While some of you were sitting at home Saturday afternoon watching no one score for 120 minutes, a few of us were out watching a barn-burner of a W-League match in a glorious weather. Two lead changes, multiple momentum shifts, and, finally, a critical 4-3 win for the Braddock Road Stars Elite over Northeastern Conference rival New Jersey Wildcats.
To put the game in perspective, going in New Jersey was in second place in the conference with 11 standings points, while Braddock Road was 4 points behind at 7. Both teams had 4 games left to play, including 2 against each other. The Stars Elite could still make it to second place and earn a playoff spot, but they need to win all 4 of their remaining games to do so, starting with this one. The Wildcats would have been happy with a tie, particularly since they were desperately short-handed, with only 11 players available for the match.
Braddock Road at least had subs, though they were missing some of their key players, particularly on defense. “We had one natural defender back there,” said head coach Larry Best after the game. “We were playing with two outside backs that aren’t outside backs. Rachel Moore’s not a center back, she’s a defensive midfielder.”
They looked a little shaky early on, with two offside calls and one hurried clearance from goalkeeper Tina Cardamone. But then in the 4th minute midfielder and captain Marisa Park stole the ball from a New Jersey defender and fired the ball from about 20 yards out into the lower left corner.
That settled them for a while, and they controlled the majority of possession until about halfway through the first half, though without being able to do much with it. As time wore on, though, their play got sloppier, with passes off-target and players losing the ball. Even Carlyn Baldwin had the ball taken away from her in the 30th minute, but she was instantly all over Wildcat forward Phoenetia Brown until she gave it back.
Offside calls were a problem as well, with the Stars Elite being whistled for it 6 times in the first half and 11 overall. “They were playing a very high line,” said Park, “and for us we were just anxious to get in behind, and it’s something that we can learn from. Throughout the game there were less offsides as we tried to learn how to play against them, and that’s something that’s going to be helpful next game, too.”
Even when they did get through, it didn’t last long as the New Jersey defenders were much faster than Braddock’s starting forwards, and would quickly catch up to them.
One turnover too many came in the 43rd minute. Kristin Meier gave the ball up to Yoreli Rincon, who brought the ball up and quickly lobbed it over an unprepared Cardamone from close to 30 yards out to tie the score.
The early part of the second half was back-and-forth, though with better chances for New Jersey. In the 58th minute, a close-in Wildcat shot was blocked by a defender, then the rebound was sent back in, but Cardamone was there for the save.
Braddock Road made two subs in this interval, forward Dakota Stephens replacing Maire Shine in the 58th minute, and Charlotte Hyland taking over for forward Stephanie Hamilton in the 67th.
In the 69th, the Wildcats took the lead when Laylla da Cruz got through on the right and tucked the ball into the lower left corner.
After the flag was raised to stifle another Braddock Road attack in the 75th, I tweeted that the home team had 15 minutes to score 2 goals to stay in the playoff hunt. It didn’t seem likely, but I didn’t have long to wait.
In the 78th minute, Baldwin – normally a holding midfielder – made a strong run forward, did a quick give-and-go with Park, and tucked the ball in the lower left corner. Just a minute later Park sent a through ball in front of Stephens, who nutmegged Jersey keeper Carlie Till with a ball that just kept rolling into the net. Just like that, the Stars Elite were ahead, 3-2.
That would last about 4 minutes. In the 82nd, a Stars defender turned the ball over deep then grabbed the opposing player to keep her from getting toward goal. She was whistled for the foul, giving the Wildcats a free kick from about 30 yards out on the left. Da Cruz stepped up and sent the ball just under the crossbar. Cardamone jumped up and seemed for a moment to have it, but her grasp was shaky, and the ball slipped through her fingers, dropped behind her, and into the goal.
Just 3 minutes later Braddock looked to have a great chance to retake the lead with a 3-on-1 break, but New Jersey’s team speed eliminated that in a matter of seconds with defenders quickly getting back to cover.
Finally, in the 88th minute, Park sent a ball through to Meier, who rolled the ball in past Till to give the Stars Elite the lead for the third time. This time, finally, it held, with the home team determinedly killing the clock through three minutes of stoppage time.
Park thought pulling out the win showed that her team was maturing. “We’ve gone down before, and the biggest difference is the level of urgency that we have, to get a goal back, and the ability to keep things tight. Because at the beginning of the season when we’d give up one goal we’d give up two or three goals, and it would be like this cycle that was really getting to us. So the ability to keep things tight and then get a goal back I think shows a lot of maturity, especially from our younger kids.”
Best thought it showed mental toughness. “It just showed that our players are starting to come around collectively. They just never stopped, and they dug deep.”
He was particularly pleased with how his two second-half subs did. “The two subs coming in had not played in four months. So that was the plan, to give them minutes toward the end, and they gave us really good minutes. It really changed the game when they came in. Charlotte, who’s one of our actual starting midfielders, she’s only a sophomore in high school. She’s very, very good – for our 95s, our youth team, she’s bigtime. She was dynamic and fighting, but she kept every ball. She kept the flow going.
“Dakota gave us a burst. They had to worry about her. So she dragged them a little bit out of their shape because she had the speed to get in behind them, or she had the creativity to get through them. They had to worry about her a little bit more. So I think they mentally probably got drained a little bit more because trying to worry about what we did in terms of our subs.”
I noted to Park that they had played better games than this and lost. “You’re right, we have played better games than this, and we’ve connected passes a lot better than we did today, but it’s something that we’re learning, and that we’ve showed that we can finish the ball, too. And that’s big, that we can control 80% of the game and lose because we can’t finish the ball.”
It won’t be long until a rematch, as Braddock Road goes on the road Wednesday evening to face New Jersey again. There’ll be more roster changes for that, as Baldwin and Kaleigh Riehl leave to join the U-20 national team. On the other hand, according to Best, “Kahla [Seymour] will be back, Elysse [Branton] will be back, Nat [Larkin] will be back, so we’ll be at pretty good strength.”
I made it a point to talk with one of Best’s recommended players, Rachel Moore, who’s normally a defensive midfielder but was a central defender today. She’s one of the 95ers who won the U-16 national championship two years ago and is heading to William and Mary in the fall. We talked about the game first. “I thought we definitely had it from the first half when we scored a really early goal. When they scored, it was kind of weird, and I wasn’t expecting it at all. And then they scored again. I think our team definitely needed that win. We dug deep and proved that we were the better team.”
I then asked her what the W-League experience was doing for her. “The speed of play is ten times faster than I’ve ever played before, so the first game really caught me off-guard. This’ll really help me. Everyone’s bigger, faster, stronger, so you get better by playing against better players. That’s definitely what we’re doing.”
Braddock Road has one more home game this season, on Saturday, July 12, at 4 pm, against the North Jersey Valkyries.
With my previous update I was touting the July 6 match between ACF Torino USA and Buxmont Torch FC as a key battle to see which team made the playoffs from the #2 position in the South Atlantic Division. I’ve since been told that this year – unlike previous years – only the division winners make the playoffs. So with the ASA Chesapeake Charge running away with that, everyone else is just playing for pride.
Anyhow, Buxmont won that match, 3-0. Torino next plays the Charge Wednesday evening at 7 at the Riverdale Baptist Sportsplex in their final match of the 2014 season.
Meanwhile, the Charge have already circled Saturday, July 19, on their calendars, as that’s the day they expect to be playing the New York Athletic Club – the first place team in the adjacent Tri-State Division – with a chance to get some revenge after losing to them in the final of the USASA Women’s Open Cup.