Emotions were running high for the Washington Spirit in Saturday evening’s 1-0 loss to visiting New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC in the team’s National Women’s Soccer League season finale, played in front of 4,282 spectators at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
One year removed from a last-place finish, Washington entered the match in control of its own playoff chances — a win Saturday would’ve clinched the team a spot in the league’s top 4. A loss, however, could have marked the final NWSL appearance for midfielder Lori Lindsey, beloved by soccer fans nationwide, who announced her plans to retire on Thursday.
With so much to play for, however, Washington struggled to find its rhythm Saturday. But with a little help from the Chicago Red Stars and their tie with Western New York Saturday, the Spirit will make its NWSL playoff debut next weekend. Tournament semifinals are scheduled for Aug. 23 and 24 and should be televised by the ESPN networks.
Washington (10-9-5) currently sits in third place. Wins from both Chicago and fifth-place Portland Thorns FC (33 points) in their respective regular season finales would have knocked Washington out of playoff contention. Chicago is tied with Washington with 35 points but the Spirit own the season series head-to-head, 3-0.
Lindsey, who was drafted by current Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra to play for the Washington Freedom in 2003 and was also with the team from 2006-09, was honored in a post-game presentation Saturday that included video messages from friends, family and teammates past and present. Lindsey is a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team player pool and was with the squad during the 2011 World Cup and was named an alternate to the 2012 Olympic team.
“If anything [the emotions] helped us,” Spirit and USWNT defender Ali Krieger said. “We really came out confident, we wanted to play for [Lindsey] and end this game with a win. We were fighting not only for ourselves and each other, but for her and to end on a good note. But [Saturday] wasn’t our day. It happens. It didn’t go our way. ... I know we’ve had our ups and downs but we’ve really worked hard at the end of the season to clinch that spot and I think we deserve [to be in playoffs].”
Both teams had chances to score early but Sky Blue’s consistent pressure finally broke the Spirit backline in the 27th minute. Forward Monica Ocampo settled an attempted clear to place the ball just inside the left post and give the New Jersey team a 1-0 lead..
In between its struggles to link in the midfield, Washington did show glimpses of what got it into playoff contention. The Spirit had several opportunities to tie the game — Sky Blue only outshot Washington, 9-8, and both teams had three shots on goal — and even go ahead. The best opportunity came in the 40th minute when speedy forward Lisa De Vanna stripped Sky Blue’s goalie, Jillian Loyden, of the ball and had a completely open net. But her initial touch on the ball was too strong and the it rolled out of bounds before she could get a shot off.
USWNT defender Christie Rampone also stifled several attempts made by crafty Canadian National Team midfielder Diana Matheson into open space up top. Washington was playing without starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who has been sidelined with concussion symptoms for nearly two weeks, and leading scorer Jodie Taylor, who was away on English National Team duty.
“I think just good soccer [is the reason we do well against Washington],” Rampone said. “We play better against teams that want to put the ball down and play. They have a great midfield and swing the ball and their speed of play is better so we match up well against them. Our counter was on tonight and we were able to stretch them. We got a nice goal in the first half and then defended more than we wanted but that’s the game of soccer.”
Saturday certainly didn’t go as Washington had planned but Krieger said it’s now important for the team to recover and set itself up for the postseason — the Spirit have had some success against the top two seeds, Seattle and FC Kansas City.
“We came out confident and collective and, you know, we just didn’t get the result we wanted,” Krieger said. “We couldn’t find the net [Saturday], we had a handful of chances and couldn’t put them away. There was just a little bit of urgency, we gave too many passes away, including myself. It just didn’t go our way. ... Now we just really want to get the job done in the next games of the season, in playoffs.”