Unsung and Unexpected Heroes lead Washington Freedom to 1-0 Victory over Saint Louis
Freedom forward Rebecca Moros (19) and Athletics defender Sara Larsson (4) go up to put a foot on the ball during the Washington Freedom's 1-0 win over the St Louis Athletics at Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington DC on July 18, 2009. Christopher Blunck/DC Sports Box
WASHINGTON, D.C.- In professional sports, heroes come in all shapes and sizes. There are stars and superstars, there are unsung heroes, and then there are men and women like Nicci Wright.
Who is Wright?  She’s not on the Washington Freedom’s roster, although if you dig around in the team media guide you’ll find her eventually.  She’s the goalkeeper coach.  However, after signing a two-day contract with the Freedom earlier in the week (a standard practice for female coaches in the WPS) she also became the team’s fourth string goaltender—the team’s last, best hope in a worst case scenario.
Normally, the thought of being pressed into game action never even approaches Wright’s mind.  “I mean, how often does this happen, to switch a keeper [during the game]?  It doesn’t happen very often,” she questioned after the game.  Even with first-string goalie Erin McLeod on national team duty with the Canadian women’s team and backup Brianna Scurry injured, the Freedom still had Kati Jo Spisak to guard the net Saturday afternoon against the Saint Louis Athletica.
And then, just over ten minutes into the second half with the game tied 0-0, the worst case scenario became a reality.  Spisak came up lame after an innocuous goal kick, and when it became apparent she could barely walk, let alone mind the net, Wright had to scramble to prepare for her first professional action in six years, and first competitive game of any kind in three.
Asked what was going on in her mind as she was about to enter the game in the 64th minute, Wright said, “not much was going in, other than ‘where’s my jersey, where’s my shinguards.’ I had to [borrow] new shinguards, I don’t even own shinguards anymore…it was wild.”
Wright and her teammates can laugh about the absurdity of the situation because Wright pitched a shutout in 26 minutes of action to complement Spisak’s clean slate, while on the other end of the pitch Homare Sawa scored her first goal of the season in the 74th minute to lift the Freedom (5-6-5, 20 points) to a crucial 1-0 victory late in the WPS playoff race.
“You’ve got to win your home games and we’ve let a couple, whether its losses or ties, get away from us,” said Freedom coach Jim Gabarra after the game. Reflecting on the situation with Spisak and Wright, he joked, “it’s a wonderful life if it ends up with us [earning] three points” in the standings.
A tie seemed all but certain after the first half in which the two teams traded fantastic opportunities early and then settled into a lull.  Washington and Saint Louis (7-6-2, 23 points) combined for 17 shots in the half, but only one, a header by Athletica’s Niki Cross, was on net.  Cross, a converted defender playing striker Saturday afternoon, had an even better chance earlier when she took a pass at the top of the penalty area and bore down on Spisak.  The goalkeeper dove at the ball and missed, but her extended arms caused Cross to stumble.  The Athletica player regained her balance and managed a low angle shot that hit the outside of the net.
Wright’s entry early in the second half inspired her teammate’s renewed efforts, both in terms of increased offensive urgency and stronger defensive play.  Forward Lisa De Vanna admitted to picking up her pace on both ends of play when she realized who would be her new goalie.
“I was joking around [before the game], I said ‘You know what would be so funny, if something happened to KJ [Spisak] and Nicci comes in,’ and when I saw her I was like ‘Are you serious?,’ you wouldn’t that something could happen for her to come in and I was just laughing and thinking, ‘Man I hope they don’t score on her because she’d feel really [bad].”
Gabarra added, “maybe everybody else on the field realized and they defended a little bit…harder.”
Saint Louis tested Wright immediately on a long shot by Angie Woznuk, and then in the 75th minute the goalie misjudged a pass and put the ball directly on the feet of Athletica forward Eniola Aluko, who put a low shot immediately back into Wright’s chest.
Wright was still shaking her head about the turnover in the post-game press conference, but allowed that the ensuing save was very important for her, saying, “I think for any keeper in a big game…you get that first save, you’re [thinking] of ‘alright, I’m fine.’”
While Wright, Gabarra and De Vanna joked after the game about their prescient statements, Sawa revealed through a translator that she too had predicted her on-field success.
Coming in to Saturday Sawa was one of only three Freedom players to play in every minute of every game of the season but had yet to score on any of her 23 shots.  However, with both teams missing several players to national team duty, she sensed the opportunity to step up her game.
“I emailed Abby [Wambach], Cat [Whitehill], and Erin [McLeod] before the game and I promised I would get the score and the win,” said Sawa.  True to her word, in the 74th minute the Japanese midfielder pounced on a poor pass by an Athletica player inside the penalty area and dashed toward the net.
She looked first to the front of the net to pass, but seeing no one open, Sawa decided to take the shot herself.  “If you don’t shoot we can’t have a score, and I just decided to [shoot],” she said.  Her low attempt was angled well by Saint Louis goalie Jillian Loyden but defender Kia McNeill, attempting to knock the ball over the end line, deflected it past Loyden and just inside the near post.
“Just the one goal was very [important] and it means a lot to me” beamed Sawa, a two-time Olympian and World Cup player for the Japanese national team who was Washington’s first-round pick in the 2009 International Draft.
With the win, the Freedom made up ground on Saint Louis, who remains in second place in WPS with 23 points.  Washington now sits in fourth place, the final playoff spot, with 20 points, though Gabarra was clear that his sights are set higher.  “Fourth place is…not really a place you’re going to likely win a championship, I believe we could do it but we’ve got to look to get to second or third place.”  Overtaking the first-place Los Angeles Sol (11-2-4, 37 points) is mathematically impossible for any other WPS team, but second or third place would guarantee one home game in the four-team playoffs.
Washington has an eight-day layoff before traveling to Chicago on Sunday, July 26 to take on the sixth place Chicago Red Stars at 4 pm.