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The Lowdown: Spirit riding high after big win

Mark Parsons and the Spirit are hitting their groove, shown by a 3-2 win over the WNY Flash on Saturday. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

The Reign are the undisputed leaders in several NWSL categories, not least of which is their improvement over last season. But on that last category, the Washington Spirit are not that far behind. The Spirit are just 3-4-0, but they are quietly improving and leaving their dreadful 2013 season farther and farther in the rearview mirror.

“In my head it’s well over and done with for sure,” head coach Mark Parsons told The Lowdown on Monday. “There’s not a single player that has thought about last year for a very long time. It’s a new squad.”

There was no better case for the Spirit having turned the page on last season than Saturday. Despite trailing 2-1 at halftime, the Spirit rallied for two goals in the 2nd half and a 3-2 victory over the Flash, against whom they were 0-5-1 coming in. It marked the first time the Spirit won after trailing at halftime, or at any time during the 2nd half.

“It was a strange feeling at half time,” Parsons said. “They hit a crossbar and a post, and we could have been a few more goals down. But we were happy. Because we looked like us. (Before the game) we really wanted to focus on fighting to be what we really want to be about. The result is what we want or what we don’t want, we can’t necessarily control that. What we can control is what we want to be, and what we want to look at play like. So at halftime we had shown a lot of glimpses of it. It was exciting.”

In the second half those glimpses turned into a victory. Parsons had some lineup decisions to make thanks to a PCL injury suffered by center back Toni Pressley that could keep her out the rest of the season. To replace Pressley, Parsons slid Ali Krieger over from right back. Rookie Bianca Sierra got the nod at Krieger’s customary right back slot. Another change was leaving Diana Matheson on the bench.

Parsons was coy about why Matheson did not get the start, but there is no question her appearance after halftime helped change the game in the Sprit’s favor.

“The luxury of bring on someone like that at halftime is a nice place to be,” he said.

Matheson technically replaced Sierra, but really stepped in for Crystal Dunn in midfield. Dunn then dropped back to replace Sierra. The rookie had a solid half, Parsons said, but was actually guilty of staying too true to the defensive shape instead of playing more aggressively against Flash midfielder Sonia Bermudez.

“It was Bianca Sierra’s second start of the season and she was doing well up until the point that she was defending tactically a little too honest,” the coach said. “She wanted to stay connected to her back four, but if you give Sonia two yards she’s going to pull it out of storage and she’s going to put a ball in the box. We felt that Crystal would be able to stand on Sonia, which to be honest is cheating a little bit.”

Parsons’s other significant halftime adjustment was to figure out how to keep Carli Lloyd and Angela Salem from generating attack from deep in midfield. It worked. “In the first half we felt good we just needed to make some small tweaks. The second one was just making sure Carli and Ang didn’t get on the ball deep in midfield because they could start spraying it. And we stopped that in the second half.”

The only thing left was to score, something they did twice. The first one started with a Robyn Gayle move around a defender and then a weak clearance by the Flash that allowed Taylor to shoot it off the crossbar. From there it bounced off Kathryn Williamson’s back for an own goal. The game-winner was a booming free kick by Christine Nairn that Yael Averbuch won in the air towards Taylor who secured the finish. Taylor scored the Spirit’s first goal and ended the day with her first two NWSL strikes.

The Spirit have now defeated the Flash and FC Kansas City, playoff sides from a year ago, and played the Reign tooth and nail in one of two losses to the undefeated, untied league leaders. With 9 points they did in 6th place and the next week or three will go a long way towards determining whether they are in the thick of the playoff mix or battling to stay off the bottom again.

“I think it’s in our hands,” Parsons said. “I’ve seen enough to say that if we play as we can, at our best, I think we can beat anyone in the league. And that’s all you can ask for. The exciting thing is, if we get it right, we’re in every game.”

The Spirit still have all nine matches to play against Sky Blue, the Dash, and Breakers, who combine for a 3-13-4 mark with all three wins against each other.

And Saturday’s energetic crowd of 4,598 combined with the win to make it the most notable day in the brief history of the Washington Spirit.

“I think if you step back and look at it that way, it probably is,” Parsons said. “Not only were (the Flash) the best team last year, they signed some world class players to their roster. I would argue that they’re stronger than last year. But the players made it what it was. There were so many good individual performances. It was exciting to watch.

