Washington's defense kept the team in the match Wednesday, on the strength of a few key performances in the first half against Chicago.
Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris made a crucial save on an 8th minute penalty kick taken by Inka Grings. Defender Ali Krieger made a last second, likely goal-saving, sliding tackle to cut off a dangerous ball about to connect with the foot of Chicago forward Maribel Dominguez wide open in front of goal. Canadian veteran center back Candace Chapman had her strongest performance of the season, anchoring a backline that was again without Robyn Gayle, still out with a knee sprain.
"Anyone can see that she's getting more comfortable," said Harris about Chapman. "She's going in for tackles she wasn't going into before. Same with Ali Krieger. She's fearless--in front of the goal, throwing her body in the first half so someone's not scoring. I think if we get that mentality out of the rest of the team, I think the results will be different."
"I still think we need to get on the same page and we still need to recognize each other's movements," said Spirit forward Stephanie Ochs (video). "It's frustrating because it's always that last step that we always mess up, but hopefully with more time we'll be able to figure it out."
Washington fell to 1-9-4 and remains the only team in single digits for points with seven. Chicago moves to 5-6-3 and is in 6th place with 18 points.
"We're clearly tired and we've had a long road," Harris said (video). "These little tiny mental mistakes here and there cost us the game today."
The first half of Wednesday's game was one of the more solid defensive halves for the backline all season. Toni Pressley continues to have a big upside for the Spirit, Krieger is Krieger, and Tori Huster is growing more and more comfortable on the left back position. Most significantly, Chapman is looking fantastic. She not only made solid plays on defense, she was pushing forward far into the attack in the second half.
Harris did her part and continues to make some spectacular plays. The penalty kick save after the handball call on Chapman so early in the match was vital to both keep the Spirit in the game, probably more mentally and emotionally than anything else. She made a few other strong saves for a total of six. Harris One of the goals given up did include a possible non-offside call on Masar.
I'm still enjoying the Krieger in the attack experiment when it happens. I see the value in putting your most dynamic players in position to most help the team. Parsons pointed out that Krieger is strong on the ball, in delivery, and in one-on-one situations. Additional bonus is, of course, her ability to pressure the ball and force turnovers. I do think she needs to discipline herself to stay primarily focused on offense when positioned in the midfield or forward, and primarily on defense when positioned on the backline. If Parsons keeps trying this, I suspect she will quickly settle into the new role.
So the offense remains the main unsolved mystery of this squad. Midseason signee Conny Pohlers raised the potential, but the team is struggling to make that last effective pass to see up goals.
Winger Diana Matheson also hasn't been as strong as her early season form, since returning from her ankle injury. And I'm not sure her playing style and that of Pohlers are as well-matched as Washington had hoped they would be.
Tiffany McCarty came in late in the second half and created a few chances. It was a more energetic and determined performance, and with any luck, a sign of more to come.
But I actually see the real issue with the offense as coming from the midfield. Teams with strong playmakers in the central midfield open their attack up. That just hasn't happened for Washington much this season. The current central midfield (Lori Lindsey and Julia Roberts, primarily) leans more toward the defensive side of the ball, not pure playmaking.
Of course, it's far too deep in the season for an out of sync offense to be a topic of discussion, but that's where this team is. I partially think it's a manpower issue. But these players need a fire lit under them, to be frank. I want to see the intensity of players that are hungry to score goals, and will stop at nothing to do so.
With so many comments after the game about the team's lack of practice time since Parsons took over coaching responsibilities, it's hard not to think about how the season might have been different had the coaching change been made just prior to the three-week break from games. Parsons has this team buying into his positivity already. This is a team that now believes they will succeed. Execution is the next piece of the puzzle.
To that point, right now I see the team's veterans trying to take the team on their shoulders and carry them to some wins. In many ways, it's admirable and inspiring to watch. But they must remember along the way that the number one way to lead the team to success is to be responsible for the own positions and not over-commit in other areas.
Maybe I'm crazy, but I still think wins will come. This team has some fabulously skilled players and is eager to succeed. I look for Washington to go on a little run in the last handful of games.
Next up is Seattle, a team that is finally whole and it starting to run on all cylinders. Washington's only win of the season was on the road against a Seattle team without goalkeeper Hope Solo and the dynamic Megan Rapinoe, who has in a few short games made an impact.
But the game is a golden opportunity for Spirit to return to the location of it's only win and try to draw on that experience to propel them to another.
Maybe they were just waiting on a televised game to show what they're made of. Tune in to Fox Soccer Sunday at 8:30 pm EDT to find out.