Wednesday’s game against Chicago was, by all practical measures, the Spirit’s first win since May 16. The league rules are clear. Washington was the better side in the 77 minutes played before the first lightning delay. As cruel as it was for the Red Stars to have their playoff hopes officially extinguished without even being on the field, the Spirit won fair and square.
But it was incomplete. Wednesday night/Thursday morning, Mark Parsons talked about not being able to hear the final whistle in front of the dozens of fans who had stuck it out through nearly three hours of stopping and starting.
Perhaps that made the Spirit hungrier. Parsons and Diana Matheson both talked afterwards about wanting to hear that final whistle. And this time, they did — in front of more than 4,000 fans. (Only a handful of the 4,549 got out to beat traffic.)
Several of us have said over the course of the season that the Spirit, beset by bad karma all season, just needed a little luck to get a good result or two. You could say they got it Wednesday, though it’s worth reiterating that the Spirit played well enough to win.
Saturday night, no luck was needed. It wasn’t a dominant performance, of course, but the Spirit created the better chances. Seattle coach Laura Harvey cited the long road trip for her team’s disappointing performance, but she wasn’t making excuses or disputing that Washington deserved the result.
The Spirit did with a lot of heart, certainly, but also with some tactical and technical shrewdness. Parsons’ formation was described several ways — 4-2-1-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3. The bottom line was that the Spirit used two holding mids, Lori Lindsey and Julia Roberts, instead of one. Between their efforts and a solid back line, with Marisa Abegg more than justifying her late-season addition, the Spirit held Seattle to very little. Some of the Reign’s shots were from distances that would challenge field-goal kickers. In a bright start to the second half, Jessica Fishlock had a low bending shot graze the post, but Ashlyn Harris otherwise had little trouble.
The formation tweak, Parsons said, helped to free Diana Matheson and Lupita Worbis in the attack. Worbis spent much of the game being roughed up by Fishlock (fans noticed), who came into the game one yellow card shy of a suspension and will play the season finale only through the bottomless benevolence of referee Kari Seitz. But Matheson had a superb game. The Canadian midfielder was a revelation in the early going this season, slowed a bit after the international break, then reasserted her all-league claim in the last couple of games.
Stephanie Ochs and Conny Pohlers weren’t always on the same page, and Pohlers waved her arms so hard to plead for the ball that I thought her arms might pop out. But they combined well in the 32nd minute. A sweet ball from Lori Lindsey hit Pohlers, who played it wide to Ochs. The tall youngster cut toward the center and played the ball back to Pohlers, who had one of the neatest finishes past Hope Solo you’ll ever see. The only problem: She was offside.
“Before I knew it, Lloyd (Yaxley) was jumping all over me,” Parsons said. “I looked for the linesman’s flag. I always do that — everything’s gone against us. Before we scored, I saw the flag going up. Lloyd’s going mental, and I said, ‘Lloyd, no chance. We’ll get it in the second half.’”
Pohlers also was denied by a world-class save from Solo at the left post. Matheson set up that one and another chance late in the half, where Lindsey passed up a shooting opportunity and played ahead in the box to Pohlers, who was wide open but couldn’t control the pass.
Matheson kept making good plays in the second half as the rest of the attacking cast changed. Pohlers departed to a warm ovation, drawing an overhead clap from the German forward in response. Tiffany McCarty played a couple of nice crosses from the right wing. A Robyn Gayle shot was blocked by a probable handball; Seitz kept the whistle quiet there and on a similar scene in the Spirit box.
Maybe Matheson was a little lucky to get the ball for the goal. A loose ball bounced around — as Matheson put it, it took “a few bounces” and went “off a few shins.” But the finish was simply top-quality. From an acute angle, she had only a tiny bit of net at the far post she could hit if she wanted to get the ball past Solo. And that’s what she did.
Solo seemed quite bitter afterwards, but she did talk about a touching moment before the game, when she and Ali Krieger met a young cancer patient whose name, coincidentally, is Hope. Solo said she does a lot of meetings like this, “but this one’s special. Maybe she touched me in a certain way, maybe (because) her name was Hope, maybe it was just a sweet family with three sweet kids. It was very touching.”
It’s not physically possible for Solo and Rapinoe to sign autographs for every single person who asked. But on the whole, I think all the fans went away happy. The low score didn’t do justice to the amount of action in the game. The weather was perfect, which everyone especially appreciated after Wednesday’s annoyances.
And it’s the first crowd this season to see the Spirit celebrate at the final whistle.