Eight days after Mark Parsons admitted the occasion of trying to clinch a playoff berth got to his side, the Washington Spirit produced a fantastic, 90-minute effort that included everything but a win. They spent much of the night frustrating the Shield-winning Seattle Reign FC, and led with 20 minutes to play only to succumb in a tense, 2-1 match at Memorial Stadium.
“They had a lot of the ball and we had a lot of the game,” Parsons said by telephone about an hour after the final whistle sounded. “The game is about developing quality chances. It’s hard after such an emotional game, but my feeling now is we had more quality chances than them. I know we had three or four in the first half and obviously a few in the second half.”
Indeed the Spirit nearly went on top early through Kerstin Garefrekes, who got through on a long ball by Tori Huster. Garefrekes, notable for having tortured the United States while playing for the German national team, gave Hope Solo an easy save. That would have put the Spirit ahead in the opening three minutes. Later, in the 78th, Diana Matheson found herself staring down Solo from the penalty spot with a chance to give the Spirit their second lead of the night. But Matheson did not place the penalty well and Solo, having read it all the way, got two hands on it.
“I’m just proud that we’re creating those chances,” Parsons told The Equalizer. “You can talk about us missing them, but you’ve got to be there creating them and I’m proud and excited that we created such great chances against the best team in the league.”
Defensively, Parsons deployed Huster as a defensive midfielder and she effectively shadowed and negated Golden Boot-winner and MVP-favorite Kim Little for much of the night. “That’s just the start of what we’ll see from Tori. She has an unbelievable future ahead of her. There’s not much to her. She’s a small player but she gets so much out of what she has. She was great tonight. We did a good job.”
Parsons then rattled off the names of the Reign’s major attackers and said that before Rapinoe’s goal, “I don’t remember them doing too much.”
It was a difficult loss for Parsons and the Spirit, who never won again after Yael Averbuch’s dramatic, stoppage-time goal beat the Red Stars on August 2 and gave them the necessary points to (eventually) reach the playoffs. But in difficulty there is progress, and a year ago at this time the Spirit were contemplating who to pick with the No. 1 overall selection rather than lamenting not going to the final.
“It is a success,” Parsons said of the season. “The players and the staff have made it a great success. We now have to grow and improve and go forward and I have no doubt we’ll do that.”
For Parsons, there was plenty of growth and improvement during the confines of the 2014 season. He ripped the team for its mentality after falling behind on opening day against the Flash. The club was later viewed as a side that could not defend set pieces.
“We’ve had as many downs, if not more downs as any team in this league,” he said. “We’ve had loads of ups. Lot of successes. We’ve had lots of little down. Every time we did, with the characters we have on our staff and throughout the whole of the players, every time we had a hiccup we can back stronger and better.
“Let’s just remember from the beginning of the season. People were saying we can’t defend on set pieces. When is the last time we got broken down on a set piece? Or we gave up a goal straight after scoring. We did that tonight, but when did that happen over the last two months? We just continue to improve. We’ve become a very dangerous team that I don’t think many teams like playing against.”
Parsons deferred much of the credit for the turnaround to his players. One of them, Lori Lindsey, had to watch from the sidelines as the final moments of her career ticked by. The World Cup veteran was slowed by a heel injury during the week and after warmups it was decided not to play her against the Reign. Last week she received a sendoff at the Maryland SoccerPlex, where she was joined by Parsons and Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra, who coached her in WUSA.
The Spirit will have a long flight home to contemplate the end of their season. Early indications are that a group of supporters has plans to greet them at the airport. They likely won’t be satisfied with just getting to this point next year. But they rose from the basement in 2013 to giving the first-place team all it could handle in a nationally televised semifinal.
“It shows how far we’ve come. We’re talking millimeters here.”
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