Yael Averbuch's 94th minute game-winning rocket of a goal Saturday night sent Washington in the thick of the playoff race, nudging just ahead of Portland (9-7-6, 33 pts), Chicago (7-7-7, 28 pts), and Western New York and in striking distance of Kansas City (11-6-5, 38 pts.)
It was a heck of a time for the second goal of her career, and first in the NWSL.
"It's special for me and it's important for me to be able to contribute like that, especially at this point in the season," Averbuch said.
It was another come from behind win from a group that has gutted out game after game this season, highlighted by a gorgeous Christine Nairn goal, Lisa De Vanna keeping Chicago's defense on its heels, the Spirit defense shutting down Christen Press, and another gutsy performance from goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, whose late game heroics gave Averbuch a chance for the game-winner.
"I was a bit emotional because the character, the spirit, the fight, the determination was just unbelievable," Spirit head coach Mark Parsons said after the match. "And then we had the quality right at the end to grab a win, which is rather exciting."
Late last season, Washington and Chicago played another memorable game that was weather-delayed multiple times and had to be called to accommodate the Maryland SoccerPlex's midnight curfew.
But more importantly, in the life of the Spirit, the match was a significant turning point. Washington's 1-0 was its first under Mark Parsons, who took over the team July 1, 2013. With the win, Washington earned seven points in its last three games. And you just had the feeling, if the season had run longer, so would've the Spirit.
After that game I wrote:
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.
Fast forward to the beginning of this season. Many surrounding the league, still discounted the Spirit's chances. But in my season preview I predicted the following:
Based on what I saw Parsons do last year with far less talent, along with the character of the players on this squad, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility for Washington to challenge for a playoff spot. At the very least, this team will be much more competitive and quite possibly, turn a few heads. Look for this Spirit season to feel quite different from last year's struggle.
Turned heads? I'd say so. Does it feel different from last year? Night and day. And of course, here we sit, with two games to go and Washington in third place.
It sure hasn't been an easy journey. After losing veteran forward Tiffany Weimer just before the season started, Washington brought in a couple of seasoned internationals in Lisa De Vanna (Australia) and Kerstin Garefrekes (Germany) to diversify the attack led by Jodie Taylor (England) and Diana Matheson (Canada.) International all-star team, anyone?
The playoffs, where the top four teams qualify, are certainly within reach for Washington. There is still work to be done, but the Spirit have put themselves in position, as Mark Parsons put it early this season "to make them playoffs."
It sure isn't always easy, but this...rather unpredictable team has simply been finding a way to get it done. There was no greater pressure test (so far) than Saturday night. Somehow a last second win was fitting.
"Going down a goal early is something we've unfortunately done a little too much this season," Averbuch said, "But I think that we've gained confidence that we can come back and have a good finish to the game."
Soccer is about talent and strategy.There is some luck involved. But it's also about mentality and desire, and those are qualities that are so hard to quantify. Christine Nairn said it best after Saturday's win.
"You control the things you can. And that's our grit, our fight, our battle," said Nairn. "Sometimes you can't control playing and you're not going to always have the best touch, the best shot. But you can control your mentality and your hustle. That's what we're focusing on every day."
Washington will put that mentality to the test Saturday on the road against Seattle, who has simply dominated the entire league.
"The best thing about us is we have a full week, then we play Seattle, then we have a full week again," Parsons said. "So there is no reason why we can't go full strength."
Hang on tight, folks. There is no doubt every minute of the rest of the season will be a wild ride.
A series of player profiles will launch this week.
My interview with German legend Kerstin Garefrekes is up first. (And for anyone wondering, her English is flawless.)