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NWSL Week In Review: What happened to the Washington Spirit’s fight?

(Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Like the Houston Dash prior to this season, the Washington Spirit were in complete disarray as the calendar turned from 2016 to 2017. It started long before, but came to national attention late in the 2016 campaign, when owner Bill Lynch responded to Seattle Reign winger Megan Rapinoe’s protests by playing the national anthem while she was (and both teams were) in the locker room. Rapinoe responded by calling Lynch homophobic, using as evidence that the Spirit were the only National Women’s Soccer League club not to host a pride night.

Even though the Spirit eventually lost to the Western New York Flash on penalty kicks in the NWSL final that year, the exodus from the organization commenced soon after the season concluded. Crystal Dunn, Ali Krieger, Megan Oyster, Christine Nairn and others departed, and there didn’t seem to be many willing to replace them.

Ironically, it was the second time Washington had seen a team in chaos in its short NWSL history, the first coming in its inaugural season (2013) when Mike Jorden was replaced mid-season with the Spirit in dead last and reports of undisciplined practices and general unrest milling throughout the team. With the help of current Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons, the Spirit rebounded and Jim Gabarra took them to within one kick of the NWSL title three years later.

Gabarra and the Spirit appeared ready to make another unlikely comeback from the depths last season. Washington at least showed plenty of heart in 2017 and – unlike the 2018 Dash with Christen Press – were able to get a U.S. national team starter in Mallory Pugh to join them. They finished last, in the end, but a fighting last. Then they added Andi Sullivan, then a starter for the U.S., and Rebecca Quinn, who was coming off some impressive appearances for Canada. While there was no way Dunn was returning, at least they were able to trade her rights for NWSL Rookie of the Year Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith, who were both on the fringes of the U.S. team. Finally, when the Breakers folded, Rose Lavelle – one of the best players in the league in 2017 before getting hurt – fell into their laps.

While the metamorphosis wasn’t exactly complete, Washington appeared ready to at least fight for a playoff berth in 2018 and almost certainly be a contender by 2019. They even started off fairly well, although they were 1-2-2 through April this year.

Since then, they are 1-13-2 with four of those points coming against Sky Blue FC and a grand total of four goals scored in the 16 matches in question, just one coming after May 27. They almost assuredly will go down as one of the worst teams in American professional history, tempered only slightly by the fact that Sky Blue is behind them in the table, at least for now. Worse, there seems to be little motivation to compete, most notably in a spiritless (see what I did there?) 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Houston on Friday night. Yes, the same Dash who appeared to be in turmoil a few months ago.

And we’re left without many answers.

The easy excuse to make is injuries, and there is certainly valid evidence to corroborate that theory. Lavelle is just now getting back to 90-minutes fit and has played just nine matches and started only three times (she is yet to record a point). Pugh also went down in April (after winning an NWSL Player of the Week) and has been limited to 13 games (with just two goals and one assist). But after that? It’s been pretty tough to watch.

To be fair, the defense was able to do its thing for a while. The Spirit held Shield winners North Carolina Courage and Portland to a goal each in back-to-back games in May, then added a pair of clean sheets against Sky Blue and another against Seattle. Since then, they’ve lost eight straight, each one seemingly worse than the last. The midfield, led by Sullivan, Tori Huster, and Meggie Dougherty Howard (a Rookie of the Year candidate last season) has been non-existent for much of the campaign. Hatch has managed four goals but almost always looks isolated. Francisca Ordega and Estefania Banini, both of whom have had some previous success in the NWSL, have offered few solutions to the malaise.

 

Perhaps the worst part is the toll this campaign has taken on the individual Washington players at the international level. As was previously mentioned, Sullivan was at least a part-time starter at the beginning of the season, a prime candidate to fill the much-needed holding midfielder spot for the U.S. in France next year. She hasn’t even been called in to the last couple of U.S. camps. Smith was also a U.S. starter at right back before going to the Spirit, although her demotion seemed to have more to do with her performance with the national team. Hatch got her second cap on April 5, mostly due to her NWSL performance in 2017, but is not mentioned as a potential World Cup selection now.

So here we are. Sadly, we’re no closer to unlocking the mystery of how a club seemingly full of talent could play as poorly as Washington has over the last few months. Fortunately for all involved, the end of the season is near.

