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Gordon: Thoughts from Spirit win over slumping Red Stars

Arin Gilliland (right) and Cali Farquharson give chase during the Spirit's 2-0 win over the Red Stars (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Arin Gilliland (right) and Cali Farquharson give chase during the Spirit’s 2-0 win over the Red Stars (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

BOYDS, MD — Saturday night the Spirit beat the visiting Chicago Red Stars 2-0, propelled by goals from Estefanai Banini and Katie Stengel. For the third time in as many weeks, the Red Stars found themselves on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline. Here’s a look at some of the talking points from Saturday’s battle between two sides that are currently in the thick of the battle for the postseason.

Franny Ordega

Prior to leaving for the World Cup last summer, Ordega tallied her first NWSL goal. Her strike in the game’s dying embers gave the Spirit the full three points against Sky Blue. Ordega would add two more to her name before the season ended but didn’t seem quite the player she was before the departing for Canada. After the World Cup last summer, Ordega lost her sister which made it difficult for her to focus on soccer after returning to the Spirit.

“I lost my most loveable sister after the World Cup it was difficult for me emotionally, mentally I was seriously down….I promised myself this year I would love to make a difference I need to keep that in my mind and move forward and think about my career as well…”

Fast forward to this spring when national team duty forced her to miss much of the preseason which delayed her integration with the team. Ordega suffered another setback once in Washington in the form of a concussion. Since Ordega finally found her way onto the field, she’s proven to be a difference maker.

Saturday, the Nigerian was a ball of energy for the Spirit, putting pressure on the Red Stars backline and bringing what the team often lacks with Crystal Dunn away. With her teammate away, Ordega feels she has a responsibility to bring that extra liveliness. While no one can replace Dunn, Ordega has been a key component in the Spirit’s success so far during this stretch with national team players away.

Ordega didn’t score last night but she did assist Banini for the game winner. While Ordega conceded that it’s good for a forward to assist if she can’t score, Ordega put what she sees her role with the team rather plainly.

“They signed me here to score goals, not just to play.”

Spirit Defense

So far this season, the Spirit have captured seven shutouts in eleven games. In the prior three seasons, Washington had managed a grand total of eight. Although scoring is definitely down across the league, it’s impressive that the team has managed so many clean sheets, especially when having to replace so many defensive cogs due to the Olympic call-ups. In fact, in her three starts for the Spirit, the only goal allowed by keeper Kelsey Wys came off a penalty kick.

Defensive midfielder Tori Huster, whose return to her 2014 form has certainly helped play a part in the team’s defensive prowess, provided some insight as to why the team has allowed so few goals this season.

“I think we’re just taking care of the headers, we’re trying to mark up in the box,” Huster said about the team’s stout defensive play, “We’re trying to keep all of those little details that maybe we weren’t so good at in previous years and trying to hone in on those and make sure that we’re doing all the little things right because then will get the big things as well.”

In years past, the Spirit had a penchant for shooting themselves in the foot by allowing a considerable number of goals off of set pieces. This year the team has certainly been better on this front aside from a gaffe-filled game in Portland that included leaving Lindsey Horan essentially wide open for an easy header.

The defense is far from perfect and Chicago displayed probably its biggest weakness, which is lack of speed on the flanks, particularly on the left side. Casey Short practically had Alyssa Kleiner in her back pocket on Saturday, similar to what happened in the game against Sky Blue two weeks ago when the New Jersey side’s pace caused issues for the left back.

Washington head coach Jim Gabarra conceded as much after the game last night speaking about the ability of Chicago to pin teams to one side of the field and then press.

“(W)e did a very poor job of that and played right into their hands. We were turned over in those areas an awful lot of times,” Gabarra said, “They beat our wide defenders an awful lot and it’s something we need to get better at but again that’s one of Chicago’s strengths.”

Road Woes for the Red Stars

Three straight road games against the other top three teams in the standings and Chicago has walked away with zilch. When asked about his team’s form as of late, Chicago head coach Rory Dames stated postgame that despite not securing any points on the road, the team’s not panicking,instead calling the rough stretch a “growth opportunity” for his side.

“Not a kind schedule to have to play four games in a row on the road,” Dames said, “So it’s a good growth opportunity for the team it’s good for these players that are here to experience this. We don’t lose a lot. You always learn a lot more from losing than you do from winning, so we’ll just go back and keep going.”

It’s clear that fatigue which often plagues teams during stretches on the road played a role Saturday night judging by the substitutions that Chicago made. Dames even made the rare substitution for substitution move when he put Mary Luba on for Jen Hoy in the 80th minute.

Outside back Arin Gilliland gave a different response regarding the team’s struggles of late when asked about her performance last night. She said that the team had strayed away from its identity.

“Our team is a blue collar team we work harder than other people and we pride ourselves on that and that’s something we haven’t shown in the past three games and that’s something we (are) going to get back to,” said the second-year player.

Perhaps the most alarming part of this stretch for the Red Stars is the lack of goals scored. Saturday night, the bulk of the dangerous opportunities for Chicago came from the flanks via perhaps the best outside back pairing in the league in Gilliland and Short. They were responsible for four of the team’s seven shots on goal. While the combo getting into the attack is key for the Red Stars offense, they can’t do it alone and outside of Vanessa DiBernardo, the Red Stars’ offensive players didn’t contribute often enough.

Chicago and Washington don’t meet again until the last game of the season at Toyota Park. As is often the case with matchups between these two sides, don’t be surprised if this game has some kind of implication for the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how well Chicago can apply what they’ve learned in the past several weeks.

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