Soccer

Espindola's return leads United past Whitecaps

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Espindola's return leads United past Whitecaps

It made sense. Fabian Espindola returned to the DC United lineup from a six-game MLS suspension and the Black and Red crafted a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps FC that reflected his qualities.

With a mixture of resilience, skill, and determination United earned its first ever victory in Vancouver. Down 1-0 after just 70 seconds, United responded with a goal on header from Bobby Boswell in the 9th minute and a rocket from Chris Rolfe at the top of the penalty area in the 64th minute to secure the three points.

Already missing first choice goalkeeper Bill Hamid to a thigh contusion, United lost Andrew Dykstra in the second half to an apparent ankle injury.  Travis Worra played the final 32 minutes in goal, made one save, and organized a defense that was under siege from a Whitecaps team desperate to claim at least a point form the home match.

Conclusions

1.  Fabian Espindola doesn’t have to score to have an impact. Espindola’s presence on the field preoccupied the Whitecaps defense and opened up spaces for other players in United’s attack. Several times Espindola forced turnovers and unsettled situations that turned into goal scoring opportunities. In addition Espindola’s committed play forced Matias Laba into two first half yellow cards and reduced Vancouver to ten men for the final 48 minutes.

2. Chris Rolfe continues to impress. It could be argued that Rolfe has been United’s most consistently dangerous attacking player all season. On Saturday Rolfe’s game winner was a result of invention perseverance. Rolfe skillfully played a through ball to Chris Pontius at the top of the penalty area, but it was tackled away by the Whitecaps defender Steve Beitashour. Rolfe stayed with the play and blasted the loose ball home for his second goal in as many weeks. Rolfe can play wide and against the Whitecaps he was asked to play below Espindola in the middle.  It doesn’t matter where Rolfe plays, he makes a difference.

3. United has options in midfield. With Davy Arnaud sidelined by a groin injury Michael Farfan slotted in the center of the midfield next to Perry Kitchen. Farfan, who has started games on the flank, looked more than comfortable in the middle of the park. In addition to assisting on the first goal and providing probing passes, Farfan was also effective in disrupting Whitecaps counterattacks.

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Spirit look to build on World Cup momentum with full roster

Spirit look to build on World Cup momentum with full roster

After a whirlwind month of June amid the fervor of the World Cup, the Washington Spirit have reloaded with every World Cup player ready to play against Sky Blue in New Jersey on Wednesday.

Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh, Chloe Logarzo, Amy Harrison, Elise Kellond-Knight and Cheyna Matthews are hoping their successes big and small will carry over from their World Cup experiences to make the NWSL have a larger impact in the coming years.

“Hopefully people come and watch it, take their first glimpse and realize that it’s not all mayonnaise in this league it’s a pretty good product,” head coach Richie Burke said. 

Part of that starts with more media coverage, including the new deal the NWSL signed with ESPN to carry games on their network. The league had a deal with Yahoo! Sports and NBC Sports Washington announced a broadcast deal with Monumental Sports Network and the team in January ahead of the World Cup.

"In the NWSL it’s been frustrating because you have those same players that you saw in the World Cup, they’re all here, not all of them, but a large majority are here. So it’s kind of like why are people not engaging with it?" said captain Andi Sullivan said.

For the Spirit, the ESPN deal was validation that the sport was growing.

“I think it’s been frustrating that sometimes, you turn on ESPN and there’s like corn hole or cricket," Pugh noted. "Everyone is saying how great and competitive this league is and I think people just need to see that and now that we have the option and they actually can do that it’s absolutely amazing.”

“I’m actually shocked that there hasn’t been a broadcast deal [with ESPN],” Australian national Chloe Logarzo said. “It should’ve happened a really long time ago.”

ESPN will carry the Sprit's game against the Houston Dash on Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. and it will air on ESPN2. NBC Sports Washington will carry the Spirit's remaining home games through Sept. 28 when they take on Reign FC.

That media coverage also includes print and online mediums showing up to games after the first-week post World Cup spike that every NWSL team experienced.

“Part of what will continue to grow this is to have more media coverage forever,” Chief Marketing Officer Gretchen Hamm said.

“It can’t just be a once every four years kind of thing or once every two years kind of thing," Logarzo noted. "It just needs to keep rolling.”

In addition to the media deal, most of the international players hope that the exposure helps force their federations and FIFA to invest more, and hopefully help them reach equal pay.

“The first step is taking the first step,” said Jamaican national Cheyna Matthews. Matthews hopes the Reggae Girlz first appearance in the World Cup, coupled with the success of other CONCACAF teams, will “put pressure on the JFF (Jamaican Football Federation) not only to talk about the things they want to do for us but make those things happen.” 

“The argument and the discussion [for equal pay] started before World Cup,” said recent acquisition Elise Kellond-Knight. “I’m a part of our player's union back in Australia, the PFA (Professional Footballers Australia), and we actually put a legal case together." 

The union called on FIFA to expand the player payment pool from $30 million to $57 million. "There’s actually some grounds here to what’s going on that the percentage increase for the females wasn’t anywhere near what the males have received for their World Cup," Kellond-Knight said.

Spirit ownership have noted that disparity and owner Steve Baldwin helped bring in sponsorship deals, including one with local insurance giant GEICO.

“He (Baldwin) feels that they are underpaid, under-recognized, under-appreciated and he’s doing everything within his power to change that,” Burke said. “I’ve been involved in football for a long time and lot of different levels and never known an ownership group or executive branch to be so committed to a team.” 

 “All the people who are working for us now are saying ‘this is the bare minimum now and we’re gonna push this so far,”” Sullivan said.

Eventually, the hope is that this iteration of a professional women's soccer league will last.

