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Eagles earn first win of 2021 WPSL season in two-match weekend

Columbus finally got a W.

Sheryl Shope, and the Columbus Eagles, split their St. Louis weekend series.
Ralph Schudel - Massive Report

Every sports season has moments of highs and lows, but they often don’t come in the same weekend. Last weekend, the Columbus Eagles made the team’s longest road trip of the season, traveling to St. Louis for two Women’s Premier Soccer League Midwestern Conference matches. It was Columbus’ second of three straight doubleheader weekends, and the first without a home leg.

Before looking ahead to the final doubleheader weekend and last away match for the Eagles, here’s what happened last weekend.

Saturday

Saturday, Columbus faced Fire & Ice SC, who came into the weekend with seven points and a season of mixed results. The Eagles entered the match following two close losses to the Cincinnati Sirens and Lady Victory FC but ended Saturday with a 6-0 loss. Making the weekend difficult was the absence of most Eagles' regular starters who couldn’t make the trip. Included in the 15 Columbus players were five that joined the team specifically for the trip.

The Eagles had their chances in the first half, but with only four minutes until halftime, Fire & Ice scored off a short corner. Forward Olivia Smith sent in the short pass and took the ball right back. Smith dribbled into the corner of the Columbus penalty area and sent in a shot that went over the gloves of leaping Eagles’ goalkeeper Abby Weller. Considering the lack of chemistry in a brand new starting 11, a 1-0 deficit wasn’t a poor first half result. Then the climb got much steeper in the second half.

In the 48th minute, Fire & Ice forward MacKenzie Litzinger added a second. Litzinger corralled a cross into the penalty box and made a quick turn on the ball to hit a shot into the back of the net. Weller had little she could do on either shot. For interim head coach Mark Wise, that moment changed the game.

“That invigorated Fire & Ice and took just a bit out of our sails and that was the difference in the second half,” said Wise. “They played harder, we slipped in our focus and effort and that opened the door. It really shows how, in this league, you must play the full 90 minutes if you want to be competitive.”

Fire & Ice SC added four more before the night was done. Columbus left the game with a match that looked more like their first two of the season where the Eagles were outscored 10-0 and not recent fixtures where Columbus was competitive.

This result hit Wise hard.

“I have to say that as a coach and owner, I was feeling pretty low after that game,” Wise said. “We have been making such progress but not quite getting over the top and this was too much of a setback for me,”

While the setback wasn’t ideal, it didn’t debilitate the team. In fact, the trip brought the group closer.

“We had had some great team time the night before, sharing dinner and a walk-through downtown Belleville, IL in the early afternoon,” said Wise. “Sunday, I did not know what to expect. A second game in 48 hours’ time with fatigue playing a part of the first game’s loss, and it was a hot afternoon.”

What followed was Columbus’ first win of the season.

Sunday

Columbus’ game plan for the first half didn’t change in the second game of the weekend against the St. Louis Lions. The Eagles sat back for the first 10 minutes to analyze their opponent, a strategy that Wise implemented due to the nature of the roster he had available. Instead of tired legs, Columbus brought energy in a 3-2 victory.

Forwards Erin Duffy and Deijah Swihart were a one-two punch that the Lions couldn’t stop. Duffy got on the scoreboard first, slipping through the St. Louis’ backline. Unfortunately, Columbus couldn’t enter halftime with the lead and a defensive lapse gave the Lions a first half equalizer. Going into the second half, especially after Saturday, it would be easy to expect that fatigue would finally kick in, but it didn’t come.

“What I saw, as a coach, was a beautiful thing. Our effort increased in the second half. I am not sure where it came from, but we got a second wind and once again scored on them,” said Wise.

Swihart was Columbus’ second goal scorer, getting behind St. Louis’ backline again and tapping the ball past the Lions’ goalkeeper. The Lions kept fighting back, however, scoring against the Eagles’ makeshift backline.

With 10 minutes left, Wise and Columbus weren’t satisfied with as second draw of the season. Wise moved fullback Sheryl Shope into the attack and asked the Eagles to move into a full press to get the game-winner. Donovan Wahl had the breakthrough in the 89th minute.

“With five minutes of stoppage, we then proceeded to get the ball to the corners and hold it there. I was holding my breath until the final whistle blew,” said Wise. “I cannot say enough about this roster of players. In a very short time, they came together as a team and did an amazing job bringing home our first win.”

What’s Next

Saturday is the Eagles’ final road match of the WPSL season. Columbus travels to Indianapolis for the return match against FC Pride, the third-place team in the Midwestern Conference. The Eagles lost to FC Pride 2-1 on May 29, but travel into Indiana with stronger chemistry and squad depth. FC Pride lost two of its last three games after going undefeated in the team’s first three matches of the season. The kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET.

Columbus faces Fire & Ice SC again on Sunday but this time on home turf at 2 p.m. ET at Capital University’s Bernlohr Stadium. Since it’s a home match, the Eagles will be closer to full strength and able to show the St. Louis team a better performance than the 6-0 loss on the weekend.