Gabby Charno of Long Island (left) battles Charlotte while Lianne Sanderson of the DC United Women (right) faces Virginia Beach
The top two seeds in the W-League’s Eastern Conference advanced easily in their playoff matches today, the #1 DC United Women dominating the #4 Virginia Beach Piranhas, 3-0, and the #2 Charlotte Lady Eagles doing likewise to the #3 Long Island Rough Riders, 4-0.
In the afternoon match, Long Island played better possession soccer, but they were overcome by Charlotte’s greater speed and athleticism. Their back line seemed particularly vulnerable. The heroine on the day was Amanda Naeher, who scored her first goal only five minutes in, a second just before halftime, and an assist early in the second half with the goal by Macky Wingo. The scoring was completed in the 64th minute by second-half sub Rachel Baer off a feed from another sub, Ashley Braam, on a 4-on-3 break for the Lady Eagles. Charlotte maxed out their substitutions with ample time remaining in the first half, presumably trying to save players for the next day’s match.
The Rough Riders made some big defensive plays at the end to keep the margin from getting any wider, as in two cases goalkeeper Lauren Ferris came out to make saves that left the goalmouth open for a Charlotte shot, but in both cases defenders came in to make saves of their own.
Charlotte and Long Island players battle for a header
At the other end, Long Island just could never get the ball to bounce their way long enough to put it in. Players would be open in the box but couldn’t quite bring the ball down or get to it in time, Their best chance of the game, though, was in the 41st minute, when they were awarded a penalty kick after one of their players was tripped in the box. Captain Kaila Sciascia took the kick but sent it shoulder-high to the right. Charlotte goalkeeper Robyn Jones, who formerly played on the Philadelphia Independence, leaped and blocked the shot to keep the Lady Eagles a goal ahead. Long Island would never be so close again.
As for the DC-Virginia Beach match, it was a night for the midfielders, converted or otherwise. And if you had to point to the Black-and-Red’s strength, that’s where it would lie. That came through this evening, as every name on the box score was either normally a midfielder or was being one tonight.
The Piranhas are a physical team – Lianne Sanderson minces no words, flat out just calling them “dirty” – and put their mark on the game right away, committing their first foul within fifteen seconds of kickoff. They would commit eleven fouls in the first 55 minutes and earn two yellow cards before settling down somewhat the rest of the way.
Hayley Siegel’s brilliantly placed free kick goes in for DC’s first goal
That would cost them in the 23rd minute as Sanderson was fouled near the left sideline about twenty yards from the end line. Midfielder Hayley Siegel sent a beautifully aimed ball toward the right post that Virginia Beach goalkeeper Marbel Egwuenu got a finger on but couldn’t redirect enough to keep it from slipping into the right side netting barely inside of the right post. It was Siegel’s first goal of the season.
DC goalkeeper Didi Haracic would keep a clean sheet with plays like these
United goalkeeper Didi Haracic would keep her sheet clean in the 36th minute by making two huge saves in succession, first on a shot from the left, then switching to the other side to block the shot off the rebound.
DC would have a chance in the 44th minute as Mikaela Howell managed to react faster than any Piranhas defender to a ball sent behind the line. Briefly wide open, by the time she collected the ball and was in a position to take a shot, she had a defender close enough to challenge her and sent the shot high.
Sanderson’s goal: “I cut it outside of her and hit it as hard as I could”
In first half stoppage time, Sanderson – playing forward this evening even though she’s normally a midfielder – would do better. Siegel collected the ball off a Virginia Beach turnover and sent it to the former English national-teamer before the visitors could spring their offsides trap. Sanderson made a quick maneuver with the ball and then from the top right corner of the box hammered a shot into the left side of goal. The Black-and-Red would go in at halftime with a 2-0 lead.
United would have a chance to pad their lead in the 52nd minute as Holly King headed a ball to Herndon, who made a long run into goal, sent a through ball to herself by sending it to the right of the defender as she ran past her on the left, but no one was able to connect with her cross.
