In my new weekly series, I will be highlighting a player each week from the National Women’s Soccer League who was their respective team’s unsung hero, win or lose. A player who does the dirty work, does the little but important things in a game and someone who didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet but found other ways to contribute.
This week I’ve chosen Washington Spirit defender Estelle Johnson.
Johnson has been with the club since 2015 and has since become a crucial contributor not only to the backline, but to the team as a whole. In her two years, she has started 32 games out of 33 she appeared in. The 28-year-old was shown just how much she means to the Spirit when they signed her to a new contract in March of this year.
This past weekend, Washington played a hard-fought battle with Houston, ending in a 1-0 defeat. While some would see just another loss on the scoreboard, I saw a bounce back game from the team, and a quietly impressive performance from Johnson. She had the tall task of keeping three extremely dynamic players in check: Rachel Daly, Kealia Ohai, and Janine Beckie. Now, I’m not saying she was mistake-free, as Ohai did manage to grab a goal in the 28th minute for the win, but without a doubt Johnson was one of the biggest reasons her team stayed in the game for as long as they did. The goal certainly doesn’t take away the effort by Johnson.
Throughout the game, Johnson showed her veteran leadership by constantly communicating with her fellow defenders Shelina Zadorsky and Whitney Church in the suddenly-popular 3-5-2 formation. Her patience played a big role in dealing with the Houston attack, with one example coming in the 47th minute when Houston initiated a promising attack through Ohai, which was then squashed by one hell of a tackle from Johnson. It’s one thing just to track down Ohai, but Johnson did more, she closed down the window of opportunity and preventing her opponent from taking a shot or sending in service. Against a player like Ohai, getting beat occasionally is inevitable. Where Johnson shined was in her ability to make crucial recoveries down the right side, keeping the opponent contained while her team got organized.
Johnson also was working hard to get the ball for her team, forcing several turnovers throughout the game and earning key possession opportunities. A prime example of this came in the 52nd minute when Johnson managed to block a powerful shot by Daly just outside the eighteen. In doing so, Washington grabbed possession and stopped any serious momentum from Houston. Johnson was linking up well with her midfield, even taking the opportunity to get into the offensive third when she saw fit. She created a chance in the 62nd minute when she slotted a neat pass to Francisca Ordega who in turn found Arielle Ship which resulted in a corner for the Spirit. Creating out of the back is an underrated quality in this league and Johnson showed how good she was at it on the night. Washington had nine shots, with Johnson taking one of those. As a team, the Spirit put just one shot on target, showing that they’ll need all the help they can get from the back.
Johnson hustled all night and played one solid game in my opinion and while her team did lose (by a narrow margin at that), her individual performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Estelle Johnson is my unsung hero for Week 3 and if Washington want a chance at being near the top of the table come September, Johnson will need to play like this for much of the season.