s what happens in America.”
At that point, the Spirit Reserves needed help getting back into playoff position, and the most likely source of that help was the Braddock Road Stars Elite, who hosted the Richmond Strikers Sunday afternoon.
Fortunately for them, the Stars Elite were happy to oblige, while Richmond was even more short-handed with just 13 players. Normally, it’s a long wait to see BRSE score, but this time it only took about three minutes. It was a trademark Braddock Road goal, too, using the entire field to create space. The ball initially came up the left sideline, then was sent clear over to the right to Claire Robbins, who brought the ball forward, then crossed it back to the left side of the penalty area where Aria Nagai collected it and centered it for Ellie Zoepfl, who fired it in under the crossbar. The Richmond goalkeeper got her fingertips on the ball but was unable to stop it.
The home team doubled the score in the 21st minute. Maire Shine sent a nicely weighted long ball forward toward the right corner. Nagai collected it there and sent it across to Rachel Moore out from the left post. Moore collected it and fired it into the left side netting.
Two minutes later Richmond had a golden opportunity as Madison Hammond turned the ball over at midfield and gave the Strikers a 2-on-1 break. But Hammond chased down the open player and kept her from getting a good shot off. Richmond would continue to get occasional chances, but only from Braddock Road mistakes, and there was always someone to clean up before the ball went in.
The half would end with the home team up, 2-0.
Nagai would get on the scoreboard herself in the 53rd minute. Zeopfl sent a shot off the crossbar that she collected and sent in from the right side about 12 yards out.
Seven minutes later Nagai and Moore would team up again, Moore passing left-to-right to Nagai in the box, Nagai sending it back, and Moore putting it in from close range on the right-hand side.
The final score came in the 71st minute as Nagai brought the ball into the top of the box, drew defensive attention, then sent the ball to the right where Phoebe Dinga put it away.
The biggest threat to the clean sheet came in the 90th minute as goalkeeper Tina Cardamone tried to clear a backpass and instead sent it right to a Richmond forward. Cardamone came forward to try to clean up, but the forward dodged around her and sent the ball toward the open net. It took a Rebecca Moros-esque slide from defender Kaleigh Riehl to keep the ball from going in.
The final whistle would blow on an authoritative, 5-0 win for the Stars Elite.
They played really well,” said Best. “I was thrilled because we played the whole game. We played well, and we’ve actually played well the last few weeks. The last couple of games they’ve been very, very good, so happy for them, too.”
The unquestioned player of the match was Aria Nagai, who either scored or assisted on all five goals despite being all of 15 years old. “The best 15-year-old in the country,” Larry told me.
She’s originally from Japan but has spent the last two years with the Braddock Road organization and joined the WPSL team after the season ended for her BRYC 01 Elite team. “I just started playing last game because I went to regionals with my Braddock Road team. And then Larry invited me to play with the older girls because he said it would be good experience with the fast play and stuff like that.”
I asked if that was working out. “Yes, it’s really fun. It’s been a great experience. The girls are really nice. They take care of me. I can take it to my club team and hopefully raise my game.”
As for what she’s working on, she said, “I’m trying to get the ball more and move forward and attack and try to create chances and work on my touches and get used to the faster speed of play. Because I want to go to the next level at college, and college will be a lot faster and physical, so this will help me get experience.”
Best said of her, “She’s Japanese, but the US is looking at her – and so is Japan – at the 16 or 17 level. The US should be bringing her in, she’s so good. I think they will, especially based on today. [Richmond Strikers head coach] Aaron [Brunner] is a scout for the 17’s, and that’s why we played her today, so they could see her. Look how she impacted the game, at 15.” But she’s a good player. For people who don’t know the Japanese program, that’s what’s so hard to play against Japan, because that’s what they’re like. They’re all so good on the ball at every position.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Natalie Larkin, one of the 95ers that the team was originally founded to help support, not to mention one of the hardest-working, most energetic players I’ve ever seen. I noted that the last time I talked to her we were in Charlottesville in the fall of 2015 when her Princeton team was in the NCAA tournament and asked her what had happened since. “That year was really great. This past season we had a lot of really high expectations on us, and it didn’t turn out the way we planned. It was kind of one of those seasons where we had all of the pieces, and they just never really fit together in the right way. So we ended up middle of the pack.”
I then noted that this was the end of an era for the 95ers since they’d be graduating from college next year and likely not returning. “You could say that. It’s the victory lap. It’s weird. It’s deeper than just this team, too. I’ve been playing for this club for a long time, so it’s definitely weird to think about it being the last time I’ll be coming back, probably, just because I’ve been here forever, and it’s going to be really sad, but you grow up, and life goes on.”
Best commented, “She’s kind of the heart and soul of the team, because people feed off her. She gets people going. She’s really just that high-energy, high-octane, and people follow that. Just a hundred percent all the time.”
The other player I talked with was Kayleigh Stallings, if only because next to her name on the roster it said “USMA”. “I’ve played for Braddock Road since I was ten until I went to college. Right now I play for the USMA, and I’m a center-mid. And a rising junior.”
I asked her what role she was looking to play in the Army. “I would like to go cyber. It’s the newest branch of the Army. And if I can’t go cyber, I’d love to go either aviation or engineers, fly helicopters or work on construction.”
As for what she’s working on, she said, “I’d love to get my fitness up. Playing with this group of girls is amazing. They play amazing soccer, something you don’t see in college too much, keeping the ball, relaxing, spreading out the field, spreading the defenders out.”
When asked about the match, she said, “I think we played really well as a team even though we’re kind of a mish-mash of girls. We all know how to play the game. We’re all on the same page all the time. We know when to relax, when to pass the ball around, and we know when our times are to attack.”
Best commented, “PJ – we call her PJ – is probably the most efficient player we have. She’s a West Point kid, incredibly bright. Good work ethic. I always talk about the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of this game is moving the ball and moving without the ball. The other twenty percent’s the special things. She doesn’t do a lot of special things. She takes that eighty percent and raises it to ninety percent and just goes bop-bop-bop, but it’s flow. She never breaks our flow. And players like that are so good in the midfield because she knows how to play our system. And then when she’s asked to beat somebody, she does, but then gets rid of it.”
And the cherry on the sundae: at the same time as Braddock Road was whupping Richmond, Washington was putting a beat down at Virginia Beach City, winning 5-0 with a two goal, two assist game from Huster and a goal and an assist from Lana Spitler.
With that, there are just three matches left in the Colonial Division regular season: Richmond hosts Fredericksburg on Friday the 14th, Braddock Road hosts Legacy-W76 on Saturday the 15th, and the Spirit Reserves play at Legacy-W76 in a makeup game that has yet to appear on the WPSL schedule.