Ashley Herndon would be dangerous down the right flank all night long
The final score came with ten minutes to go in regulation, as a ball was lofted behind the Virginia Beach back line near midfield. Sanderson in the center and Ashley Herndon from her right flank midfielder position were the first to react to it. Herndon had to make a long run but did it into open space with defenders trying to catch up, then had another 30 yards to go to get into a good crossing position. She lofted a ball across the goalmouth that Sanderson nudged toward teammate Joanna Lohman , who was open inside the left post to head it in. For Lohman – who’s primarily a defensive midfielder – it was also her first goal of the season.
Besides the goal-scoring midfielders, the other heroine on the night was holding midfielder Holly King, who had a tremendous match maintaining possession, starting attacks with passes – especially off of her head – and rescuing the back line on several occasions when the fast and physical Piranhas forwards were threatening. To be frank, one of the great weaknesses in the women’s game is playing long balls sent to the midfield. Too often, you see a couple of players jumping for the ball only for it to land three yards beyond them untouched. Well, when King is out there, not only does her head meet the ball, but she redirects it exactly where she wants it to go.
Just one of many of Holly King’s key plays with her head
Virginia Beach had been the team that the Black-and-Red had their most trouble with, but that didn’t seem to be the case tonight. Head Coach Mike Jorden thought the team was less anxious this evening. “Tonight we relaxed a little bit and got back to our style of play, got the two goals the first half, and that made the difference.” He said it “definitely” helped that the team got a comparatively early goal.
As for specific players, he particularly complimented Herndon and King. “[Ashley] was dangerous the entire night. She makes things happen. The last goal, she ran about 40 yards to get to it, and then played Jo Lohman in. She did all the hard work. She never stops. And she defends when you ask her to defend. Good player with a bright future.
“It was great to have Holly back. Especially in a game like this that’s so physical, she’s kind of our ball-winner. She had a good game, she wins a lot in the air, and she’s dangerous on set pieces. And she’s a leader by example out there.”
Sanderson, meanwhile, had nice things to say about Siegel. “I think Hayley’s a great player. I love playing with Hayley every week. And I think she’s one of those players along with a few others on the team that get a little bit underrated because they’re not glamorous. I think we’ve got a good connection and good chemistry on the field. I feel like she’ll tell me if I do something wrong and vice-versa. It’s always good to have that.”
The next challenge for the DC United Women will be overcoming the Charlotte Lady Eagles, a team that beat out the defending W-League champion Atlanta Silverbacks for their division’s playoff spot. Asked about Charlotte, Jorden – who scouted most of the afternoon game from the press box alongside assistant coach Cindi Harkes – said, “Saw a lot of pace, a lot of youth. I think we might have a little experience on them, but they’re dangerous. Long Island has got a great history in the W-League. We played in their division last year, and they’re a good side. To lose 4-0, that says something for Charlotte.” (Long Island won that division last year with DC finishing third.)
Asked about the keys to beating Charlotte, he said, ““We’ve got to stay organized in the back, we’ve got to keep the ball, prevent them from playing it in behind. That’s how they got a couple of their goals, they got in behind. They’ve got pace on the corners. We’ve got to match up there and get the job done.”
The players, meanwhile, not being in position to watch the match put the responsibility on themselves. “We’re expecting a really tough game,” said Sanderson. “I mean, we’ve heard about Charlotte for a while from one of our ex-teammates from the Philadelphia Independence, Robyn Jones. But I think if we play like we have been and up it a little bit more, I think we can beat them.” King added, “We’re just going to play our game.”
Siegel was just happy to be playing a new team for a change. “It’s the best because now we’re in a position where we get to play a new team, and that’s exciting. In this league you play the teams a lot, so it becomes more a matter of maybe they have a plan. And now you just go out and play soccer.”
The W-League Eastern Conference championship match will be played at 4 pm Sunday at the Maryland Soccerplex, the DC United Women hosting the Charlotte Lady Eagles. The winner goes to Ottawa next weekend to represent the conference at the W-League Final Four, facing the Central and Western Conference winners along with the Ottawa Fury, who get a bye into the tournament as the hosts. Those matches – the Pali Blues versus the Seattle Sounders for the Western berth and Quebec City Amiral versus the Laval Comets for the Central berth – will be played Sunday afternoon as well.