Washington Spirit Week 2 Preview: Head Coach Mark Parsons Is Playoff Dreamin'

Cynthia Hobgood

After a disappointing first game against to Western New York in the 2014 season opener, Washington hopes to get closer to the victorious result it wants and more importantly, an improved product on the field.

There aren't many people outside of Washington that are including "Spirit" and "2014 NWSL Playoffs" in the same sentence.

But make no mistake. That is the goal.

"The dream is to get into them playoffs," Washington Spirit Head Coach Mark Parsons said this week. "We probably speak about it every other day. We're not here to just go game by game. We're here for bigger things. We focus game by game, but this is why. We're going to get there."

After a stumble out of the starting block last week losing 3-1 to the Flash, the Spirit face a daunting next eight days featuring three games and a western road trip to Seattle and Chicago.

There's still much work to do before the Spirit have gelled, and Parsons does not shy away from admitting that.

"There are probably three teams that are really unhappy they didn't look the way they wanted to last weekend, and we are one of those," Parsons said. "We are still working on loads of things. Preseason is only four weeks. We have to plan and strategize for the whole season. It has to keep progressing."

His timeline to see a more settled and clicking team is about four weeks into the season. But look for incremental changes along the way and if Parsons gets his way, a return to the style the team worked on all preseason advancing down the field not by hitting long balls, but by linking the midfield linking the ball from the backline to the frontrunners--a style that all too quickly evaporated against the Flash last Sunday.

"We want to focus back on the ball," Parsons said. "The biggest frustration against Western New York was we ended up playing a reactionary game. We ended up knocking it downfield. We're not built for that."

Parsons also expressed concern over the mentality of the team towards the end of the match Sunday, as the group struggled to resist slipping into last year's expectations. And the club is more than aware it has a lot to prove after last year's struggle. There was frustration after going through what Parsons considers a tough preseasons where players were pushed hard.

"It's about individuals grabbing that role and showing the class and showing the mentality to grind coming out. I think we're up for that challenge," Parsons said, "But that's football. That's opening day. And that's the emotions and all the rest of it. We've got to learn to move forward and start to get things right, hopefully Saturday."

While Parsons didn't single her out, look for Ali Krieger, who made her debut as captain Sunday, to play a more vocal motivating role on and off the field. Krieger is relentless in her own preparation and gameday intensity and will surely look to instill that mindset across the board. "It's a higher level here," Krieger said after the match Sunday. "We have to bring our best game."

Kansas City, here they come

The next challenge is FC Kansas City rolling into the Maryland SoccerPlex tonight at 6pm. So what does Washington have to worry about? Oh, just last season's MVP Lauren Holiday, Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn, Goalkeeper of the Year Nicole Barnhart, and Rookie of the Year Erika Tymrak--all led by Coach of the Year Vlatko Andonovski. The club also acquired veteran U.S. forward Amy Rodriguez, who scored the Blues only goal in a 1-1 draw with Sky Blue FC last weekend.

Washington held a video session early in the week, had an intense practice Wednesday, then slowed it up a bit on Thursday to focus on finishing in front of goal, and did a final chance to explore Kansas City strengths and weaknesses in Friday's training session. But Parsons believes no matter the formation, Kansas City's core principles remain.

"With this matchup and it being so early on, no one really knows what Kansas is going to look like and no one knows what we're going to really look like," Parsons said. "Last year we were at different sides of the table. But they've changed a little bit-they've changed their formation. We've changed a lot."

For Parsons right now the focus is less on getting results and more on playing their game, which is all about being better on the ball, building possession by linking through the midfield to forwards Jodie Taylor, Renae Cuéllar, and Danesha Adams.

Injury bug bites early

Forward Tiffany Weimer has been hampered by a knee injury suffered during preseason-a big loss for the Spirit, as Weimer had mixed well with nearly every attacking player she's been on the field with.

"She's been magic for us," Parsons said. "Before that happened, she'd been one of the real highlights of our progress so far. But she'll be back."

Now recovered from the ankle injury that caused her to miss significant national team duty, Crystal Dunn played 60 minutes Sunday and expected to play about 75 Saturday as she builds back to full match fitness. She may drop back to fewer minutes if she plays the Wednesday match against Seattle, however.

Parsons expressed concern over the mentality of the team towards the end of the match Sunday, as the group struggled to resist slipping into last year's expectations. And the club is more than aware it has a lot to prove after last year's struggle. There was frustration after going through what

"It's about individuals grabbing that role and showing the class and showing the mentality to grind coming out. I think we're up for that challenge," Parsons said, "But that's football. That's opening day. And that's the emotions and all the rest of it. We've got to learn to move forward and start to get things right, hopefully Saturday."

Strengths and weaknesses after Week 1

Spirit Takeaways

  • Robyn Gayle simply shut down of the ever-dangerous Samantha Kerr Sunday. And that was on a less than 100 percent quadriceps muscle.
  • In her first match for Washington, Christine Nairn made a spectacular first impression. I should thank her for exhibiting exactly why I was frustrated she was not drafted by the team last season. I think I will now officially stop belaboring this point. Regardless, Nairn was a rock on Sunday. Parsons, who was often hesitant to single out individuals last season, couldn't say enough about her play after the match.
  • The return of Jordan Angeli was certainly the feel-good moment of the match. It didn't have much competition, but that's beside the point. Angeli looks strong and confident-and even bigger hurdle, as anyone who has ever made an ACL recovery can attest. Now on to playing the role in making the team better that Angeli aims for.

Spirit Giveaways

  • While the defense managed to hold Western NY to only four shots on goal, three were goals. The reality is, the defensive scheme involving goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris in a sweeper-keeper role was nearly impossible to execute without the proper pressure from the Spirit attack, leaving the defense with practically no room for error. With the current personnel (namely Weimer still out), Washington may be better off to hold on trying this scheme.
  • Simply stated, the Spirit need two of their most dynamic players-Weimer and Dunn-back at full strength to reach their full potential. Dunn is well on her way and should be making a bigger and bigger impact with each passing week. Weimer is going to need some more time.
  • There are obvious early scheduling challenges for Washington with three games and a road trip within eight days, all falling in the second week of the season. But let's also not forget the timing of two U.S. friendlies the week before the start of the NWSL season. Krieger played a full 90 Sunday, a full 90 Thursday, traveled all day Friday, had a partial day of rest Saturday, and played a full 90 Sunday. Several other U.S. players faced the same challenge on opening weekend. Add in the unexpected coaching U.S. change, and I'm not sure the scheduling could have been much worse in terms of allowing the league's key players to properly focus on their club teams.

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