“I’m really happy for the players because they really earned it and they really deserved it.”

Week 6 Takeaways

Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 6:

Nikki Marshall and three rookie defenders helped the Thorns shutout the Dash last Wednesday. (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

— Wednesday seems like a long time ago, but Emily Menges put in a fabulous performance for the Thorns in a second 1-0 win at Houston this season. It earned her my Player of the Week vote over Jodie Taylor. Taylor has since been named Player of the Week. Menges started on the back line with Kat Tarr and Courtney Niemiec and the three rookies combined with Nikki Marshall to produce a fine defensive night.

— Erika Tymrak is back looking like the 2013 NWSL Rookie of the Year, and her goal against the Dash that saw her nutmeg Osinachi Ohale and then score from an impossible angle is the finest goal seen in a while in the women’s game. On the flip side, FC Kansas City continues to struggle to put together 90 solid minutes and it cost them in this game when they surrendered two equalizers in a 2-2 draw at home to the Dash. The same affliction caught up with them midweek when they let up after storming back from 2-0 down to level their match in Seattle. The lull allowed the Reign to win it, 3-2 in what may have been the best NWSL match this season. They’ll try again this Wednesday in Kansas City.

— The Breakers and Red Stars combined for an unusual, two-game set, in Boston, on Thursday and Sunday. The results could be season-altering for both. The Red Stars won 3-1 on Thursday and 4-1 on Sunday and have won three straight games for the first time in NWSL. The Breakers dropped to 1-5-0 and resorted to using Mollie Pathman at left back on Sunday. Tom Durkin needs to find a solution quickly or the season will get away from his club.

Attendance Watch

Houston Dash (Wednesday): 3,931
Seattle Reign FC (Wednesday): 2,875
Boston Breakers (Thursday): 1,696

Washington Spirit: 4,598
Boston Breakers: 2,123
FC Kansas City: 1,483

Total: 16,706 (YTD, 118,236)
Average: 2,784 (YTD, 3,814)

Free Kicks

— It was an interesting Saturday for Abby Wambach. She scored the first Flash goal, but the post-match talking point was her elbow that knocked down Tori Huster during a lull in play in the 86th minute. Then post-match she lit up her teammates saying, “Moving forward, I think when Carli and I are both on the field that doesn’t mean that other players can’t step up and play big games for us and I think that’s a lesson to be learned. Carli and I are great players obviously, we’re on the national team, we have experience, we’ve been playing this for many years but the other players, the Vicky Losada’s, the Sonia’s, they need to step up and play as well when we’re not on the field as when we’re on the field. And it’s a lesson to be learned because Carli and I, even when we’re on the field sometimes we don’t have great games sometimes we’re off a little bit and we’re going to need our teammates around us to pick us up. The only reason we’ve ever gotten to where we’ve gotten to in our careers is because of the players that surround us and players that pick us up when we need it.”

— Parsons and the Spirit dismissed any controversy over the elbow and the NWSL does not comment on whether or not specific plays are being reviewed by the Disciplinary Committee.

— The June 22 Sky Blue home match against the Breakers has been changed to a 1 pm EDT start.

-Hardly news, but Jill Ellis is the permanent head coach of the U.S. national team. It is a return to an U.S. Soccer insider after the brief and ultimately strange tenure of Tom Sermanni, who was initially considered a breath of fresh air from the outside. Ellis was essentially charged with one thing – win the World Cup next summer.

— Toni Pressley has a PCL tear in her right knee and could miss the rest of the season. The injury occurred late in a Spirit loss at Kansas City two Saturday nights ago. She is not expected to undergo surgery.

-Not so lucky for Sky Blue’s Taylor Lytle who has a broken left leg suffered the same weekend against the Flash. Lytle underwent surgery last week. Her recovery time is estimated at 4-6 months, meaning she has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

Alex Morgan should be back in the Thorns’ line up by June 7, if not sooner. The same goes for Rachel Von Hallebeke plus Stephenie Catley  and Veronica Boquette.

— Jen Buczkowski played another 180 minutes last week to extend her streak to 31 matches and 2,790 minutes since the launch of NWSL.  Her fellow iron woman, CoCo Goodson had an easy week.  Sky Blue was not scheduled, leaving Goodson at 29 matches and 2,610 minutes.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Gordon

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