The scene after Sanderson scored the DC United Women’s third goal
The Charlotte Lady Eagles arrived on Sunday with a distinguished pedigree. According to their coach, they’ve made the playoffs 12 of the last 13 years. Despite being in the same division as the defending W-League champion Atlanta Silverbacks, they finished with a superior record, good enough to rank fourth in the entire 30-team league. On Saturday they demolished another division champion, the fifth-ranked Long Island Rough Riders, 4-0.
None of it mattered. The DC United Women took control almost from the opening whistle and, except for a few minutes to start the second half, dominated possession for the entire match. That the result was only 3-0 is more a reflection of the patience of the Black-and-Red attack (and some unfortunate near-misses) than the competitiveness of the match.
Tiffany Brown played forward for most of the first half, a surprising replacement for leading goal-scorer Mikaela Howell
Head coach Mike Jorden tinkered with his lineup a bit, surprisingly benching United’s top goal-scorer, Mikaela Howell, in favor of Maddy Brown, who started as forward but then traded places with Tiffany Brown to become the right flank defender.
Early on the strategy seemed to be to send crosses in toward the statuesque Ashley Herndon, but they were all either cleared or off-target. DC earned a corner kick in the 26th minute, which Molly Menchel sent to Lianne Sanderson outside the box. Her ambitious header was well placed but with a definite arc, which made it easy for Charlotte goalkeeper to collect.
Ashley Herndon was again a force to be reckoned with all up and down the right sideline and beyond
United’s patience would finally pay off in the 28th minute as after a series of passes defender Jerica DeWolfe sent a long ball forward to a wide-open Molly Menchel on the left flank. Menchel took the ball to the end line, then crossed it to Sanderson, who with some room out from the right post settled the ball and then fired it into the left netting.
Sanderson takes a shot
In the 40th minute, Sanderson almost had a golazo off a nice feed from Hayley Siegel, rocketing in a shot from 20 yards out that Jones had to jump just to redirect it enough to bounce it off the crossbar.
A minute later Menchel was fouled on the left-hand side, and Siegel stepped up to take the kick, from almost exactly the same position she’d scored from for DC’s opening goal yesterday. Just call her Beckham, because she curved it in exactly the same way she did yesterday. Jones jumped to try to clear it just the same way Virginia Beach’s goalkeeper did, but it went into the right side netting like an instant replay.
The first half ended with the score 2-0 in favor of the home team.
United’s universe turned right-side-up with Mikaela Howell coming in to start the second half after practicing shooting on goal from the top of the box for most of halftime. It immediately turned back upside-down, though, as Charlotte started putting some pressure on and getting some possession. That only lasted a few minutes, though, and DC put the nail in the coffin in the 53rd minute. Jerica DeLisle took a free kick from near midfield and sent it into a crowd near the left post. Sanderson broke out from the crowd toward the right post as Herndon managed to knock the ball down and send it her way. She sent it forward toward goalkeeper Jones, who managed to get a hand on it but only redirected it into the right side netting.
Charlotte would get their best chance at erasing United goalkeeper Didi Haracic’s clean sheet in the 66th minute as Amanda Naeher, their leading scorer, sprung Samantha Huecker free behind DC’s line on the right, but Haracic just smothered the opportunity.
DC goalkeeper Didi Haracic wasn’t kept very busy but had to make a few key saves, this one off Amanda Naeher, Charlotte’s leading goal-scorer
Sanderson looked to get a hat trick in the 76th minute, as she had an open look from the right, but it was from a difficult angle, and she missed just wide left. DC had gone to a defensive 4-5-1 formation around the 70th minute, and that pretty much shut Charlotte down the rest of the way. Any doubts about the result faded away rather quickly.
Everyone was satisfied with the result but not ready to consider the season a success. “No, we haven’t really reached our plateau yet,” team captain Marisa Abegg said. “Our plateau is the national title. That’s the ultimate goal. It’s great to be here and atop the Eastern Conference, but that’s not the end.” Still, she was happy to have gotten over their first big hurdle. “It’s one of those things that’s off in the distance and not really tangible until you get to this very moment. It’s pretty awesome, really.”
“I feel great,” added second-year head coach Mike Jorden after the match – and after he received an ice water bath courtesy of Sanderson and Tiff Brown. “We worked so hard, and a lot of these girls do so much to come to training until 11 o’clock at night, putting in all this work so it’s really rewarding to do that and end up where we are today.”
Sanderson noted the challenge of playing two games in two days: “To be honest, when I woke up this morning, my legs felt terrible, but I have to go mind over matter. I tried an ice bath, a hot bath, everything I could, but I think at the end of the day we love playing soccer, and all we want to do is play games. And everyone loves the opportunity to play in these kinds of games. And once you get on the field, your legs feel great, you feel great. Once the whistle blows, you’re just in it. Everybody was in it together today, and that’s what this is about.”
And everyone was proud to have two shutouts on the weekend but pointed to everyone else as the source. Goalkeeper Didi Haracic – who played all 180 minutes – credited “My defense. I’m not going to say it was all me. They back me up. I had a few mistakes. I didn’t come out for some high balls, and Marisa and Jerica, they back me up, so I will give credit to my defense and to the entire ten playing in front of me.”
“I’d like to claim that it’s just us back four,” Abegg said, “but really it starts all the way in the front with our forwards, who worked all their way back to get in front of crosses and that sort of thing. It’s the entire team and their willingness to work through everything.”
Jorden agreed. “We’ve been organized all year but today they played even better. [Center backs Jerica] DeWolfe and Abegg were rocks back there and I thought we moved the ball a little bit better than we have in past games. Our whole back four and midfield, too, just worked and did a great job.”
It had been something of a disappointment to miss the playoffs the previous year, but Jorden and others thought that that lay the groundwork for this year’s success. “In general, our whole organization learned a lot last year,” he said. “Chris Hummer our general manager brought in some key players and we brought our core with us from last year, so putting those pieces together and working hard brought us this success.”
Charlotte head coach Lee Horton was effusive in his praise of the team he’d just lost to. “Last night watching them my first thought was, boy, this team is just well-coached, well-organized, a lot of very mature players that just know how to play the game. I’m extremely impressed with their transition from defense to offense. Just so quickly everybody on the team gets involved so they’re very hard to defend because every player on the team’s just so involved with the ball possession.”
Asked to compare the United Women with the defending W-League champion Silverbacks – whom the Lady Eagles had to play three times during the course of the regular season – he said, “Two very mature teams. Atlanta’s a team with a lot of veteran players. I’d say they’re very similar teams, and Atlanta won the whole thing last year. It took all we could do to muster and get that win against them. [In the final match of the season, which decided which team went to the playoffs.] I could definitely see DC go and win the whole thing, no doubt about it.”
Haracic, when asked what she was looking forward to in Ottawa, said that was the plan. “For a win. For us to bring it home. That’s all I want to do. We’re going to do our best, and we’re going to try to bring it home.“
Photos courtesy of Tony Quinn.
DC United Women:
The Equalizer: Sanderson leads D.C. United into W-League Final Four
The Washington Post (!): D.C. United Women win Eastern Conference title, advance to W-League semifinals
Beau Dure/SportsMyriad: D.C. United Women impress in W-League conference final