For the second year in a row, Washington’s W-League team went to the Final Four, losing the first match and winning the second.
This year the Spirit Reserves faced the always-formidable Pali Blues in the first round. The Reserves, like most W-League teams, pick up the best regional players and mold them into the team. The Blues, by contrast, have no self-imposed regional limitations and with the renowned Charlie Naimo as coach, generally accumulate a daunting roster. The list of former Pali Blues players reads like a Who’s Who of young female soccer players: Lauren Cheney, Whitney Engen, Ashlyn Harris, Tobin Heath, Amy LePeilbet, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, Christen Press, and Ali Riley, just to name a few.
This year’s roster isn’t quite so star-studded but still included Sasha Andrews, Makenzy Doniak, Mele French, Samantha Mewis, and Ashley Nick, all names to be reckoned with. (Ashley Nick, in fact, was just signed by NWSL’s Sky Blue FC.)
Pali took the lead in the 26th minute off a goal from Nick, but late in the first half Washington equalized off a tremendous individual effort from defender Andi Sullivan, who weaved her way through defenders from midfield and unleashed a shot from 22 out that got past goalkeeper Anna Picarelli.
The Blues took the lead again in the 65th minute with a goal from Katie Stengel and seemed on their way to a 2-1 win until in stoppage time Hayley Siegel sent in a cross for the Spirit Reserves that Monica Mendes was able to put away.
The California team seemed almost cursed at that point, having missed several second-half-chances to extend their lead, then had three golden opportunities with open chances on goal in the first overtime period, but Nick and Stengel each shot wide, and Stengel hit the crossbar. The Reserves weren’t threatening but looked to have a chance to push the game to penalty kicks, something the Blues had to have wanted to avoid considering they lost in the championship last year on PKs.
The winning goal would finally come in the 109th minute from Chioma Ubogagu, who took a pass from Nick and made her way into the penalty area skirting defenders before sending the ball into the net.
It was the third time a Washington team had played the Pali Blues, and the third time they had lost. In 2008 the Washington Freedom played Pali in the first round of the Final Four and lost, 2-0, with Pali going on to beat FC Indiana, 2-1, in the final. Then in 2009 they played again for the championship – at the Soccerplex, no less – and the Blues gave up an early goal before coming back and winning, 2-1.
In Sunday’s consolation match, Washington faced the Carolina Elite Cobras – who lost to the Laval Comets in another 120-minute match – and would score in trademark fashion in the 36th minute, Ashley Herndon heading in a cross from Amber Stobbs. They’d double their lead in the 83rd minute when an Andi Sullivan cross was sent into the net by a defender. The Cobras would make things interesting five minutes later when Rachel Baer scored off an assist from India Trotter, but the Spirit Reserves would hold on in the remaining few minutes and claim a 2-1 win.
The final between the Blues and the Comets remained scoreless for over 85 minutes and looked to be the third overtime game of the weekend until Laval player-coach Cindy Walsh gave up an own goal in the 87th minute. Laval’s Genevieve Richard – named the W-League’s Goalkeeper of the Year the previous evening – would stop eight other attempts, including a penalty kick from Ubogagu that she pushed off the left post. Pali would eke out a 1-0 win for their third championship, beating Washington along the way each time.