Team captain Hayley Siegel has led the Spirit Reserves to a playoff spot despite a change in coaches
It was a searingly hot day after a long bus ride. They’d brought only two subs. Their coach for the season so far had been promoted, and they’d had all of two practice sessions with their new coach. It would have been easy to falter. Instead, in a hard-fought match against a team facing playoff elimination, the Washington Spirit Reserves downed the New Jersey Wildcats, 2-1, in a game they needed to win in order to keep pace with the first-place Virginia Beach Piranhas.
The first half started out disorganized but soon settled down. Washington had most of the possession but seemed to falter in the final third. “I think the biggest thing right now we struggle with is taking maybe one pass too many,” said captain Hayley Siegel. “We want it to look perfect, and I’m probably at fault the most for that. We need to start trying to get shots on goal so our possession turns into something.”
New head coach J. P. Sousa, promoted from coach of the U-20 team when Mark Parsons was promoted to coach the professional team, had a similar interpretation. “We were a little tentative. We weren’t pulling the trigger when we had a chance around the 18. We talked about that at halftime. If the opportunity is there, we have to create. We can’t just sit back and wait for something to happen. Because they were really packing it in. We can’t wait for a counterattack. We just wanted to regroup, stay better organized.”
New Jersey, by contrast, had the ball less but made more of their opportunities. In the 28th minute, defender Amber Adams sent a through ball in from the left in front of forward Jess Fuccello, but there was just a little too much pace on it, and Reserves goalkeeper Didi Haracic managed to get there first. Nine minutes later, Fuccello was open in the goal area, but the pass went behind her. Two minutes after that, a Wildcat took a long shot that was heading for the inside of the right post, and Haracic had to dive to punch it over the end line.
The half ended in a 0-0 draw.
The Spirit Reserves took it up a notch in the second half and started getting better chances. In the 49th minute a Washington cross was headed off the crossbar. Four minutes later a good Haracic service was collected by Amber Stobbs in the midfield on the left. She made a hard drive down the left-hand side and in toward goal, drawing defensive attention, then slid the ball to Ashley Herndon who was also making a hard but more central run. Despite having a defender on her right shoulder the whole way, Herndon collected the ball and knocked it into the upper left corner to give Washington a 1-0 lead and Stobbs her league-leading ninth assist of the season.
Ashley Herndon scored the opening goal
The Reserves would have three more good chances starting in the 60th minute. First came a series of quick passes about 25 yards out from goal that almost sprung forward Tiffany Brown behind the line, but the last pass was too strong and went over the end line. A minute later Stobbs received a ball over the top with space. With a defender and goalkeeper Carlie Till converging on her and cutting down her options, she took a quick shot from the top right corner of the box that missed just wide left. A minute after that, Herndon was through on the right with the ball and had an open Stobbs in the goalmouth, but Herndon’s cross was way too strong and sailed over Stobbs.
A minute after that, it was the Wildcats’ turn as right flank defender Danae O’Halloran came forward with a ton of space but sailed her cross well over the left end line. In the 70th minute, O’Halloran was again wide open on the right, but the player in the center with the ball instead passed to the left to someone in an offside position, which ended that opportunity.
There was a water break around the 71st minute, and both teams made subs who would prove to make an impact. For the Wildcats, Grace Correll came on for Claudia Vasquez, and for the Spirit, Jessica Van Dyke came on for Tiffany Brown.
The Spirit would have two good chances in the 76th minute. First Stobbs had a good run helped by a give-and-go, but Till was ready at the near post to grab her shot. Then Herndon got a ball over the top on the right. She beat Till to the ball, but her shot missed wide left.
With seven minutes left in regular time, sub Correll took advantage of the space the Reserves had been leaving on the right most of the second half and had plenty of time to send in a ball. It was probably intended to be a cross, but it sailed just enough to go over Haracic and bounce off the left post and in to even the score at 1-1.
But the tie would only last two minutes as players converged on a ball right on the defensive back line in the center. It bounced off a couple of players and went behind the line. Van Dyke squirted through first and had an open run in on goal with defenders chasing. Till did everything right, coming out, making herself large, and cutting off the angles as much as possible. But Van Dyke – in a play that had to be a lot tougher than it looked – just chipped the ball over her and bounced it into the net.
And late sub Jessica Van Dyke scored the game-winner
In the penultimate minute, once again New Jersey’s O’Halloran came forward with a ton of space, but this time Herndon came tearing in clear from the opposite side of the field to shut her down. And that would be the last chance for the Wildcats as Washington managed to kill the clock the rest of the way.
Siegel said the transition to the new coach had not been a major issue. “You know what, the group, we’re lucky that we’ve gotten to know each other now, over the last couple of months, because I think that they were the ones on the field. So Mark has us prepared enough for the season right now. We had the confidence going into the game. And J.P. came in, saying he just wanted us to keep working, keep doing the same things. So it wasn’t some massive shift.”
Sousa hasn’t found it difficult, either. “I think the biggest challenge is becoming acclimated to the players. To be fair, I’d only seen this group play twice, in training situations, and one was really a tryout session back in the beginning of May. I knew some of the faces because Mark Parsons and I coached the U-20s last year, which was helpful. But some of the players I’d just never had a chance to work with.”
And he was very happy with the result, particularly given the circumstances. “First time out, they stuck it out on a very hot day. Long ride, only two subs, and we had to use them both. Come up here, get the job done, first time out, I’m pleased.”
The loss eliminated New Jersey from the playoffs. Then, later in the day, the Virginia Beach Piranhas – who lead not only the Eastern Conference but the entire W-League – downed the Long Island Rough Riders, eliminating them from playoff contention and clinching playoff spots for both the Piranhas and the Spirit Reserves. The only remaining issue in the conference is whether the Reserves or the Piranhas will claim first place and the right to host the playoff match between the two teams.
The Piranhas have a six point edge in the standings, but the Spirit Reserves have two games left to the Piranhas’ one.
Washington first plays Wednesday at 4:30 at the Soccerplex against the Fredericksburg Impact. Then they travel to Virginia Beach to face the Piranhas on their home turf Saturday at 8 pm. If the Reserves win both matches, they will be Eastern Conference regular-season champions and will host the playoff match on Saturday, July 20, that will decide who represents the conference in the W-League Final Four the weekend of July 27 in Bradenton, Florida.
But any lesser result will move the playoff match to Virginia Beach. So if you can, come out early (and avoid the traffic!) on Wednesday to support your local team in a key W-League match before the professional team takes on the Chicago Red Stars at 7:30 that evening.
All photos courtesy of Larry J. Clark/Soccer- Shots. (Photos are not from this match.)