The matchup could write itself; the two bottom teams last year are now this season's top dogs and are relishing their new roles in the league. Both teams are filled with young players and veteran national team experience. Where to start with this one both teams have dangerous players at every third on the pitch. I guess we should start with the away team from NY/NJ, Gotham has truly been this year's shock-and-awe campaign, let's start with their head coach Juan Carlos Amoros. The man was doubted by many in the league and media as being the right man for the job, however, the Madrid, Spain native has proven his high pressure in the midfield along with a low box mixture is just the formula this side needed to disrupt the league's hierarchy. While his track record shows early success, followed by failure, this time around it seems he has taken his licks, and turned them into gold with Gotham. He came in with the attitude that this team would be the team to beat, he has kept this team on track letting them know they started low but have improved, don't believe the hype is the message, stay focused and we will hit that top tier level we know that we can. To Juan and his team they're not underdogs they're the top-tier bad dawgs that everyone should fear playing. This team has been dynamic, but the scary thing is Juan is right this team hasn't hit its peak yet. That definitely should worry other teams in the league. Ironically his opponent today shares the same mindset and philosophies to coaching. Mark Parson's team like Gotham has put the league on notice early and he reminds them as well not to buy into the hype, keep focus and greatness will come. We will get more into Mark in a bit, now let us look at the goalkeepers for Gotham FC, and talk about a group that didn't come in with high expectations from the league or media (Abby Smith, Michele Betos, and Mandy Haught) The trio has combined this season for 4 clean sheets including the Challenger Cup. In 8 games the keepers have conceded just 7 goals in regular season action. The two losses this season have shown some holes, but we've seen Juan adapt and adjust to close those holes fast in his team's game. Abby Smith has become the front runner in goal this season, she has played 630 minutes, 3 clean sheets, and has allowed 6 goals in her 7 appearances. The truth is this team could play any of the three keepers and be in a good position to win the match. The next group of talent is the backline, led by players like Bruninha, Kristen Edmonds, Ali Krieger, Taylor Smith, Kelly O'Hara, and others who have pitched in like Taylor to fill in the gaps right now. The midfield is filled with talent as well with Ali Long, Kristy Mewis, Sinead Farrelly, Nealy Martin, Delanie Sheehan, and more. Then you have the forwards with team-leading goal scorer Lynn "Bats" William, Jenna Nighswonger a rookie out of FSU, and Taylor Smith, yes folks she is everywhere, and it's scary how good she is at every spot Juan calls on her to play.
Now for the home side Washington Spirit, we touched on the man in charge Mark Parsons, but we need to dive deeper into him. He hails from Cranleigh, England, and was a former player himself. He knows what it takes to be successful on the pitch, he also knows players need some protection from the media and pundits alike. He is the first to let you know when you ask about player injuries that he will keep it brief so that he doesn't give false information on their status or mention the wrong part that is injured. He will give you timetables of moving along well, on the right path, may see soon, looking good from what he has been told. You rarely will catch him off guard, and get him to go outside his comfort zone with injuries. As mentioned earlier he demands the best each game like Juan does and they both keep the hype reined in to keep the team on task and focused for the next challenge. Both have their teams closing in on that 10/10 but if you asked them today, they would say a 6 maybe a 6.5 if they're feeling extra chipper. That is extremely scary given what the sides have done this season. Going from the league's jokes to the league's top dawgs quickly. The players for Washington we will start like we did with Gotham with the goalkeepers Aubrey Kingsbury has been the rock for this team in the back, she has kept the backline in order and also has 3 clean sheets like Abby Smith for Gotham. The other two keepers haven't seen time during the season so far, unlike Gotham who has played all 3 so far. The next up is the defense, which you have to start with Sam Stabb, Amber Brooks, and Gabrielle Carle. The midfield is stacked with Dorian Bailey, Madison Elwell, Ines Jaurena, Paige Metayer, Chloe Ricketts (15 years old), Marissa Sheva, and Andi Sullivan. The deadliest part of the Spirit features Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch aka Hatchy, and Ashley Sanchez the trio has given the league fits this season. So now that both teams have been broken down, what does it all mean, it simply means this game will be an all-out battle, you couldn't ask for a better game on Memorial Day Weekend. Having covered both teams all season, I can say this neither side will go down without a fight. These two teams are built similarly all the way up to the coaches in charge. It will be a great chess match between Mark and Juan.
