The Washington Spirit got into the playoffs, just not the way they wanted to get there.
Washington managed to back into the playoffs Saturday night despite a 1-0 loss to New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC in a special game not only because of the circumstances, but also because it was the last regular season game for Spirit captain and U.S. Women’s National Team member Lori Lindsey, who announced that she will retire at the end of the season.
The Spirit came into Saturday’s game undefeated in their last four games with two ties and two wins and 10 wins on the season with a total of 35 points, enough for third place in the league. They had only to win the game to clinch a playoff spot, but had the challenge of doing so without star goalie Ashlyn Harris, who was out of the game due to concussion symptoms.
Sky Blue FC, on the other hand, has had the Spirit’s number this season, as well as last season, having never lost to Washington. That streak continued as the Sky Blue defense was able to prevent the Spirit attack from getting into the attacking third of the field or the box.
“We seem to play well against (the Spirit),” said Sky Blue Coach Jim Gabarra. “We had quite a bit of luck tonight, but the effort the players put in, off short rest… was amazing. (Sky Blue Goalkeeper Jillian Loyden) has done a great job adjusting her game and playing the way we need our goalkeeper to play. As a group, I think we’ve defended well the last dozen games. We haven’t given up a lot of chances.”
Chances on goal were not the problem for the Spirit: they had several opportunities that would have been converted against other teams, or if the ball had been rolling slower. Rather than creating chances, Washington’s problem was converting and finishing them.
Washington had more chances and more possession than Sky Blue did, but they weren’t able to do nearly as much with it. The Spirit were able to attack on a break and start a counter attack, but were consistently unable to get past the center-backs of Sky Blue to get a goal.
Striker Lisa De Vanna had a game that reflected the entire team’s game: she was consistently open on the wing, but when she was found open, was unable to make anything of it, whether losing the ball, or passing the ball away. At one point De Vanna beat Loyden in the box and was about to score, but could not catch up to the ball as it rolled in front of an empty net and proceeded to roll out of bounds for a goal kick.
“We were really poor on the ball tonight,” said Spirit coach Mark Parsons. “We were at the halfway line and we wanted to hit that final pass to a front player to score. Where we’ve really hurt teams, and teams struggle to play against us, is when we move the ball with multiple passes and combinations… Everyone was so desperate and wanting to win and everyone was so desperate to make something happen, that they wanted to make something happen as soon as they got it. Which hurts. That made it easy.”
In the early part of the first half, it looked like the Spirit was due for a goal. De Vanna was consistently open and threatening on the attack, and Diana Matheson was all over the attacking half of the field creating chances. But exceptional play from Loyden kept the Spirit out of goal and allowed Sky Blue to carefully put together attacks: just enough to put one in goal in the 27th minute from Monica Ocampo, who finished in a crowded box off an assist from Maya Hayes.
The second half was not so different from the first, as Sky Blue was able to keep Washington out of goal, and continually frustrated them for their lack of success in the attack. When Washington had chances, it included a flurry of chances, as in the four minutes of added time at the end of the game in which Washington had possession essentially the entire time. The Spirit had several good chances, just not enough to win.
“I think we play better against teams who want to put the ball down and play,” said Sky Blue captain and U.S. Women’s National Team member Christie Rampone. “They have a very good midfield, they swing the ball. I think our counter was on tonight, we were able to stretch them a little more, and I think we defended more than we wanted to, but that’s soccer, trying to get out of here with a win instead of pressing too much and giving up a goal.”
“I don’t believe (our season) can end on that (loss),” Parsons said. “We’ve given too much, we’ve sacrificed too much, and we’ve shown real quality too much to have it end here.”
Luckily for Coach Parsons, the Spirit’s season did not end on this game. At the final whistle, the Spirit would need both the Chicago Red Stars and the Portland Thorns to win their games in order to miss the playoffs. Later Saturday evening the Red Stars tied their game against the Western New York Flash, allowing the Spirit to clinch their first appearance in the playoffs after finishing eighth in the league last year.