The discussion of sports often involves a qualitative look at the stats of a game. The discussion normally consists of comparing the two competitors and then determining how the winner walked away with the victory. Sometimes the word “deserved” is thrown around. Sometimes one team is considered “unlucky” as they probably should have won but instead found themselves on the losing end.
Other times instead of focusing on the statistics of a team, there is a focus on the stats of a player. Is the star player playing up to their talent? Did someone unexpected step up for their team? Or even questioning if the team is lacking some kind of player they need to fill a specific role.
However, no matter how much data we crunch, a better picture is painted when we look at the human element of sports. Sometimes overplayed but nonetheless important, the idea of the narrative is inserted into discussion about sports on a daily basis. Perhaps there is a storyline about a team that is looking to prove themselves, or a team, that has lead an unprecedented turn around.
Narratives, like the aforementioned statistics, can also focus in on a single player as events in their lives motivate or tear down their performances. And maybe that player is having a break out or record season that can factor in to the narrative as well.
There were many of these team and player narratives that surrounded the W-League Grand Finale when the Perth Glory took the field against Canberra United this weekend.
The Perth Glory had a rough W-League season last year. But after a total rebuild in the off-season that included several marquee signings, they dominated the league all season. Perth entered the Grand Final having won their first ever piece of W-League hardware in team history, winning the Premiership and were looking for the double.
The big signings for Perth this season showed no problems gelling quickly and getting wins. Perth’s high-flying offense scored the most goals in a single season with Sam Kerr, Kate Gill and Caitlin Foord leading the way. Among them, Gill, a long-time Perth standout, had an excellent regular season, winning the golden boot in the process.
But even with all that offense, Perth’s defense stood strong all season long. Veteran Alanna Kennedy has put in several stellar performances and young goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold helped Perth post the best defensive record in the league.
However, heading into the finale Perth was without one of its biggest signings from the off-season and one of its most consistent players all season long in Sam Kerr. Kerr was out with a knee injury and missed both the semifinals and the Grand Finale. Also, Elisa D’Ovidio announced that she would retire from soccer after the Final, having played with Perth since the club began operations in 2008.
The Premiership was in the hands of Canberra United last season but they were inconsistent during the 2014 regular season. They just barely made the playoffs and advanced to the Grand Finale in dramatic fashion, defeating Melbourne in the semifinal in penalty kicks.
Canberra had just as much star power in their lineup as Perth as they returned several key players from their Premiership title just last season. Despite their “hit-or-miss” ability to finish chances this year, it can’t be denied that Canberra’s attacking options of Michelle Heyman, Stephanie Ochs, and Ashleigh Sykes weren’t up to snuff. Sykes stepped up for Canberra all season long offensively and scored clutch goals when needed, including a stunning volley against Perth in the final round of the regular season to get Canberra in the playoffs.
Defensively, Canberra was lead all year long by Caitlin Munoz. The defender has kept things calm in the back, and done an excellent job of communicating with ‘keeper Chantel Jones. The new Western New York Flash goalkeeper came up big for Canberra a few times in the regular season, including saving a penalty in the before mentioned semifinal penalty kick shootout win over Melbourne.
When these two teams kicked off the Grand Final, all of those narratives came into play. Stephanie Ochs opened up the scoring midway through the first half, which came as little surprise as the striker has been one of the go-to sources for Canberra’s offense this season
The equalizer for Perth didn’t come from one of their headline strikers but came from their captain, Collette McCallum. The veteran Matilda has quietly had an excellent season in the midfield for Perth and was an influential player in this contest. Her strike came in the middle portion of the second half as she hit a curling left-footed free kick from outside the box to the far post and seemed to give Perth some momentum.
Chantel Jones had several big saves in this match and none were bigger than her penalty kick save on Kate Gill in the last ten minutes. If Gill converted her spot kick, it would have leveled the game after the one-and-only Ashleigh Sykes gave Canberra a 2-1 lead a few minutes before the saved penalty. And moments after Jones stopped Gill’s penalty, Sykes struck again to give herself a brace on the afternoon and her team a two-goal lead.
Sykes went on a tear in the 2014 W-League season. While a lot of people would have penned the previously mentioned Ochs or Michelle Heyman to shoulder the offense for Canberra this season, Sykes showed the ability to score clutch goals and that showed as she led her team to their second W-League title in club history.
With all of these story lines, and all of the build up to this match, one could have a hard time focusing in on just one story to tell. I think that focus should lie on Lori Lindsey. The midfielder announced her retirement from competitive soccer before heading to this W-League season and played the last few W-League contests as if they were her last, and gave herself a chance to leave the sport of soccer as a champion.
That seems to be one of the token sports narratives. Depending on the timing of when a player announces their retirement, there is always a opportunity for that to be a motivator for their team to help that player retire at the top of the game.
When this happens successfully, it’s often hard to root against. Several of the 1999 US Women’s National Team players got the chance to do this, taking gold at the 2004 Olympic games and singing an unforgettable rendition of the national anthem on the Olympic Podium before stepping away from it all. Or just recently with Landon Donovan, winning one last MLS Cup in his last MLS season.
However just because you have a good storyline doesn’t mean you’re going to just be handed the championship trophy. Going back to the recent MLS playoffs, take Thierry Henry for example. While he announced his retirement after the Red Bulls playoff loss, it was still understood heading into the post season that this was probably his last.
Even Lori Lindsey experienced this firsthand, helping the Washington Spirit to the playoffs for the first time in club history, but did not reach the NWSL Championship match as the Spirit fell in the semi-finals. But with Canberra, Lindsey was handed another chance to leave the game as number one.
The midfielder has never really been the flashiest player. In her professional career, Lindsey has usually been the one to hold down the midfield and help distribute to others. But if a scoring chance happened to fall to her feet, make no mistake that Lindsey could finish it.
On and off the field she’s been an inspiration, and she’s always given off the vibe that she absolutely loves what she does. When it comes to women’s soccer, where success and stability can be hard to come by, that love of the game is essentially a job requirement. A requirement that Lindsey filled seemingly each and every time she played.
Like many of her performances before, Lindsey didn’t blow up the stat sheet in the Grand Finale. The glory for that will go to Ashleigh Sykes for once again providing clutch goals for Canberra. However for 91 minutes as Lindsey was subbed out in stoppage time, she put in a consistent performance and played a key role in helping her team turn their “unfinished business” into a W-League championship.
As I said earlier, seeing a fantastic player get to leave the game as a champion is often incredibly satisfying to sit back and watch. This reigns true for Lindsey in all regards. As a player that the spotlight often missed, the spotlight is fully on her right now. So for one last time, thank you for everything Lightning.