"I think that the engagement will stay and I think having all these international players with such great play such great character such great stories, I think that that is what will resonate with the community,” Sullivan said.

After meeting another Rose Lavelle, the Spirit's Lavelle hopes that people will cheer on the younger Lavelle in the NWSL in years to come.

“Hopefully little Rose Lavelle will come up and everyone will forget about old Rose Lavelle,” Lavelle noted.

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On a night celebrating women’s soccer, a tale of two Rose Lavelles

On a night celebrating women’s soccer, a tale of two Rose Lavelles

Rose Lavelle met the future of American soccer. Her name is Rose Lavelle.

Two Roses convened on the field Saturday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds - one a celebrity at age 24 after helping the United States women’s national team to a World Cup title this month, the other a seven-year-old girl who shares a name and a love for soccer with her favorite player. 

A National Women’s Soccer League match between the Washington Spirit and the Houston Dash brought the Rose Lavelles together. It’s one of the two big questions facing women’s soccer in the United States: Can the nine-team NWSL become a viable league after two of its predecessors failed? And will the women’s national team players prevail in their lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body and their primary employer, demanding equal pay and an end to what they call institutionalized gender discrimination? 

One of those issues will be decided in a courtroom, the other on nights just like this one when an announced sellout crowd of 5,500 fans showed up to watch nine players who played for their countries in the recent World Cup in France. It would have been 10, but Lavelle’s hamstring injury kept her on the bench.

If the crowd was disappointed, it didn’t show. Despite withering heat that pushed the game time back an hour to 8 p.m. and never relented, fans banged drums, waved flags and cheered for Lavelle as she worked with a team trainer before the game. Not even an hour-long lightning delay at halftime dampened the mood. Many fans returned from the safety of their cars to finish watching a game that didn’t end until 11 p.m. 

Everywhere you looked there were young girls in the crowd wearing Spirit and national team jerseys. Sometimes it was their dads who bought the merchandise. 

Juan Reyes sported a blue and grey “Lavelle” t-shirt bought online moments after she scored in the World Cup final against the Netherlands while his eight-year-old daughter, Sia, admitted her favorite player is actually Alex Morgan, the long-time United States national team star who plays for the NWSL’s Orlando Pride. 

This was their first Spirit game, a short drive from their home in Montgomery Village. Sia is playing club soccer for the first time this year. On the drive up father and daughter even talked about the pay disparity issue. 

“The boys weren’t even chosen for the World Cup!” Sia Reyes said. “And they still get more money.”

“It’s a very important subject and it’s a great way to broach that subject,” Juan Reyes said. “We want to come out and support the league. Buy the shirts, get the hats, get the interest going.” 

Lavelle will be the Spirit’s star attraction when she returns. A relative unknown to casual fans before the World Cup began in June, Lavelle became a household name during it. She scored a goal in the 69th minute of the final against the Netherlands to give the United States a 2-0 lead. That ripper of a left-footed shot, after an electric run from just inside midfield, ended any hope of an upset and ensured the United States’ fourth World Cup title. 

Lavelle scored three goals in the tournament and did wonderful work as a central midfielder. At 5-foot-4, she’s not an imposing physical presence. She wins with exquisite skill and footwork and by thinking a few steps ahead of most everyone else on the field. That style of play quickly turned her into a fan favorite. 

On Thursday, Lavelle was honored at halftime of an MLS game in her hometown of Cincinnati. On Friday, hundreds packed downtown Fountain Square to celebrate her achievement and she received a key to the city and the day named in her honor. It’s been a whirlwind since returning from France a World Cup champion. 

Sitting on a blanket with her parents on the grassy hill behind one of the SoccerPlex nets, seven-year-old Rose Lavelle was entranced. She wore a red and black striped Spirit jersey with her name stitched on the back. It didn’t matter that the other Rose wasn’t playing. 

Asked if she wanted to take part in a postgame ceremony honoring the five Spirit players just back from the World Cup, she beamed. 

“Can I?” Rose Lavelle said, not quite believing. Minutes later, after a 2-1 Washington loss, she and her father, Shawn, walked onto the field with a bouquet of flowers in hand to present to the players. 

You could be skeptical about Saturday night. The U.S. women’s national team captivated the country in 1999 when it won the World Cup with a roster full of legends, but 20 years later we’re on a third professional league that has made a limited impact in seven seasons.

In a country infused with cynicism, smothered by it, it’s always easier to just assume the worst. Next year the women will make another splash at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. But will the sport retreat again until the next World Cup comes around? Will the NWSL struggle to draw crowds and television exposure? Will a court victory only create a caste system between the haves on the national team and the have-nots left off it? 

The NWSL has already lasted longer than the first two professional women’s soccer leagues combined. After the World Cup, ESPN picked up 14 games to broadcast nationally. Budweiser announced a multi-year sponsorship. The true test is replicating nights like this in cities across the country, expanding that base of support, not rebuilding it every four years. But the world we inhabit so rarely exists as we’d want it to. And, yes, the cynics are sometimes right. 

But see little Rose jump up and down when she’s told she can go onto the field to meet her namesake. Hear her say “I’m a brave girl” when asked if she’ll be nervous. “I didn’t even cry for my flu shot.”

And she will be brave. She will accidentally be called up to hand her flowers to a different player than expected and, for a moment, it looks like the Roses will not meet after all. 

The ceremony ends and Big Rose is pulled in different directions, quickly signing a few autographs for the kids on the field before she must attend other duties. Little Rose waits her turn patiently, holding a folded program, expectant, hopeful, as the adults around her fret that a major disappointment is coming. But then Rose Lavelle sees the young girl, smiles broadly and bends to greet her. 

“My name is Rose Lavelle,” the child says without hesitation because she is brave.  

NBC Sports Washington’s Anna Witte contributed to this story.