Two penalty kicks and three yellow cards in to Wednesday night’s National Women’s Soccer League game between the third-place Washington Spirit and Boston Breakers at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, the halftime whistle hadn’t yet been blown. On what Spirit leading scorer Jodie Taylor could only describe as a “crazy day” that included three penalty kicks in total — two for Boston, one for Washington — five yellow cards, one red card and a 45 minute delay for lightning, Washington erased a 3-1 deficit to earn one point toward the league standings in a 3-3 tie.
“If you call three penalty kicks, hand out three yellow cards and a red card, then you can’t say you are doing a good job,” Boston coach Tom Durkin said.
The result was important for Washington (7-7-2) as it fights to remain in playoff contention down the final stretch of the season — the top four teams move on to the postseason. The Spirit, which has certainly come a long way since a 2013 finish at the bottom of the league standings, benefitted from No. 4 Western New York’s loss to top-ranked Seattle Reign FC Wednesday and maintained a three-point lead over the Flash.
“I think [Wednesday] was one of those games where everyone was just kind of losing control,” Washington goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris said. “I think the [referee] kind of let things get out of hand and everyone was boiling at that point. We can’t place the blame on referees, these things happen and it’s part of our sport. But I think their group let us down today, I think they let down Boston. It was one of the worst games I’ve been a part of.”
Nevertheless, Harris said, she was proud of Washington’s resilience after the Spirit fell behind 2-0 in the opening seven minutes off two Heather O’Reilly penalty kicks. The first was awarded after defender Niki Cross, who made her first appearance for Washington last month, allegedly took Boston forward Jazmine Reeves down in the box — Cross fell on the play but seemed to make minimal contact with Reeves. Four minutes later U.S. National Team defender Ali Krieger found herself in a similar situation with Boston forward Nkemjika Ezurike.
“Both teams made the best of [questionable calls],” Washington coach Mark Parsons said. “Both coaches started looking at each other wondering what’s going on. For us, we can’t go and leave things up to the league, for us it’s how do they get one-on-one with Cross or how do they get one-on-one with Krieger. We can’t control decisions but we can control being in the position that we’re in when calls are made.”
Though Parsons admitted his players were on the brink of “losing their cool” at times Wednesday, they rebounded quite well from the tumultuous start and looked the better team for the majority of the game thereafter.
Taylor, who is second in the league in scoring with nine goals, cut Boston’s lead in half in the 28th minute with a header off Lisa De Vanna’s well-placed cross right on frame. Just before halftime, Reeves took advantage of USWNT defender Crystal Dunn’s slip to increase Boston’s lead to 3-1.
Taylor scored her second goal of the night in the 56th minute and missed scoring a hat trick by inches minutes later as she chipped a ball from 25 yards out over Boston goalie Alyssa Naeher, who had come off her line.
Washington had Boston’s backline under pressure — the Spirit outshot the Breakers 22-8 — including several prime chances off set pieces late in the contest, but were unable to find the right final touch. Washington’s struggles to finish could partially be attributed to a recent midseason transition as several changes have been made to the starting lineup in the past few weeks.
Taylor said she and De Vanna, who was only making her second start, are still learning each other’s tendencies; Cross and defender Alex Singer were making their third starts since joining the team and Wednesday was their first with Dunn, who just returned from a leg injury. Krieger, who moved from her usual position as right back to central defender about six weeks ago, has been vital to the organization of the ever changing lineup, Parsons said.
Canadian National Team midfielder and Washington’s second-leading scorer, Diana Matheson, scored the equalizer in stoppage time after Taylor was taken down while turning on a fantastic pass from De Vanna.
Washington is set to travel to Western New York July 12 in a game with major playoff implications.
“What we said at the end was that everything that could’ve gone wrong, did, and I know Tom feels the same,” Parsons said. “But I think we showed character and determination to get back. ... Western New York will be like a championship game probably. We have eight games left so we have eight championships games left to play two more championship games.”