Yael Averbuch took a long time to make her presence felt, but when she finally did, it really counted.
Go figure the Spirit. A couple of weeks ago with a golden chance for points against weaker teams, they went to Houston and played to an uninspired draw, followed by an embarrassing loss in New Jersey that was 4-0 late in the game until Washington rebounded with two late goals. Some fans were about to give up on the team’s playoff hopes, even wondering how much the players really wanted to make the playoffs.
But maybe they just wanted to do it the hard way. They returned home for three matches against playoff-contending teams and got points out of all three: a draw against Portland followed by comeback wins against Kansas City and Chicago – all three secured by late goals, the last in the waning seconds of stoppage time.
And if you want to see a team that wants to make the playoffs, just look at the replay of that goal. Diana Matheson runs all out for forty yards to chase down a ball before it can go out-of-bounds, then has to slide to keep it in. (“There’s maybe three players in the league that have that thought process and that quality,” said Chicago head coach Rory Dames admiringly.) She then passes it into the box to Lisa De Vanna. De Vanna – one of the most volatile and emotional players I’ve ever seen on the field – corks her emotions and hangs onto the ball until Yael Averbuch comes open to her left, then passes it to her. Finally, Averbuch – a player who’s been as much detriment as benefit to the team so far this year despite her allocated status – instead of launching a field goal sends in a rocket of a shot perfectly aimed into the upper left corner, out of the reach of a leaping Karina LeBlanc.
Late heroics have been a hallmark of the team, though. They’ve scored four goals in stoppage time, and every single one of them has been good for standings points: for a tie against Sky Blue on May 21, a win against Houston on May 26, a tie after twice being down two goals to Boston on July 2, and then Averbuch’s shot for the win. If NWSL matches ended strictly at 90 minutes, the Spirit would have 28 standings points and be in 5th place instead of 3rd.
Asked about all the late comebacks, Christine Nairn said, ““I think it’s just the grit. Like I said before, you’re not always going to have the best night playing soccer but control the things you can and that’s our grit, our fight, our battle. We start in the 1st minute and we end in the 94th, whatever it was today.”
And if matches were only 60 minutes long, the team would be mired in 8th place with a mere 20 points. (On the other hand, the Portland 6-1 debacle would be reduced to a respectable 2-0.) Out of their 35 goals total, 17 have been scored after the 60th minute. By contrast, they’ve been outscored 18-27 in the first hour but have come out ahead late 17-14 in the final 30. And that of course includes the 4 late goals scored by the Thorns.
Fans despaired after that match, too, but it’s worth noting that the Spirit have gotten points off of every single game after that but one (the aforementioned New Jersey match) – out of a possible 24 points, they’ve gotten a very respectable 15, just the sort of run a playoff-bound team needs.
The latest run began with a Wednesday night tie against the Portland Thorns. Alex Morgan scored early, chipping Harris from distance, but Jodie Taylor tied it up in the 68th minute, getting the ball from Matheson, dodging around goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, and putting it in from a very tough angle on the right.
After that first game, head coach Mark Parsons said, “The biggest thing we’re happy with is Sunday was not us and tonight we showed we’re right there with everyone, performance wise.”
The following Wednesday, Washington faced Kansas City, who got an early goal from Becky Sauerbrunn. She played a give-and-go with Sarah Hagen, then fired it into the upper left corner. It was an unusual contribution from defender Sauerbrunn, whose last professional goal was the first-ever goal scored by the WPS Washington Freedom, way back on April 11, 2009. And if you count the W-League, she also scored in July of 2012 – right before heading for the London Olympics with the Women’s National Team – for the DC United Women, a game-winning goal that clinched the Eastern Conference championship for the team. And all three goals were scored at the Soccerplex.
Lisa De Vanna came in as a second-half supersub in that match and provided a spark when the team needed it. Just four minutes in, she chased down a Tori Huster mis-hit off of a Christine Nairn corner kick that looked to be going out-of-bounds. Just about everyone thought the play was over, and the entire Kansas City defense was caught flat-footed as she lofted the ball to Kerstin Garefrekes, who headed it in from the near post.
In the 67th minute De Vanna would assist again, maintaining possession of the ball deep in the right corner, then sending it out to Nairn at the corner of the box, who sent it into the lower left corner of the goal.
Come the Chicago game that Saturday, and Washington would again give up an early goal, Christen Press stealing the ball off of Huster at midfield. She brought it forward, passed wide right to Melissa Tancredi, who sent the ball back across to a running Lori Chalupny, who didn’t get much on the shot but just enough to put it in the bottom left corner past a diving Harris.
The Spirit would equalize just a few minutes into the second half, Nairn firing a shot from about 20 yards out that Karina LeBlanc looked to handle easily until it bounced off defender Abby Erceg, which redirected it from the lower left corner to the lower right.
As the game wore on, the Spirit dominated ever more, making the Red Stars look like the team that had played just a few days ago rather than the other way round. In the last few minutes they seemed to have almost total control except for being able to put it away. Said Dames: “For whatever reason the last ten minutes we couldn’t get a ball out of our zone no matter where we were. It seemed like whoever their first player was, we hit ‘em. When we did get out, we created the chance we needed. Like I said, she made a great save. We tip our hat to her.”
Parsons noted the late intensity as well. “I forgot in the last ten minutes in all the excitement that we’d played [three] days ago, because it looked like they had. It’s down to our physical conditioning because our conditioning coaches are doing a great job, and just our mental strength of these women, who could be role models for any young girl, to do what they did tonight.”
The chance Dames mentioned came in the 89th minute, and it was a great one. Melissa Tancredi sent in a perfect cross from the left that Press headed toward goal, but Harris – after being whacked in the face badly enough to stop the game for close to five minutes early in the second half – made a leaping reaction save to send the ball wide. Then came the heroics from Matheson, De Vanna, and Averbuch – a moment that shifted the relative standings between the two teams by 3 points.
“It was special for me,” said Averbuch of the goal, only her second in professional play, “and it was important for me to be able to contribute like that, especially this point in the season. ”
The rookie and the veteran: Crystal Dunn and Lori Lindsey have both contributed to the Spirit’s playoff push.
And one gets the impression that they’re gelling as a team at just the right time. I’ve lost track of the number of different back lines Ashlyn Harris has had in front of her this year, but the Singer-Cross-Krieger-Dunn one seems to be a winner. Crystal Dunn in particular is emerging as a spectacular player as she gets ever healthier.
Tori Huster has finally been able to return to her natural, holding midfielder position. Christine Nairn has been strong on both offense and defense. Lori Lindsey isn’t what she was, but she can still feed through balls as well as anyone in the game. And, well, Diana Matheson is Diana Matheson.
Up top I figured losing Jodie Taylor – a contender for the league goal-scoring title before being called up to her national team – would be a huge blow. But everyone else – particularly late-season acquisition De Vanna – has stepped up. It’s going to be exciting to watch the two of them together for the final two games of the season.