The Washington Spirit might boast one of the National Women’s Soccer League’s best backlines — it’s led by U.S. National Team defender Ali Krieger and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and Canadian defender Robin Gayle — but that doesn’t mean it wants to constantly showcase everything it’s capable of.
In last week’s 3-1 loss on the road against the league’s current leader, the Seattle Reign FC, Washington seemed content to bunker down in a more defensive approach, something Krieger said was not intentional.
Rather than allow the Reign to dictate play for 90 minutes in Saturday’s rematch held at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Washington appeared more willing to push forward and in the more offensive-minded outing, proved it truly can play with the league’s best.
Despite ultimately falling, 2-1, Washington held a 1-0 lead and certainly had Seattle (5-0) on its heels much more often than in the teams’ previous meeting. While disappointed to walk away without the victory and three points, Spirit coach Mark Parsons and Krieger agreed Saturday was the team’s best overall performance so far this season and said it was a positive step forward.
“Yeah, I don’t think our game plan [last week] was to bunker down, obviously we had a plan and just on that day it wasn’t executed [like we wanted],” Krieger said. “[Saturday] we said, ‘Let’s do our thing, let’s come at them.’ We had the same defensive organization but we started higher on the field and we went for it. The attack tried to play a little more than we did last week. ... We’ve shown and proved we get better with every game. We played well [Saturday], I think we just have to keep the ball a little more. Attacking-wise I think we were aggressive, I think we had a lot of positive passes going forward.”
It’s certainly a good sign when Krieger, one of the world’s best outside backs, is getting good looks at the goal. After staving off a barrage of shots by Seattle late in the first half — USWNT forward Sydney Leroux, Jessica Fishlock, Nahomi Kawasumi and Kim Little make for quite a dynamic group moving forward — to head into the locker room in a scoreless tie, Washington had the better of possession early in the second. Not a minute after Krieger launched a shot that ricocheted right off the near post, she quickly buried a deflection from Jodie Taylor’s shot off Reign goalkeeper and USWNT teammate Hope Solo to give Washington a 1-0 lead in 53rd minute.
But that advantage did not last as Fishlock converted off a set piece less than two minutes later. Defending those has been a recent issue for Washington.
“It’s tough, once you score you either want to quickly score again or keep possession and keep the momentum going,” Krieger said. “When they scored it’s tough, because then the momentum is on that end. You have to keep possession or keep momentum going and try to score again.”
Leroux scored the go-ahead goal in the 76th minute when she maneuvered her way past Spirit central defender Tori Huster to set up a one-on-one showdown with Harris. Harris did have six tremendous saves, though.
Though Washington did a much better job connecting through the midfield and moving forward — midfielder Crystal Dunn, the first pick in the league’s college draft, has positioned herself as a major offensive presence — both Seattle goals were the result of Washington’s tendency to fall into a more passive pattern rather than the attacking style soccer they intend to employ, Parsons said. Seattle outshot Washington, 15-8.
“The difference was when we got after them and pressed them together there was nothing they could do,” Parsons said. “When we dropped off, they controlled the game. Two things we have to improve on is we had some very expensive giveaways. We were right in the final third and then it’s a standstill and we give the ball away. We go from a moment where it looks like we’re going to score to giving the ball away. And we have to be more clinical. Their goals were really cheap, they came from our mistakes, really. I remember the second goal, we were going forward and we should’ve kept passing forward and then all of a sudden we’re going back.”
Despite the loss the Spirit are off to a much more promising start than their inaugural season last spring and currently sit in fourth place out of nine teams, just two points back from third. Saturday might not have been a notch in the win column but Parsons can’t ask for much more than a better performance in each outing.
“I think each game we’re getting better, so we’re just going to build off of that and focus on us and not so much the other team and go from there,” Krieger said.
Seattle Reign 2, Washington Spirit 0
Seattle (5-0) 0 2 — 2
Washington (2-3) 0 1 — 1
Seattle — Jessica Fishlock, Sydney Leroux
Washington — Ali Krieger