It’s an unfortunate time for the Spirit to be playing at Audi Field on Saturday, and that alone should give them some motivation for a solid performance. It seems likely that Gabarra, who has had success elsewhere in professional women’s soccer, will be replaced at season’s end, and whomever comes in will be left to pick up the pieces and put the team back together.

They might find, however, that they fit a lot better in 2019 than they appeared to in 2018.


What did we learn in Week 21 of the NWSL season, where the playoff race is as tight as ever.

WEDNESDAY

Seattle Reign 0:0 Chicago Red Stars

What Went Down: The Red Stars have played in snow, rain and heat this season, so why not smoke as wildfires forced a pair of breaks in each half? There was serious consideration to postponing the match, but in the end, there weren’t any apparent major health problems to speak of, thankfully.

The Red Stars had the better of the play against the shorthanded Reign (without Megan Rapinoe among others) and, healthy again, appear to be perhaps North Carolina’s biggest playoff challenger. If they can get there. The vaunted Seattle defense stood tall and got a little luck as Sam Kerr missed a couple of great chances. It’s a result like this would be less worrying for Chicago early in the season, but they’re almost out of time in its playoff chase.

Player of the Game: Lauren Barnes – You really can pick any Seattle defender in several of their matches this season, but Barnes was able to stand toe-to-toe with Sam Kerr for the majority of the night, and Kerr was held scoreless.

Under the Radar: Casey Short – There seems to be some blowback whenever I try to praise Short and say I think she should be starting at outside back for the U.S. (when healthy). But she rarely, rarely makes mistakes, and I didn’t see any in this match, either.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of shots on goal for the Reign. So, all things considered, I think they’ll be happy with the point, even if they were at home.

Up next: Seattle – vs. Houston (Tues.); Chicago – Played again

FRIDAY

Houston Dash 4:0 Washington Spirit

What Went Down: At one point in the first half, the play-by-play announcer (who will remain anonymous to protect the guilty) said it was “surprising” that Washington had a possession edge and indicated Houston wasn’t playing well. As they have all season, the Dash had their opponents right where they wanted them, which they proved just two minutes later when Kealia Ohai and Rachel Daly combined to counter the Spirit and score. Head coach Vera Pauw has put in a system using the talent she has, and she has done it brilliantly.

The second half was quite embarrassing for Washington, but there has to be some credit to Houston for scoring four times. To be fair, this was probably as dangerous as the Spirit have looked offensively in a while and they were a little unlucky not to score at least one. It’s a longshot, but there are some things that could fall for the Dash (like playing North Carolina in the last game of the regular season, when they could be resting people) and increase their odds.

Player of the Game: Kealia Ohai – She’s clearly completely back and – as she was before – is not someone you want running at you with a ball in your own third of the field. Alas, that seems to be happening a lot lately.

Under the Radar: Andi Sullivan – It was in a horrid effort from the team, obviously, but Sullivan was one of the Spirit players that really looked motivated and was by far their best.

Inside the Numbers: 3,008 – Attendance in Houston Friday night, and you can read here what the Dash hope to do about that for next season.

Up next: Houston – at Seattle (Tues.); Washington – vs. Utah (Wed.)

SATURDAY

Sky Blue FC 2:2 Utah Royals FC

What Went Down: Well, if you didn’t think Sky Blue was cursed before, they held a 2-0 lead until a second-half lightning delay and still appeared ready to hang on… until Amy Rodriguez struck 3:35 into three minutes of stoppage time to keep Sky Blue winless through 19 matches. Stoppage time is always an inexact science and it is always announced as “a minimum,” but it did seem a little excessive. And when you haven’t won all season (but come very close several times), that’s just crushing. You can understand why head coach Denise Reddy was so upset afterward. Then again, Katie Johnson missed giving Sky Blue a 3-0 lead by inches earlier in the second half, and Utah had a pretty strong case for a penalty when Christen Press got pulled down late, so it’s hard to pick single moments out of games.

What we can say, however, is that Sky Blue was the better team, and for a winless team at this time of year to fight as they are (as opposed to Washington) deserves plenty of praise. Johnson was obviously especially dangerous, and the defense (without Erika Skroski and Mandy Freeman) held up well until after the lightning delay when Utah threw everything at them. While the point is nice, the result still virtually eliminates the Royals from playoff contention.