As you can see both teams are loaded and prepared for this battle, O'Hara will be out for Gotham and Chloe Ricketts for the Spirit. So far thru 10' we have seen what was expected two tough teams battling and unwilling to cave anywhere on the pitch. Eli Jean spoils the Spirit's best run of the match so far when Rodman tried to find Hatch and Sanchez in the box. The trio is starting to find space behind Gotham's left wing where Rodman is feasting right now sending in multiple dangerous balls the last one in the 13' found Tara McKeown whose header from the right of the goal and 10 yards out, went just over the crossbar for a goal kick. Yazmen Ryan unleashes a laser from 20 yards out, the center of the box, that goes just over the bar making Kingsbury fully extend, it went just over her fingertips for a goal kick in the 19'.
Goal Gotham FC in the 23' Bruninha found space top of the box center going from center to right, sending a bender into the upper 90 for the go-ahead goal. Kingsbury did all she could to stop it, but it had eyes for the net and wouldn't be denied. The goal was assisted by Taylor Smith, Gotham's utility player who can do it all for the club.
With Gotham FC up one goal in the middle of the first half, Trinity goes marching downfield and just misses Hatch with the cross, Abby Smith scoops it and starts the counterattack. Then in the 26' Trinity gets past the Krieger and Abby is caught in no man's land but Eli Jean is there to kick it out for a throw before Rodman could get to the loose ball. With the high-powered offense on both sides of the ball for these squads this match is far from over. The fans start to run for cover in the 36' as the rain starts to fall at a moderate pace. In the 40' the Spirit has revved up the pressure on Gotham, but the backline continues to withstand the attacks. The center referee ended the half at the 45'+2' mark.
Both sides have put on a show today for the fans in the arena and at home on television this Memorial Day Weekend. Expect more fireworks in the second half, these two highly skilled teams won't just sit back and settle at all. Would be shocked to see half-time substitutions with everyone doing their part so far. No one has been off the pace today, Hatchy may be the only one to keep an eye on with her foot/ankle.
The second half starts with a missile from Ashley Sanchez, about 25 yards from the goal, center of the box. Abby made a solid diving save to keep her side ahead in the match. Gotham for the moment takes a 2 - 0 lead in the 56' after Jenna Nighswonger finds Yazmeen Ryan in the box who headed it home from 7 yards out. VAR tells the center to have a look at the play. The goal is waved off for a handling offense around the 30-yard mark. Both keepers make big saves following the goal reversal keeping the match at 1 - 0 for Gotham FC. Gotham was the first team to defeat the Spirit this season during the Challenge Cup. Jenna Nighswonger gets issued a yellow card for her foul 35 yards right of the 2nd post of the goal. A dangerous ball played in on the free kick, but Abby manages to get to it first putting out any chance of a tying goal. We're now 64' minutes into the match and it's still 1-0, Mark is in an interesting position, it is still early in the match, but time is running out for his side. Juan also has some choices to make as the back line is holding but bending more and more. Trinity has a 1 v 1 with Abby Smith, Abby comes out and makes the huge save in the 68', remember that one if Gotham wins today. Goal Spirit in the 69' Ashley Hatch finds Paige Metayer for the header 2nd post and we're all leveled at one apiece. The two sides both make changes in the 74' Gotham brings on I. Onumonu for Yazmeen Ryan, and Ali Long for Jenna Nighswonger who appears injured, the Spirit brings on Marissa Sheva for Paige Metayer and Lena Silano for Ashley Hatch. Martin sacrificed every body part to stop the Rodman run in the box, in the 82' she just smoothers the shot with her entire frame. Gotham has a dangerous free kick 25 yards right of the goal, K Mewis takes it and goes for the far post, just misses the upper 90 of the 2nd post, and is out for a goal kick. Washington makes a sub taking Ashley Sanchez off for Nicole Douglas in the 85'. 86' Gotham makes a sub taking off D. Sheehan and bringing on N. Kawasumi. Onumonu with a dangerous foul in the midfield, which was completely unneeded as Gotham had numbers back. In the final minutes of regulation, Lena had a crack at goal from inside the box unmarked, but she puts the ball wide out of play. In the additional time, it has been all Spirit and Abby has stood tall, putting out the fires. Lynn Williams earns Gotham a late-minute corner kick, which could be the final play of the match, it is cleared out to midfield. The referee says continue play and Lena hits it too hard no way for Rodman to run onto the ball. Another corner chance for Gotham, there can't be much left, and another poor cross by Kawasumi ends the match. We got what we expected from these sides a great match, that ends in a 1 - 1 draw. So now we see Gotham move into first place again and 4 teams (including Washington Spirit) are tied for 2nd place behind Gotham by just 1 point.
PHOTO CREDIT: PEYTON SKEELS (ShePlays and The Matildas)