When Washington Spirit players, coaches, and staff stood in a circle prior to the game, an unmistakable message was sent: This is a unified team.
The team has talked up the fresh start after a tumultuous week highlighted by a coaching change. And a fresh start, it was. The re-energized Spirit team took to the field with a new confidence belied their last place standing.
New coach Mark Parsons' starting lineup included some key changes. With Ashlyn Harris in goal and usual starters Ali Krieger, Candace Chapman and Toni Pressley on the backline, Tori Huster stepped in at left back for veteran Robyn Gayle sidelined due to a sprained knee. Julia Roberts returned to the starting lineup, joining Lori Lindsey in the midfield along with Diana Matheson, who made from an ankle injury. Finally, Parsons flanked Conny Pohlers with Stephanie Ochs and Colleen Williams on the attack
Taking on one of the league's most dangerous opponents, even without leading scorer Lauren Cheney, was no small task for a team that only had two training days with a new coach, some wounds to heal, and more a few challenges to face.
FC Kansas City (7-4-3, 24 points) certainly missed Cheney, only managing three shots in the first half--all on goal, but all were saved by Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who ended the night with six saves.
Central defender Toni Pressley resembled a wall on the backline for Washington, especially in the first half, calmly denying attack after attack. Huster performed admirably and Candace Chapman looks to be regaining form, after knee surgery earlier this year.
"They’re a very, very strong team. Probaby the team in the best form," said Parsons. "They keep the ball so well. The thing we’re really pleased with is they had the ball in areas they didn’t want it, and didn’t get often into the areas they wanted to."
Erika Tymrak was FC Kansas City's most dangerous player, with three shots on goal, including a 55th minute strike that put the Blues up 1-0, ironically on what looked to be one of the least threatening plays of the game. On the goal, Spirit defender Candace Chapman was a few steps away, but could not reach Tymrak before she shot.
"It was extremely disappointing that maybe one of the least dangerous chances they had slipped in, said Parsons. "They had a couple of good other chances, which we defended. Ashlyn, Chapman and Toni were absolute rocks back there.
Washington had a golden chance to equalize in the 66th minute when Ochs sprinted for a 50-50 ball and worked it to the endline, moving the ball to Pohlers, who hit the feet of an unmarked Tiffany McCarty faced up to the goal. McCarty misplayed the ball and did not get a shot off.
The play appeared to change the intensity of the Spirit, who had the look of a team of the verge of deflating. In a bold move, Parsons brought in Kika Toulouse for Pohlers, moving defender Ali Krieger up into the attack.
"When you’ve got a player like Ali, we’ve got to play to her strengths," Parsons said. "But at the same time, she’s someone that we might need to move around to secure things or to go after things. Hopefully I don't have to do that too often."
Four minutes later, McCarty worked the ball in towards goal. Just as she crossed into the penalty box, she appeared to get tangled up with two defenders and a foul was called and a penalty kick awarded to the Spirit.
Matheson, who often takes penalty kicks for Canada, stepped up for Washington. Matheson boldly played a straight on chip shot, sending the ball right past Kansas City goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart.
"I thought in advance I was going to do that and I was just hoping she would dive to one side, like goalies are supposed to," said Matheson. "Luckily, it worked out because it would have looked really bad if it didn’t."
Washington hung on to the 1-1 tie, and earned a much needed point, but remains in last place with a record of 1-7-4 (7 points). The team will look to take another positive step forward Saturday on the road at Sky Blue FC, who sit atop the NWSL standings.
Needing to improve on its consistency, Parsons said the team's primary goals are to defend more quickly, earn the ball back earlier, be patient and move the ball.
"I’m so pleased with the amount of workload players put in physically, mentally—asking them to do new roles, and to get so many players understanding new roles and physically doing it," said Parsons "We’ve been preparing ourself mentally that the point or the three points may not come for a couple of games so this is real bonus."
Washington Spirit Head Coach Mark Parsons (July 3, 2013) (via DMVSports)
While it's a bit early to pass massive amounts of judgement on the Parsons-led Spirit, there are some early conclusions that can be made.
This team is now unified, positive, and believes in its coach. The change was palpable. No matter where you stand on the handling of the coaching change, the team's performance and outlook made it abundantly clear this was a change for the positive. The team is still winless in six games, but Wednesday was a major boost in confidence. There will be missteps along the way, but for the first time all season, Washington appears to be on the path to success.