Player of the Game: Katie Johnson – The miss aside, Johnson was the game’s dominant player in the first 60 minutes and showed she may be able to give the United States some trouble with Mexico in the Concacaf World Cup qualifying in a couple of months.

Under the Radar: Raquel Rodriguez – She hasn’t been in great form for much of this season, partly due to nagging injuries, but this was much more like a rookie Rodriguez performance where she controlled play in the midfield and created some chances in the process.

Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of chances left for Sky Blue to get that first win, although the next four are on the road. There is one with Washington in there, though.

Up next: Sky Blue – at Portland (Wed.); Utah – at Washington (Wed.)

Portland Thorns FC 2:2 Chicago Red Stars

What Went Down: Yet another two-goal, second-half comeback (they are rarer than you think), and while the Red Stars won’t be quite as disappointed as Sky Blue, it is their 10th draw of the season and their playoff aspirations took a bit of a hit, although next week’s game with the Orlando Pride was always going to be the biggest of the bunch. Whereas Sam Kerr missed her chances on Wednesday, she didn’t here, and Emily Sonnett can hope Jill Ellis wasn’t watching.

This was a fascinating tactical battle as well, with Rory Dames and Mark Parsons moving outside backs around for better matchups and taking advantage of the space behind them when they went forward. Chicago – as it seems they’ve been a few times in draws – was the better side overall, but the Thorns had a tremendous spell in the second half and Chicago could not hold them off, with Christine Sinclair scoring the equalizer off yet another dummy in the opponents’ box. All in all, a good spectacle for national television.

Player of the Game: Sam Kerr – She just waits for your mistake and then pounces when she’s playing well. Even in a season where she hasn’t been nearly in the form she was last year, she’s still leading the Golden Boot race and in the MVP conversation.

Under the Radar: Meghan Klingenberg – She has played better in the last month, and while it might not help her get another look with the U.S., it’s certainly helping the Thorns down the stretch, as she was all over the field.

Inside the Numbers: 72 – Number of hours between games for the Red Stars, coming off that smoky game in Seattle. Might that have hurt their legs a bit at the end? Of course, if Vanessa DiBernardo scores instead of hitting the post in stoppage time, it’s never mentioned.

Up next: Portland – vs. Sky Blue (Wed.); Chicago – at Orlando (Sat.)

SUNDAY

North Carolina  Courage 3:0 Orlando Pride

What Went Down: Apparently, the Courage can wear teams down even in 68 minutes, as 22 minutes were played Saturday before lightning postponed the rest to Sunday morning. The Pride had a couple of looks and had some time in North Carolina’s final third in the first half (over two days), but eventually the Courage – as they’ve done so many times – just started winning everything and Orlando capitulated (as it seems to have done several times lately) down the stretch.

It is amazing how good Alex Morgan has looked for the national team and how poor for Orlando of late, as the Pride managed just a single shot on goal and Morgan recorded just one shot of any kind. There was some irony that there was great movement off the ball from players like Lynn Williams and Debinha, while Morgan – who is normally one of the best in that area – was stagnant. Still, if the Pride can get a win against Chicago on Saturday night, they are likely the favorites to finish fourth and go to the playoffs. Chicago would be as well if it wins. A draw? Look out for Houston closing fast on the outside.

Player of the Game: Debinha – I can probably be proven wrong with empirical data, but I don’t remember Debinha’s workrate being as high last season as it is now. She was everywhere, most prominently when the Courage finally took control in the second half. Just one of so many weapons for the league leaders.

Under the Radar: Abby Erceg – Because she’s not scoring goals, Erceg does not get as much publicity as some of her teammates, but she has had a remarkable campaign. While some of Orlando’s lackluster offensive play is on them, Erceg was solid as always, winning everything that came her way.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Points needed for North Carolina to tie the 2015 Seattle Reign for most regular season points in NWSL history. And wouldn’t you know, they can break that record in Seattle on Saturday afternoon.

Up next: North Carolina – at Seattle (Sat.); Orlando – vs. Chicago (Sat.)

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