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Five things about the Washington Spirit’s wild 3-2 loss to NJ/NY Gotham FC

Red cards, golazos, War Boys...it got weird at Segra Field on Sunday

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit, after suffering a dubious early red card, fell 3-2 to NJ/NY Gotham FC over the weekend. It was a thrilling game featuring some great goals, but also a frustrating one, as a tough call early impacted every facet of the game from there.

As per usual, André and me are all worked up and ready to talk about the red card, the goals, and the big picture. Here we go:

Let’s talk about that red card

The big moment from this game, despite the five goals, has to be the red card given to Sam Staab (after about two full minutes of confusion) in the 7th minute.

Richie Burke declined to talk about the refereeing in general or regarding this specific call, which is reasonable. I can’t imagine there’s a way to talk about this call from a Spirit perspective without risking a fine, and who wants to lose money?

Let’s also acknowledge the Spirit’s role here, because while the eventual call is all wrong, there are mistakes that put Washington at risk for some kind of bad outcome. Before the above replay clip, the Spirit moved to build from the back, but Anna Heilferty got pinned along the touchline by Nahomi Kawasumi.

Gotham, to their credit, did a great job immediately taking Heilferty’s options off the table: Ifeoma Onumonu’s positioning made going back to Paige Nielsen or Aubrey Bledsoe too dangerous, while Gaëtane Thiney did the same with Andi Sullivan.

This is why teams set up pressing traps, by the way: yes, it’s great to actually win the ball high, but the most common positive outcome is simply putting the player on the ball in a spot where the options they have are of a high degree of difficulty, and eventually they either take a risk or hoof it long.

Heilferty opted for Staab, the option that had the most space, but to get it there, she had to lift the ball enough to make sure Onumonu couldn’t get a foot or head onto it. That means a slow, high turf bounce when it lands, and that — plus some great anticipation from Midge Purce — left the Spirit in deep trouble.

When you make mistakes like this as a team, you probably do deserve a punishment. It’s just that what follows is, in my view, all wrong. Purce steals the ball, Staab grabs her jersey, and referee Karen Collado calls the foul. So far so good...but what follows is a debacle. Collado first opts to give a red card to Nielsen, who was in close proximity, but also very obviously had not committed any foul.

This part of the call came with two errors: Nielsen’s the wrong player to punish, and the play did not meet the criteria for Denial of an Obvious Goal-Scoring Opportunity (DOGSO). Let me quote from PRO’s own website:

Officials are trained to use the following considerations when deciding whether an offense constitutes DOGSO:

• Distance between the offense and the goal – Normally (but not exclusively), the nearer the goal when the offense occurs, the more likely an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity was denied.

• General direction of the play – ‘General direction towards the Opponents Goal’ is the main consideration here for officials

• Likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball – The more likelihood of controlling a ball (was played in front of them, within playing distance, easily controlled), the more likely an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity was denied.

• Location and number of defenders – If there is no more than one defender (a goalkeeper is classed as a defender) present when the offense occurs (provided they are not able to possess or control the ball before the attacker would have), normally this indicates a Goal Scoring Opportunity was denied. If there is more than one defender present in front of the attacker when the offense occurs, they must generally not be able to retreat or become part of the goal-scoring phase, in order for this consideration to be met.

Nielsen’s proximity to the ball is such that she would have been able to make a serious play on blocking any shot from Purce, which means the criteria haven’t all been met.

Both teams argued a variety of points afterward: the Spirit were pointing out that Nielsen hadn’t committed a foul, and that what happened didn’t constitute DOGSO. Gotham, meanwhile, wanted to get a penalty kick, and possibly advantage (given that the ball rolls right to Onumonu for a tap-in), as well as lobbying for the red card.

Both teams are correct about something. Nielsen deserved no card whatsoever, a mistake Collado eventually corrected after appearing to listen into her headset to some other member of her crew. Gotham’s appeal for a penalty kick is also correct. Here’s the direct statement from soccer’s lawmakers, IFAB:

If a defender starts holding an attacker outside the penalty area and continues holding inside the penalty area, the referee must award a penalty kick.

Staab’s foul carries on into the box, and does merit a point at the spot. It also merits a card...but a yellow, not a red. It’s not DOGSO because Nielsen read the danger and hustled over to get close enough where she could have blocked a shot or made a tackle.

Instead, Collado ends up choosing an outcome that didn’t serve either team the justice they deserved. She did correct the mistaken identity with Nielsen, to her credit, but she gave the foul inches outside the box (wronging Gotham) and also gave the red card to Staab (wronging the Spirit).

The Spirit have told B&RU that they are not offering a comment on the NWSL appeals process at this time, but those last three words feel important. This seems like a situation that should be overturned, and the league’s Independent Review Panel has very recently shown a willingness to listen over erroneous DOGSO calls.

