The Washington Spirit (2-14-4, 10 points) earned its first home win and the first shutout of the season. With the loss, Chicago (7-8-5, 26 points) was eliminated from playoff contention.
The game was suspended twice by lightning alerts and abandoned in the 81st minute due to a 12 a.m. curfew. The result was declared final per league rules.
Backup goalkeeper Chantel Jones made her fourth start of the year and earned the team its first clean sheet. There were some other key lineup changes, as head coach Mark Parsons also rested German forward Conny Pohlers and midfielder Lori Lindsey, who had started each of Washington's previous 19 games.
Jones finished with three saves, but was not truly tested for much of the match. The Spirit held a 5-3 shots on goal advantage in the first half, but Chicago goalkeeper Erin McLeod held them scoreless.
After strong first half, the second started a bit shaky for the Spirit, until Ali Krieger entered the match in the 55th minute. A few minutes later, Mexican national team midfielder Lupita Worbis intercepted an errant Chicago pass at midfield, spun around and dropped the ball off to Diana Matheson on her left. Matheson played the ball ahead and hit Worbis on the run faced up to the goal. Worbis slotted the ball through McLeod's legs to put Washington ahead 1-0 in the 58th minute.
"I took the ball and spun around the player," said Worbis, whose parents were in attendance for the first time this season. "I just found Diana Matheson, and she kicked it with one touch that was amazing. When I see the goal, I was just in front of the goalkeeper, and I just kicked the ball. That was a good goal."
Parsons credited the substitution of Krieger in the midfield with giving his team the psychological boost it badly needed after the half.
"The scariest moment was coming out the second half," said Parsons. "That's when we brought Krieger on. Everyone was panicking and kind of shaken a little bit. We see her come on and everyone settled. The goal came just after. It had nothing to do with her on the ball--just the fact that she was on the pitch, I think helped us."
And that's when the real fun began. The game was first stopped due to lightning nearby in the 77th minute and continued after a 104-minute delay. It was stopped again in the 81st minute. The second delay lasted 53 minutes and reached the 12am SoccerPlex curfew, meaning play could not resume. The 1-0 result for the Spirit was then declared final, eliminating the Red Stars from playoff contention.
For Chicago, it was a bitter pill to swallow. But McLeod gave credit to Washington, especially for its first half performance.
"It is the hardest way to end, as we were counting down the minutes as we were getting closer to midnight," said McLeod. "It is what is is. It's the game of soccer. I'm really proud that we made it this far. If you asked a lot of people if we'd make it this far, they would have said 'No.' We've had a lot of injuries and we've just fought through everything so I'm really proud to be a Red Star right now."
The Spirit also lamented not being able to finish out the match through 90 minutes.
"The only thing we lost is that emotion when the final whistle blows," Parsons said. "We actually talked about it at the beginning of the game. I said to the players, 'What are you going to do when we win at that whistle? Think about it. Who are you going to hug? Who are you going to call when you get off the pitch?'"
For the second game in a row, Robyn Gayle anchored a backline that included Tori Huster, Holly King and Marisa Abegg. Huster again was solid at left back, King performed admirably, and the late season addition, Abegg, has proven a good pickup.
"Some of them aren't used to playing there," Jones said. "Holly is just a ball winner. She works so hard--she kills herself for me. Abegg is always there, talking, always in the right position. Tori has been solid all year. She's a center mid playing outside back. They just fight. That's all I can ask for. They did a good job. I'm proud of them."
Krieger's return to the field marked her second appearance since she suffered a concussion July 14 against Seattle. She confirmed she is back to full health, though she sat out the August 3 road game against Sky Blue FC, after playing 20 minutes a few days prior against Western New York.
"Against New Jersey, I woke up that day and I was hoping to play. I was going to get some minutes. I just wasn't feeling myself so I wanted to make sure. I had passed the IMPACT testing and all that. I had taken the proper steps for the concussion, and was being smart about it," Krieger said. "I have two friends in the men's game, who suffered concussion injuries and now no longer play. That just makes me take a second look at things and really evaluate and wait until the right time--until I'm fully fit and feeling good. So I waited until that moment and that was tonight. Hopefully, I'll start on Saturday."
Washington will face the Seattle Reign (5-12-3, 18 points), the second team after Washington to be eliminated from NWSL playoff contention this season. Washington earned its previous win against Seattle May 16 on the road. But Seattle was without US Women's National Team players Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe, both of whom are expected to be available to play Saturday.
"Seattle snuck one from us, the last time we played on their field on TV. We can get a little bit of revenge there and show them we've been getting better all season," said Jones. "We've been gradually getting better and better. We can hopefully get these last two at home and get six more points."
SoccerPlex weather delay, or screwball comedy?
A couple weeks ago I lamented that it was getting more and more difficult to cover a team losing every match. You start to run out of topics to discuss. The problems are the problems. There isn't much need for analysis anymore. Well, Wednesday night sure cured writer's block for us all.
Before the game started, I overhead a fan stating lightning would hit in the 75th minute. Is that person reading this? If you are, please comment. Because you, sir, have a future in weather forecasting. You missed it by two minutes though. Try harder next time.
