The Spirit are a third of the way to the nine points I’ve said are critical during this 8-game stretch. In theory, these were going to be the hardest to get. But the Spirit cannot let up in intensity one bit tonight against Sky Blue FC or Monday against Houston.
Going into the match with Western New York, Head Coach Mark Parsons made some tactical changes that paid dividends. After a knee injury to Toni Pressley, team captain Ali Krieger shifted to center back from her usual right back position and Bianca Sierra played on the right. From center back, Krieger was better able to organize the defense and Washington had by far, its most settled game on the backline.
Krieger, who has played all defensive positions at the college and professional level, said the last time she played center back was in college at Penn State.
Parsons went with a starting midfield of Crystal Dunn, Yael Averbuch, Lori Lindsey, Christine Nairn, and Veronica Perez. Down 2-1 at the half, Diana Matheson entered for Sierra and Dunn moved to right back, where she plays for the U.S. most often.
That switch proved to be a game-changer for Washington. Western New York’s attack was effectively shut down and Washington’s kicked into gear.
“We wanted to focus on the process, focus on our performance,” said Parsons. “I think they played with freedom. They made the decision. They came out here as a group. They made a real statement as a group of players.”
Flash captain Abby Wambach gave Washington credit for controlling play in the second half, but urged more players to step up in games. (While she called out specific names -- Vicky Losada and Sonia Bermúdez -- I'm not entirely sure she wasn't necessarily targeting those players.)
Wambach was involved in a late-game brush-up with Washington defender Tori Huster. With the ball slowly rolling to goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, Wambach stormed towards goal, partially colliding with Huster who dropped to the ground. Much has been made of the incident, but in the end, the contact was rather minimal. I have many thoughts about this incident and Wambach in general. I've yet to decide how and if I will share those.
Most importantly, Washington looks to be moving in the right direction, though one game does not a season make.
The strong performance against Western NY was a nice statement though, as Parsons said and Krieger echoed.
Midweek Progress Report
Beat WNY. Washington finally beat the Flash, that hasn’t happened in two years. After a 2013 week one tie, the Spirit have been unable to get much going against Western New York. This was a nice tactical and mental break through. Credit to Washington for keeping their cool for the most part, in a very chippy game. The Flash play an aggressive style, but Washington remained calm and collected, especially in the second half when they really dominated play.
Renewed Spirit. It was also a nice bounce-back after a very uninspired performance on the road in Kansas City May 11 that had me wondering if the team needed to be renamed anything other than "Spirit." But there was a different energy from the whistle until the end of the match. Washington played with heart and desire. This was the fastest and most aggressive run of play I’ve seen from them this season.
Hold 'em. They shook the demons of giving up a goal immediately after scoring. The goal was to hold for five minutes. Let’s see if they can extend that. And for the second game in a row, they did not give up a goal on a corner kick. One more and we may have a winner.
Shifty Success.The lineup shift was very successful. In my opinion, it was part tactical, and part based on who wanted to be out there the most. Regardless, it worked on many levels Inserting Matheson at the half was a major boost. Lori Lindsey had her best game of the season and play far more minutes than she’s been getting. Averbuch also had her strongest performance of the season. She was involved at both ends of the field. I think we finally saw what we expected from her when she arrived.
Krieger in control. Moving Krieger to center back certainly settled what has been a shaky central defense all season immensely. It was trial-by-fire for Washington's new-look central defense against the Flash’s direct style of play. And it held up beautifully. I still don't love that this had to be be solution, but it certainly was a successful and I expect Krieger will stay there at least until Niki Cross arrives and gets integrated into the lineup fully. Though Parsons will need to fill the role in mid-June when Krieger will be away for two U.S. games against France.
Happy Birthday, Jodie! Last but not least, Jodie Taylor! Scored goals! Jodie Taylor! Hooray! Taylor came into Washington camp having been a goal-scoring machine in Australia, but struggled to put one away until last Saturday. It’s no coincidence that it came on the day the Spirit midfield had its strongest performance, and were able to get the ball to her in dangerous positions. If Washington is to content for the playoffs, this needs to be only the beginning for Taylor. If she stays dangerous, things could get interesting.