Mark Parsons is truly a breath of fresh air on the sideline. His positivity is contagious and his energy was felt from the starting whistle. His voice was heard nonstop during the game, guiding and encouraging players. He took a special interest in midfielder Julia Roberts, who for the first time all season, didn't look completely overwhelmed. If Parsons yelled "Julia!" once, he yelled it 30 times.
A big difference I'm seeing the team respond to is having structure. The young players need it most and even veterans understand how vital it is to success. They had a distinct gameplan and stuck with it. (Matheson mentioned Parsons re-emphasized the plan at the half.) Even pre-game warmups looked more organized and players more comfortable. This was truly a whole new look to the Washington Spirit. I think even casual observers could tell the difference as the crowd was also more energized from the start.
There is obviously much room to grow, of course. The offense is having a bit of a struggle involving Conny Pohlers at the right moments. Parsons said he thinks players are just so excited to have her as a target and may not be as patient about getting the ball to her at the most opportune moments. In his words, not "when she's got her back to the goal with two centerbacks up her backside." Parsons wants the team to be patient and move the ball instead of going directly to Pohlers. I can't help but think Pohlers break through soon, and once that happens, the floodgates may open. She is an unselfish player though, so it is just as likely she'll be creating chances for others.
I likef the combination of Pohlers, Stephanie Ochs, and Colleen Willams as the forward attacking players. Their strengths seem very well-matched. Ochs finally was able to run free on the offensive end with fewer defensive responsibilities. It still boggles the mind she was covering the left flank end to end much of the season, and is really the reason the team was not completely exposed from that side of the defense. Williams was also a great spark, starting on Wednesday. She provided some excellent defensive pressure, as well. on the whole, I was impressed and look forward to seeing more.
It's not a secret that forward Tiffany McCarty has struggled this season. I think Parsons made the right move not to start her Wednesday night, and it appears he's doing what he can to prepare her better tactically and mentally. He sat down and spoke with her on the bench for a few minutes during the first half. Before she entered the game in the second half, Parsons spoke with her again. I hope he can break her out of the slump she's in and integrate her into the offense. However, I do have major reservations. The ball Pohlers sent in that she misplayed was clinical, right to her feet, with McCarty faced up the goal. If she can't put those away, Parsons can't keep involving her in the offense, or it's going to cause both tactical and mental challenges for the team. I'd be exceedingly careful about the next spot I inserted her into a game. It needs to be in a situation where she has the best chance of excelling (so maybe not against league-leading Sky Blue). And if she continues to not put chances away, not create her own chances, and give 100% effort, she has to sit. There is just no way around it.
On the other end of the field, Tori Huster has proven to be one the teams' most versatile players. She excelled at centerback, which was a new position for her, during the first part of the season. On Wednesday night, she stepped into left back, filling in for Robyn Gayle, who has a sprained knee. Huster didn't look completely comfortable there, but not out of sorts, by any means and performed well.
I still yearn for Pressley to get a shot at defensive midfield, and I think Huster's ability to step into various roles may give Parsons the freedom to make moves like that. (I get the same feeling from Kika Toulouse, by the way.) But Pressley is calm, reliable, strong, and have enough speed to recover when needed. And really, she reminds me of a young Shannon Boxx, which is partially why I could see her moving up into a defensive midfield role that would both take advantage of her solid defense and also the strength of her passing and her rocket of a shot. Not only could the Spirit stand to develop players for that position, so could the US. Mark Parsons, if you're reading this, just think about a backline of Krieger, Chapman, Huster, and Gayle with Pressley supporting as defensive midfield. Throwing this idea out into the universe because sometimes when I do that, it works....
I'd like to thank Parsons for doing what I've been calling for all season long--purposely move Ali Krieger up into the offense when the team is on the ropes. Parsons said he hopes he doesn't have to move her from her preferred right back position. But the fact he made the move is sure indicator that he understands that he most get his most experienced and skilled players involved when the game is on the line. Krieger has the ability, as she started both her college and US Women's National Team career in the midfield. Sure she's not known for her offense now. But if I'm the coach, I'm putting the fate of my team on the players most able to handle the pressure. End of discussion.
Next up is a tough road match league-leading Sky Blue FC, which is clicking on all cylinders. But for the first time all season, I get the feeling the Spirit are drooling at the chance to show themselves against such an opponent. I look for a focus on solid defense, more patience on the ball, and if Washington can put away the chances it generated, they may have a chance to steal a point or three. Never discount the determination of elite soccer players. It's a long road ahead for the Spirit to claw out of the basement. But something tells me it'll be an entertaining ride.