No asterisk on this one
For the first time in the history of the Washington Spirit, the home fans – all 4,549 of them – had a victory to cheer at the final whistle as the team downed the Seattle Reign, 1-0, on a late goal from Diana Matheson.
It didn’t seem to be going that way in the first few minutes, as the ball spent almost all of the time in Seattle’s attacking end. But they couldn’t do much with it despite Washington’s makeshift back line of Robyn Gayle, Marisa Abegg, Tori Huster, and Ali Krieger. Gayle and Krieger were solid, of course, but Abegg had just been signed at the end of July after playing for a WPSL team during the summer, and Huster’s a midfielder.
That changed in the 12th minute as the Spirit had one of the best chances of the match as Matheson looped a ball over the Reign’s back line to Conny Pohlers charging toward the left post. Pohlers sent in a shoulder-high shot that Hope Solo had to leap to save.
Twelve minutes later Pohlers was through on the left but with no support and a defender to beat. She tried to send a through ball to herself but couldn’t get back to it before Solo scooped it up.
In the 29th minute, Seattle managed a quick counter after a deep Washington thrown, but Christine Nairn used it up on a shot from about 35 out that bounced harmlessly to goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.
Four minutes later came what would have been a candidate for Spirit goal of the year as Pohlers and Stephanie Ochs had space down the left. Pohlers sent it wide to Ochs, then made a run to goal. Pohlers overshot the offside line and looped back as Ochs sent the ball in. The former German national teamer had a perfect touch on the ball to send it just inside the far post, but she was just shy of re-establishing herself onside, and the flag went up.
With time running out in the first half the home team had several players in position to take a shot but all were reluctant until Pohlers got the ball and fired it in, only to have it blocked by Emily Zurrer. The half would end scoreless.
With Rapinoe attacking on the left and Krieger defending on the right, the two would battle all evening (courtesy of @EriMacPhoto)
Once again Seattle came out strong to start the second half, this time getting their best chance of the match when Jessica Fishlock got the ball back after the initial clearance off a corner kick and fired an inward-curving ball from the top of the box toward the right post. Harris couldn’t reach it, but it hit the post and bounced out rather than in.
A minute later a poor Seattle back pass went over the end line before Solo could reach it. That almost cost the visitors as Robyn Gayle ended up open on the right on the corner kick with the ball, but both her shot and the follow-up by Ochs were blocked.
There was another scary moment for DC in the 55th minute when Harris tried to grab a cross and dropped it, but a defender was right there to kick it clear.
In the 64th minute, a poor defensive pass from Seattle was stolen by Matheson, who came in on the right and tried to send the ball past Solo but failed.
The goal would come in a near-replay of that in the 83rd minute, with Matheson beating out several Reign defenders to the ball, then coming in on the right and from a tough angle slipping the ball between Solo and the far post.
Seattle would have no serious threats after that, and Washington successfully ate up the clock in stoppage time. The cheering was enthusiastic when the whistle blew. The Spirit had a two-game winning streak and in fact had won the season series against the Reign, having beaten them in Seattle for their first win back on May 16.
Harris gave a lot of credit to head coach Mark Parsons, who took over abruptly partway through the season. “All season we’ve been really wanting a coach to come in and tell us what to do and have a game plan. Mark has come in, and he has given his heart to this club. And we owe it to him to give him points and to show our appreciation because he has done a fantastic job with this team. I’m honored to play for him, and he’s one of the best around in my opinion, one of the best in the league. We really lucked out with him. ”
On the field, despite Matheson and Lupita Worbis scoring the game-winning goals in both matches, the real heroine of the week might be Marisa Abegg, who was signed on July 31 after finishing a season in the WPSL, and who came in almost immediately to replace the injured Candace Chapman.
“Abegg has been incredible from the start,” said Harris. “She stepped in, positive attitude, great energy, never skipped a beat. I never questioned her heart and her tenacity. Every game she is throwing her body left and right for this team. And to do that and not being here to fight. She doesn’t know who she’s fighting for, but it doesn’t matter. She came in and she said, ‘I will help, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure we get success.’ And that’s a huge credit to her. She’s playing great out there.”
Abegg is familiar to local fans as a player on the WPS Washington Freedom and as the captain of the W-League DC United Women in 2011 and 2012 – in fact there was an enormous poster of her on the corner of the Discovery Sports Center until well into the current season. But she found this a bit different from her playing in that and the WPSL. “Yeah, going against an 80-pound 16-year-old is a little bit different than playing a world-class player like Megan Rapinoe, or really any other player in this league that we’ve gone against. It’s been a challenge, and it’s been awesome. It’s so good to be back at this level and to be playing with players at such a high level.”
“And on such a familiar field?” I asked. “With the familiar grass, yes,” she replied, “but with all the fans cheering for us, a little bit different, what is it, about ten times the number of fans?”
Head coach Mark Parsons gave a lot of credit to the fans. “Tonight was absolutely incredible. There were a couple of periods in the game – the fans get going, they get rocking, and the players lift. And that’s a message for next week. We wanted two out of three for the last three, and we said when we get the first two we’ll make it three out of three. We’re going to need the fans next week because they’re absolutely incredible.”
The fans were enthusiastic and numerous, but they weren’t all rooting for the Spirit (courtesy of @EriMacPhoto)
I was actually surprised that the attendance total wasn’t higher. As I took my place in the pressbox before the game, I would have been willing to bet – and tweeted as much – that the team had a record crowd on its hands, besting the 5,011 who came on May 4 to see the match with Alex Morgan’s Portland Thorns. All but one of the entire line of cars in front of me on Germantown Road preceded me into the Soccerplex. Even 40 minutes before the opening whistle, the main parking lot was full, and the alternative lot was well on its way. But as it turns out it was actually by a narrow margin the fourth-biggest crowd, behind both visits of Abby Wambach and the Western New York Flash (4,569 for the April 20 home opener and 4,630 on June 15). Quite possibly the match being nationally televised dampened the attendance enough to drop it to that level.
It still seemed like the most enthusiastic crowd yet, and it seemed like almost all of them stayed to try to get autographs, especially from visiting players Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo. On the other hand, it seemed as if a big chunk of them came just for the autographs and would have been willing to skip the game.
The Spirit conclude their inaugural season at home, next Sunday at 5 pm against playoff-bound regional rivals Sky Blue FC of New Jersey, against whom they’ve lost all three matches, each by a one-goal margin. Will they continue that streak or make it three wins in a row? Come to the Soccerplex and find out – and, as Parsons notes, help out.