The Washington Spirit women’s professional soccer team was mere minutes away from clinching its first National Women’s Soccer League postseason appearance Saturday night in Seattle. A win against the top-ranked Reign would’ve ensured Washington a top-four, regular-season finish and the Spirit led, 1-0, in the 89th minute of Saturday’s contest.
Then, in a quick turn of events, Seattle’s Jessica Fishlock threaded a pass right through Washington’s backline to the feet of Scottish midfielder Kim Little. The league’s leading scorer handled a sliding challenge from Spirit goalkeeper Chantel Jones — Washington’s starting goalie Ashlyn Harris was sidelined with concussion-like symptoms — with seeming ease and buried the equalizer for her 16th goal of the year.
Each team took a point away from the 1-1 draw and every point is important for the Spirit at this juncture of the season.
“We scored a good goal first and then we defended and we were disciplined, I think we deserved to win,” Washington coach Mark Parsons said. “But it’s hard to stop a squad full of players that Seattle has. ... Apart from that last opportunity, I didn’t see them scoring. I think we all could’ve done better on that last opportunity, we could’ve slowed the game down. But we’ve got to learn from that, it’s a great time to learn from that.”
Washington (10-8-5), which has come a long way since its last-place finish a year ago, currently sits in third place in the league standings with 35 points. Portland Thorns FC (33 points) and Chicago Red Stars (31) are not far behind. The Spirit are still in position to clinch a playoff berth but they will need to win their season finale next Saturday against the Sky Blue FC in a game scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
Washington’s last outing against the New York/New Jersey-based team did not go well — Sky Blue won 4-2 — but Spirit coach Mark Parsons praised his team’s ability to get a job done when most necessary.
“We keep saying, we’re our best when we have to do something, when we have to win,” Parsons said. “It will be no different against a hot, on-form Sky Blue. Our motivation is really high and we’ve been strong at home recently. Even if we won [Saturday night] going home and winning against the Sky Blue would’ve been just as high a priority and focus.”
Seattle is a team ripe with starpower, Parsons said. From notoriously stingy Hope Solo in goal to experienced U.S. Women’s National Team defender Stephanie Cox, from midfielders Little and Welsh international Fishlock to the offensive third with Japanese international Nahomi Kawasumi and American stars Megan Rapinoe and Sydney Leroux, Seattle is strong in every area of the field. But the Reign, which has outscored its opponents 50-19 in 2014, has also seemed to bring out some of Washington’s best, Parsons said, as the Spirit have hung with and even controlled play against Seattle at times this seaosn.
With the regular season title and the No. 1 seed in upcoming playoffs shored up, Seattle had very little riding on Saturday’s contest, except for pride and an undefeated streak at home. Little and Kawasumi, therefore, started the game on the bench — Seattle had also just played three days earlier — and Washington took advantage.
The Spirit pressured Seattle’s backline and midfield and didn’t allow the Reign the space they’re used to playing with. Though Seattle had a couple looks at a goal in the first half, it was Washington that struck first in the 29th minute when Canadian National Team midfielder Diana Matheson finished a pass from Australian international Lisa De Vanna inside the far post.
Kawasumi came off the bench in the 46th minute and Little in the 68th and their entries changed the complexion of the game. Seattle outshot Washington, 11-4, Saturday, though only 4-2 in shots on goal. Parsons said he was pleased with the way the Spirit held its shape defensively and remained disciplined under the pressure to maintain their advantage. It took nearly perfect play to ruin Washington’s chances of clinching a playoff berth. It was Little’s first goal against the Spirit.
“In our previous two games I think we’ve done a good job with Kim Little, she hadn’t had too many opportunities against us,” Parsons said. “But you take a fresh Kim Little when we’re on a road trip on the West Coast, dealing with jet lag [we just got in the day before] and she is tough to deal with.”