Washington Spirit Match Preview: What to Watch Against Houston

Cynthia Hobgood

The Washington Spirit (3-4-1, 10 points) host NWSL newcomers Houston Dash (1-6-1, 4 points) in a Memorial Day matchup at the Maryland SoccerPlex today at 4pm.

Both Washington and Houston come into this match, having managed equalizing goals to tie their last matches. 

In the first two legs of this three-game homestand, the Spirit have taken us on a roller coaster. Last weekend against a powerful Western NY team, an intense and focused Washington side was in control, dominating the midfield and grabbing a 3-victory.

Next, on Wednesday against Sky Blue FC, the Spirit were....well, less than intense. After managing a steal a goal in the first half, Washington gave up three goals in the first 20 minutes of the second half to fall behind 3-1.

But a scrappy Spirit midfield started battling, and starting to gain a bit of an edge. Lori Lindsey’s 74th minute goal energized the team. But as a deluge hit the field, Washington spent the next 20 minutes battling for the equalizer.

With all 11 players, including goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, pressed into the Sky Blue defensive end, the Spirit finally broke through in stoppage time. Harris played a ball into the 18-yard box a seemingly joint Jordan Angeli and Tori Huster header deflected off Sky Blue’s Kendall Johnson, creating a penalty change. PK assassin Diana Matheson easily sent her shot past Jill Loyden to tie the match 3-3 in the 92nd minute.

Will the real Spirit please step forward?

Washington missed a huge opportunity to build upon the dominant Western NY win on May 17. It was surely a disappointment for the Spirit stumble out of the gates at Wednesday. Both head coach Mark Parsons and captain Ali Krieger readily admitted the team was “flat” from the start. 

“It’s a matter of being a bit more dynamic, being be bit more intense, on and off the ball,” said Krieger. “I don’t think we came out with the same type of quality that we had Saturday. We have to fix that. We have to bring the intensity back up – and the motivation.”

Parsons was concerned about the consistency and said the team must be sharper from the start today against Houston. But he praised the fight in his team for battling back to tie Sky Blue.

“I don’t think magic happened, but to force opportunities to get in around the goal, to steal a couple goals, is something really different and really positive,” Parsons said. “I don’t think we’ve seen that as a team. It was a bad situation to be in. There’s two ways you can go. And to come back like that shows character – shows how far our group have come.”

Parsons is right. And his thoughts about there being two ways the team could have gone after being down 3-1 Wednesday also apply today. This team has two choices. It can remain on this roller coaster ride of inconsistency. Or it can wrestle control of this season, build on that comeback and keep progress moving forward.

Returning Spirit

This match marks the return of three mainstays of the 2013 Washington Spirit: Tiffany McCarty, Stephanie Ochs, and Kika Toulouse. 

In a seemingly curious move, the promising Ochs was traded for the not that much more experienced Danesha Adams around the time of the NWSL expansion draft. Both McCarty and Toulouse were taken in the draft. I would imagine McCarty welcomed the fresh start, after struggling in Washington last season. Toulouse is trying to find her spot on the Dash and has played less minutes that she did for Washington.

The reality is, the move to Houston has been more good than bad for Ochs, reuniting with her with U-23 coach Randy Waldrum. He has moved Ochs from her familiar striker position into left outside back – and experiment that has both made sense and seen early success.

Ochs spent a great deal of time in the Spirit defensive end last season by necessity and is a surprisingly strong defender for someone who hasn’t spent their career doing it. She’s also a naturally lefty so the left side suits her. Time will tell if this experiment turns permanent.

But look for Ochs to make her mark on this match. And no, the Houston commentators were not crazy to mention her in relation to the national team. This could prove to be more of the more interesting NWSL development stories, should it pan out. I wouldn’t be shocked to she her enter the mix at left back – probably more likely for 2019 than 2015. But Ochs is known to have an impressive work ethic and the U.S. has a history of struggling to develop left backs.

Torturous Scheduling

This topic deserves its own piece. We have certainly reached the point in the NWSL season where the downside of cramming 24 games into 21 weeks is becoming more and more apparent.

Houston travels to Washington, having just played on Friday night at home. Then they play in Rochester next Saturday. I hope the team is staying on the road, instead of going back and forth to Houston and back.

Washington will be playing its third game in eight days, though all were at home. The team will next travel to Boston next Sunday, then to Chicago the following Wednesday, back to Boston a week later and to Portland a few days later.

It’s all just ludicrous when you think about it logically. But every team faces it. It’s just a matter of how it’s handled. At this point, players’ every move, practically, must become about managing their rest and recovery.

“We’ve been playing a lot of games. This is what happens. Some days you get a little bit tired,” Krieger said Wednesday. “We have another game Monday so we have to recover properly and do all the things outside of the stadium to really prepare and be ready.”

Frankly, it’s a lot of pressure on the shoulders of players, who already must carry the burden for determining the level of game experience quality, at least here in Washington.

The impact of the scheduling, of course, is not just felt by players. With rest and recovery at a premium, the product on the field does tend to suffer a bit. I’m not really sure the vast majority of the league’s current fans really notice this. But there’s certainly a core group of fervent followers who will. Time will tell if this tactic will erode that fanbase at all.

And of course, there’s the attendance numbers for mid-week games while school is still in session. Washington announced attendance in the thousands. But there were no more than hundreds at the SoccerPlex Wednesday night. Maybe that shouldn’t affect the play of the field. But playing in front of a miniscule crowd sure appeared to affect the team. After the game Matheson remarked that she looked forward to getting back in front of a larger crowd today.

Lori Lindsey Finding Her Way 

We started the season seeing Lori Lindsey with a much-reduced role. Last season she played nearly every minute. Parons has struggled to find the right mix in the midfield. After a seriously lacking performance against Kansas City, in which Lindsey played very limited time, she was back in the starting lineup against the Flash.

With her on the field, Washington simply dominated in the midfield against Western NY, and she played a full 90 minutes. Parsons went back to the well Wednesday, starting Lindsey again. She again played 90 minutes, and she was instrumental to Washington’s comeback to tie Sky Blue.

While Lindsey may not have the speed of some of her younger competitors, she and outsmart most of them and her passing has been key to Washington’s offense the last two games.

“She’s consistent on the ball – she’s confident, she’s calm, and she’s collected” said Krieger. “You get her the ball and she tries to play forward immediately and get into the attack. That’s what we’ve been missing – we need that combing player. We need that link player in the middle, and that’s what she’s been for us. It’s been a new game, a new team with her on the field.”

Washington will need Lindsey’s continued consistency and leadership, heading into a difficult June that will see the departure of Krieger and Dunn (and possibly Harris) for U.S. national team duty. My prediction: As Lori Lindsey goes, this team’s fortunes will follow, at least in the short-term.

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