The Spirit are deep: Jim Gabarra has coached every season there has been top flight women’s professional soccer in the United States. He won a championship with Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach as his starting forwards. But two weeks into this season, Gabarra’s first with the Washington Spirit, and the venerable sideline boss is in awe of his new team’s depth at striker.
“I can’t recall a team I’ve had that’s so deep up front,” Gabarra said after knocking off his former team in Week 2.
Consider this. Nigerian international and World Cup veteran Francisca Ordega has not even made a game day roster yet. And even with Katie Stengel struggling in her first two NWSL appearances, rookies Cali Farquharson and Cheyna Williams have come off the bench and shown an ability to hold up possession and create attacking scenarios for the Spirit.
Even in back, Gabarra has options. After giving the left back nod to Caprice Dydasco on opening night he swapped her out for Alyssa Kleiner against Sky Blue. Nothing to the move, he said pregame, just an even battle for a starting position in which both players deserve playing time.
“We have depth within this team,” Ali Krieger, who plays opposite as the right back and scored the first goal on Sunday, said. “We’re just trying different personnel on the field and different relationships and (seeing) who can play well together. It’s great that we do have that depth. No matter who he puts out there (she’s) going to do a great job. That’s what we proved tonight.”
Despite the attacking depth there has been a dearth of dangerous chances thus far. The best stretches of soccer were the first few minutes against the Breakers and the early part of the second half against Sky Blue.
“Our shape was a bit off,” Diana Matheson said of Sunday’s first half. “Just getting more numbers that side of the ball so there were more people to play to.”
As Gabarra put it, the first half was, “not nearly good enough.”
“There is still room for improvement,” he said.
The Raquel Rodriguez phenomenon: Sky Blue’s goal on the night will go down in history as being scored by Maya Hayes with an assist from Taylor Lytle. But that goal does not happen if not for Raquel Rodriguez. It was the rookie Costa Rican who chested down Caroline Casey’s service into midfield and then while being closed down by both Tori Huster and Christine Nairn, gave the ball to Lytle. She didn’t just give it to Lytle. She made a perfect pass that allowed Lytle to collect the ball without breaking stride or momentum.
“There’s more to come,” Sky Blue coach Christie Holly said. “There’s better from Raquel. She’s only finding her feet within the team. She’s only been here two to three weeks. We knew what we were getting with her.”
There were other flashes of brilliance from Rodriguez who as a 22-year old joined NWSL armed with a World Cup goal on her resume. Some of those flashes have come on the defensive side of the ball where the Hermann Trophy winner possesses unusual abilities for a player her age. With last year’s No. 2 pick Sarah Killion healthy and also playing well, Sky Blue may have found a midfield tandem for the foreseeable future.
“Rocky’s a great player,” Holly said using Rodriguez’s nickname, “and so are some of the players that are playing beside her.”
Holly eyeing culture change in NJ: Christy Holly wants you to know, that he knows, that Sky Blue is not exactly rolling in positive reputation. He also wants you to know that things are in the process of changing.
“People want to throw stones from the outside and always question things about Sky Blue,” he said. “That’s fine. That’s fine. The fans bought in and the players have bought in.”
On the field, Sky Blue delivered less than their best performance in the home opener, but at no point did they roll over to the Spirit even after falling behind 2-0.
“We got the response that we wanted,” Holly said. “The thing is, there is a lot of fight in this team. I don’t know if we backed it up completely with our ability. Every performance should get better. I guarantee this. The first game of our season is not going to be the best game of our season. The fight and the ability and the unity were definitely there. I was happy with the response but ultimately I’m not going to be happy with a 2-1 loss especially at home.”
Off the field, Sky Blue drew (an energetic) 2,571 to Yurcak Field on Sunday. That figure won’t make any headlines particularly a day after the Orlando Pride broke the league record with more than nine times that amount. But put in perspective, that would have been the fourth highest crowd of 2015 and comfortably more than any game prior to the World Cup. It is also north of last season’s final average (2,188) so if the normal trend of increased attendance during the summer holds up it could be a year of significant growth for women’s professional soccer in New Jersey.
“It’s a long process,” Holly continued. “It’s not just click your fingers and click your fingers. Already we’ve seen a good turnout from the crowd on the first night of the season and we’re going to give them something to come back to.”
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