Washington Spirit vs. Seattle: The vigil continues

That’s what it is now, isn’t it? A vigil?

A vigil for the first win since May or even the first run-of-play goal since May. A vigil for Conny Pohlers to convert one of the opportunities she’s getting in increasing numbers. A vigil for Stephanie Ochs, lauded by every broadcaster as a fantastic talent, to turn one of her near-misses into a goal. A vigil for Diana Matheson to be as influential as she was in the Spirit’s promising start.

It’s no longer a vigil for personnel. Pohlers and Toni Pressley have arrived, and Mark Parsons has taken over as coach. For all the knocks on the Spirit’s reliance on young, local players, the only such players in the lineup yesterday were Julia Roberts and Kika Toulouse. The other second-year players in the lineup — Pressley, Ochs and Tori Huster — didn’t go to high school or college anywhere near the SoccerPlex, and they were key players for the WPSL Elite champion Western New York Flash last season.

It may be a vigil for health. Caroline Miller and Colleen Williams are already gone for the season. We don’t know when Robyn Gayle will return. Yesterday, Ali Krieger went off after a clash of heads, and Candace Chapman was down for a while after twisting awkwardly on the turf. Wouldn’t it be just the Spirit’s luck to see their offense come together at last, only to see the defense run out of healthy players?

Going back to preseason, I thought the Spirit would have the season the Reign is having — a dreadful start, then a promising streak. The Spirit surprised a lot of people early. Now all those same people are clucking, “I told you so.” I hate cynicism.

The slump’s timing was bad. Had the team hit the reset button going into its three-week break, everyone would have had time to work together on a new direction. Instead, the Spirit came out of that break playing terribly, and the reboot started after one game of a murderous stretch of five games in 17 days. As the sharp Fox Soccer broadcast team of Steve Cangialosi, Lori Walker and Heather Mitts pointed out, this team has had no time to practice.

But in some respects, the Spirit’s path forward is clearer. It’s about next year now. Chicago and Seattle now believe they can make the playoffs. After seeing both of those teams and the Holy Cow Did You See The Thorns-Flash Game in the past week, I’m not sure the Red Stars or Reign can rise to the level of the top four. Maybe another team will drop — FC Kansas City could implode in the wake of Chicago’s comeback yesterday, or Portland could become as bad as its critics think — but I’m still of the mindset that Boston’s the most likely team to sneak into the playoffs if someone collapses.

Building for next year, though, could further tax the patience of the Spirit’s terrific fanbase. Despite all the losses, the team has terrific chemistry now, and if the lineup stayed intact, it should get a couple of wins by the end of the season. But are those couple of wins the goal? Or is it a thorough evaluation of the players on hand, throwing out a couple of unusual lineups to let players audition to keep their places for next season?

One irony here: There’s an Internet meme that Spirit management doesn’t care about winning as long as the seats are full. Let me see if I can put this nicely: That’s ridiculous. You don’t bring in Conny Pohlers and Toni Pressley, then fire the coach, if you don’t care. If it’s all about the fans instead of the record, you don’t cut Domenica Hodak. They expected some early struggles, and perhaps they were too confident they could weather the storm until reinforcements arrived. They may have overpaid on particular players. But they care about winning. (And we have to repeat — the allocation process was not kind to them. They were playing catch-up from Day 1.)

And yet they’re in a place now in which winning now may be less important than preparing for next season.

So which do you emphasize? (I don’t know — that’s why I have comments here.)

I do have one bit of advice for Spirit fans. You’re underdogs. Embrace it. Keep up the constructive criticism, but don’t just look for easy ways to place blame within the organization. The allocations were unfair. The refs are unfair. The injuries are unfair. And people from elsewhere sneer about this team, griping all week that the Spirit game shouldn’t have been on TV. Everyone’s written this team off (except the Fox Soccer commentary team). Blame them. Certain WNT players thrive on striking back against mysterious “haters” — maybe it’ll work for the Spirit as well.

You’ve already built a terrific fan experience. It’s the best party in western Montgomery County.

So call it the Beer Garden Vigil. Down but not out. Patient but defiant.

In the meantime, here’s yesterday’s recap: Good 25 minutes for the Spirit, with Matheson converting a deserved penalty kick. Two defensive lapses in three minutes. A lot of chasing the game after that, with a couple of good opportunities squandered. 2-1 Reign. Game over. Time for rest, recovery and rebuilding.

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6 Responses to Washington Spirit vs. Seattle: The vigil continues

  1. Terry Lash says:

    My vote is to place an emphasis on preparing for next season. This means evaluating the new coach,not just players. As you correctly point out, the recent results cannot be used to assess whether the new coach has a winning approach. There should be no question that the management and owner want to win. To suggest otherwise is nuts. However, questioning their judgment in selecting players is fair. Was the selection determined primarily by the previous coach or others? In any event, the team needs to learn from this experience.

  2. Nate S says:

    I’m not sure the two (focusing on winning vs rebuilding for next season) are mutually exclusive… It’s obviously harder than I make it sound, but management should focus on landing established players that will help as soon as they get here but will also be there next season. The way I see it, the biggest problem in this team is not being able to move the ball/hold possession i.e. the midfield needs strengthening up. It was already iffy when Matheson was on her game, it is just a cluster right now. That’s the first step I would make: find some decent midfielders. You fix the hole in the middle, you alleviate pressure on the backline/GK, you stop moving your most valuable defender around tiring her out and creating a breach in your defense, and you create more chances for the forwards. Ochs + Pohlers right now can hold their own if they get balls served to them. The forwards have a hard time finishing up their chances, but they don’t get many to begin with. At the very least, the best defense is not letting the opposing team spend most of their time in your half because you can’t move the ball forward. Have the GK/defenders park their bus, fix the midfield as best as you can, and the team is already twice as strong as it currently is.

  3. Terry Lash says:

    Yes, a strong midfield would greatly improve the Spirit’s performance. But at this stage of the season there is not an opportunity to bring in established midfielders. Thus, the Spirit should focus on players on the bench who might prove to be good in the midfield next year. That, of course, would mean sitting players like Lori Lindsey, who I doubt will be back next year–at least not as an allocated player.

  4. Nate S says:

    One can only hope management doesn’t blow what will likely be the very first 1st round draft pick on a dud. Midfielders and Forwards first. Adding depth to the defense last.

  5. EbaJ says:

    First and foremost, this team needs to make sure Krieger and Harris will return next year. The frustration for both has been obvious all season and both have played and can return to Europe like Rapinoe and others and only play after the European season ends. The new coach is a good fit, respected by the vets and will develop this team. Management needs to lock in the top two players, find a playmaker up top and add some help for DMath in the middle.

  6. Terry Lash says:

    I agree that Krieger, Harris and Matheson should form the core of next year’s team. But in addition to the question of whether they will play in Europe instead of a full season in NWSL next year, is the question of who and how players will be allocated. For instance, will Harris be allocated? There are younger, impressive keepers in NWSL–for instance, Franch for the Flash and Cameron for Sky Blue. Then there is the question of next year’s allocation process. How will US Soccer/NWSL determine which teams receive specific allocated players? Complexities. But you are certainly correct, the Spirit should do everything it can to get these three players to return.

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