Hopefully they opt to appeal, and retroactive action can correct the situation. One game was heavily impacted by an error, and it would be really brutal for that to carry over to additional games. — Jason Anderson

You shall ride eternal! SHINY AND CHROME!

If you’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road, we’re ready to move on. If you haven’t, stop here and go watch it then come right back. Remember the War Boys and the odd and very silly religion they were fully indoctrinated into, remaining hellishly committed to even in an apocalyptic water-sparse landscape? How when things got real they would spray their mouths with what looked like chrome spray paint and get all wide-eyed while shouting or muttering about Valhalla? The Spirit did the soccer version of all this Sunday night.

Staab’s red card came within the first ten minutes of the match. A red card for any defender in the first ten minutes of a match typically ruins any gameplan of any team and any coach. Add to it the opponent known for a stout midfield and smothering style of play, and the perfect “pitch” to allow them to do it — Segra Field’s turf is slow, not watered unless mother nature does it (she didn’t), and a graveyard for through balls — and this was as close to an apocalyptic landscape as a soccer match could be.

Washington, however, is dogmatic about its style and the way they want to play. After the referee sorted things out (still getting much of it wrong, as noted above), Burke didn’t make a substitution. Instead the Spirit lined up in a 432, and tried to play their game, 10v11 be damned. Making this even more incredible was that Tori Huster, who has been an immensely important piece of the Spirit’s midfield, was held out after still feeling the effects of taking a full-power Sullivan shot to the upper body in the last match. As such, Burke bumped Ashley Sanchez down into midfield from the false 9 role she’d been excelling in and named an attacking line of Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, and Tara McKeown. When Staab was sent off, it was the rookie from USC, McKeown, who bumped down to midfield — a role she’d never played for the Spirit.

This was the Spirit’s chrome spray paint, Valhalla moment.

The Spirit played like this for the majority of the match. In fact Burke’s first sub was striker for striker, bringing off Hatch for yet another rookie in Mariana Speckmaier. Burke’s first defensive sub wouldn’t come until the 64th minute. During that time, the Spirit were able to take a lead via Rodman (1-0) and equalize via Sanchez (2-2). Though the match ended 3-2 thanks to the familiar combination of Onumonu and Purce, Washington showed incredible character, resolve and dedication to the way they play, and deserve a lot of credit for doing so. They knocked in two goals against a club that had only allowed three all season before this, and at many points didn’t appear to be playing a player down.

Things didn’t end well for most of the War Boys, and that’s where my admittedly forced metaphor falls apart. There were no moral victories in Mad Max: Fury Road, too many things needed to be blown up to allow such a thing. But the Spirit deserve to be commended for the way they lost this match, it could have been a bog-standard two- or three-goal loss had they attempted to pack it in and play a compact low block for eighty-plus minutes. Instead they stuck to their beliefs, entertained, and nearly turned a catastrophe into a result. While scorelines and league tables don’t deal in ‘nearly’, it’s hard to imagine that this experience won’t pay off throughout the rest of the season. — André Carlisle

Trinity Rodman is unreal

As mentioned previously, the Spirit actually took the lead six minutes after going down a player. They did so courtesy of Trinity Rodman, who popped up on the left to hit a curler around DiDi Haračić and into the far side netting.

Washington had implemented more rotation into Rodman’s game, allowing her to drift over to the left wing from her usual right forward position. In addition to giving defenders different looks, the thought was also surely to allow Rodman more chances to shoot with her strong foot. This is the result. — AC

Ashley Sanchez’s free kick and celebration is your must-see moment of the week

It’s a travesty that none of the highlights of Sanchez’s first professional free kick goal showed her celebration, but that’s why God created sideline photographers. The free kick is a beauty and should be watched over and over, but something that is becoming almost as anticipated as Sanchez’s goals, are her celebrations, which are eruptions of pure joy. — AC

Inflection point

The Spirit showed a lot of bravery in this game, but despite that, we are talking about a loss. That means they took just three points from a three-game stretch at home (or homes), and regardless of the justifiable positives to point to from all of those games, Washington is outside of the playoff places right now.

They’re also a team whose record is better away (8 points from 5 games) than at home (7 from 5). Is this a Segra problem? Maybe! Washington has lost three of their four games out there all-time, and have lost twice there this year. The surface slows play down enough where it’s fair to argue that it hampers Washington’s style of play more than most opponents.

But putting that aside, we’re in a bit of a gray area right now. The Spirit are 2W-2D-2L in their last six games, and as much as they’ve had good moments, and as much as one win this Sunday could vault them into 2nd or 3rd place, it still feels like this team should be posting more consistent positive results, referees and playing surfaces be damned.

The next four games (at Louisville, at Chicago, Segra vs. Portland, and at Houston) are not easy ones. We’re going to learn an awful lot about this team’s trajectory — good team that sometimes underachieves, or just a good team, period — in the next month. — JA