After the initial shock of the blaring alarm in the middle of play, the first weather delay was rather banal. Players exited the field, fans went to their cars as directed, a hodgepodge of staff, referees, volunteers, media, and a few assorted folk gathered inside the Discovery Sports Center.
What we understood was that once there was no lightning strike within ten miles for 15 minutes, an all clear signal would sound. After a little more than an hour passed, a misunderstood signal brought fans back too early. I overhead one Spirit staffer say, "Do not let the fans back in yet. That was not the all clear." The response was "Well, they're back!"
Soon after, both teams took the field for an agreed upon 20 minute warm-up, play resumed after 104 minutes of delay. But not for long. Another blast of the electricity alarm went off in the 81st minute, and back we all went to our prospective locations.
Leaving the field Diana Matheson admitted to me that the team had a dance-off during the first break. Coach Parsons later informed the media Toni Pressley narrowly bested Lori Lindsey. "Lori was entertaining, but if you go to skill and rhythm, Toni gets it." (This may be as good a time as any to point out the irony that Lindsey, self-nicknamed "Lightning" was not playing in this match. Revenge on the part of all things lightning? We'll never know.)
So with a looming 12am SoccerPlex curfew, it was deemed the players would stay warm indoors instead of taking time to warm-up on the field again. While the game players were attempting to stay warm and stretched, those substituted out or not playing, found ways to amuse themselves.
It all started with kicking balls around on the basketball court of the mixed use facility. And before long, 5'5" Ella Masar who had been subbed out for Chicago, found a lowered basketball rim, probably set at about 7 feet or so, and started trying to dunk. After one failed attempt, she nailed the next one. (No, I do not have video. Yes, I wish I did.)
As the clock ticked, hunger clearly started to hit. Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris found a stack of pizzas a vendor had brought inside, and managed to finagle a piece. Soon one of Conny Pohlers' neighbors at Ingleside retirement community asked Harris to get her pizza. Not exactly known for her shyness, Harris hollered to her new pizza vender pal, "Hey! Can we get some more pizza?" She stayed around, holding court with those of us spread amongst the tables at the (closed) snack bar. Topics included everything from hybrid cleats to the television show True Blood. I really have to wonder what Conny's neighbor and friend from Germany have to say about American soccer after this entire experience.
While all of this was an entertaining way to pass the time, Chicago was starting to sweat it a little. At around 11:30pm, word started to spread that if the game could not resume at 11:45 pm, they'd have to call it complete. With playoffs on the line, Chicago obviously very much wanted to play. And frankly, so did Washington.
But as McLeod said, it wasn't meant to be. The game was deemed complete as it stood in the 81st minute because the facility ran out of time to get the all clear before midnight. It was at that moment that the true character of the players (and the fans) of this league was on display. A few minutes later, the Red Stars filed quietly out of their locker room, many in socked feet, outside to see the fans that remained. Soon after the Spirit followed suit. After the first break in play, there were maybe 150 fans of the original 2,000 fans that had waited it out. It was a just reward for the support, and a positive way to end what was truly a bizarre evening.
For those that aren't aware, the Maryland SoccerPlex is a large facility that holds many youth tournament. As such, they have a pretty sensitive electricity warning system and very strict guidelines. The Spirit were following those procedures. But I have to believe if this game was being played in any other location, it most likely would have concluded, as expected, in the 90th minute.
I've been part of many rain delays in my time covering sports. Anyone that has ever covered baseball knows this sort of thing happens more often than you'd like. I do remember a lightning delay at RFK during the Washington Freedom's WUSA run. But this one takes the cake. The only thing we were missing was a wild animal on the loose.
And somehow this evening was apt for a Spirit season that has been filled with fits and starts, some drama, comedy at times, just a wee bit of scoring, a lot of effort, and amazing fan support.
Last week we talked about heart and determination. While Washington fell short against Sky Blue, the team showed what it's made of Wednesday night. No, this sport is not only about the desire to win. Skill, fundamentals and strategy are quite obviously required. But when 11 players come together on a field, united with 100 percent determination and focus to win, more times than not, it happens.
And that's what we saw this week. Washington was the better team from the start. I saw more guts and determination across the board in this match than nearly all of those prior. Ali Krieger said it best of her second half substitution into the midfield, not her usual position: "Anything I could have done to help us win was my purpose."
That's the mentality of a champion. And it was clearly contagious. Sure this is just one win, but it's been a bit of wild ride here in Washington and the club needs something to build on. Being the first team to make a coaching change isn't easy. At best, the team was starting over mid-season.
For the Spirit, it's come down to player management and team building. Parsons had made a few missteps in terms of player management. (Of note: Tiffany McCarty on defense was a complete disaster. I will forever scratch my head at that move.) But he's worked exceedingly hard to change the one thing he had some control over: The team's confidence and desire.
I do not yet know if Parsons will return or if the Spirit plan a coaching search. Regardless, I do think he was a good choice for the team to finish out this season. I admire his positivity and willingness to take on this challenging situation. And I do think he could quite possibly shape this club into a winner.
After seeing one game with Parsons at the helm, I predicted the team would bring in some points down the stretch. They have one win. I think they can get more. Saturday the team needs to play with the same intensity and effort that they did a couple days ago.
Who knows. Maybe lightning will strike twice. (Just don't prevent the game from finishing, okay?)
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