Even short-handed, the Spirit looked like a bona fide NWSL powerhouse last weekend
The Washington Spirit have found NJ/NY Gotham FC to be a very pesky foe over the last couple of seasons, so last weekend’s 3-1 win felt more than a little cathartic. Between the recent social media banter and (more importantly) several straight aggravating results against Gotham, it felt like the Spirit brought a little extra motivation to the table than their normally high level.
There’s plenty to discuss from this one, so I (this is Jason, and I’ve been busy!) did some standings math, André got into the goals, cellys, and the idea of what U can accept, and we both accepted that we are washed:
U can accept three goals
The Twitter drama that went down after these teams last played added an additional element of intrigue to the rematch, which was held away at Red Bull Arena, on a good playing surface. Ashlyn Harris, the first Gotham player to kick the round of ill-advised tweets off, picked the ball out of the net three times — twice from Trinity Rodman shots, once after an Ashley Sanchez free kick left her rooted to her spot.
To Rodman’s credit, she noted postgame that while Twitter comments get fans involved and adds to the spectacle, it didn’t change her approach to the game. This is evident in the types of goals she scored, both from well-timed runs to meet service rather than her winning a 1v1 and firing the ball at goal.
The Twitter stuff made it fun online to follow Rodman and Sanchez seemingly “making a point” (I admit, I did my own tweeting to this effect). In reality they’re two generational talents who possess both still unknown peaks and already the ability to take over a game. Speaking postgame to Kris Ward, we asked what it’s like to manage two players in this rare space.
“It’s just continuing to look at who they are and what they need at different points in time,” explained Ward. He also noted that for where each are in their development, it’s important to keep lines of communication a two-way street. Sanchez and Rodman have responded by being fully engaged in video sessions and game-planning for opponents, which was a contrast to the previous coach/player dynamic. “They’re not just sitting back and allowing the veterans to be the ones to lead and direct things,” said Ward. “They’re very, very tuned into ‘this is how we could take advantage of this team in this little way.’ …You see how much they’re invested in learning the system and trying to be better at it.” — André Carlisle
Challenge Cup status update
Apologies to all readers, but we have to do some math. The Challenge Cup’s structure is such that the Spirit have two ways to advance to the knockout rounds, which are conveniently The Easy Way and The Hard Way.
You probably already know The Easy Way: a win tomorrow against the Courage does the job. The Spirit would win the East group with 12 points, and the question at that point becomes whether they would host a home game or not. If Kansas City beats Chicago Sunday, the answer is no, but otherwise, it’s a yes. Washington can’t be the top team in the knockout stage, as OL Reign already have 13 points.
Now, whether the Spirit can actually host a prospective semifinal on May 4 is another issue altogether. Kris Ward told reporters yesterday that he’s been told Audi Field is not available for that game, and we know it’s unavailable for the final on May 7, with D.C. United at home that same day. Would NWSL allow for a semifinal at Segra Field? Possibly, but possibly not: NWSL clarified today that if a higher seed doesn’t have a venue, the lower seed will host.
Long story short, in all likelihood the Spirit will face two road games if they’re going to win the Challenge Cup.
The Hard Way is much more complicated. It starts with the Spirit getting a draw against North Carolina (a first on-field loss in the Ward era would eliminate Washington entirely), and then we’re scoreboard watching. With 10 points, the Spirit would need one very specific outcome elsewhere, and then there’s a lot of ways the other game of note could play out.
Let’s start with the must: on 10 points and with a +5 goal differential, the Spirit would need winless Angel City FC to beat the Portland Thorns in Fullerton Sunday night. Portland has 10 points as well, so a draw would see them ahead of the Spirit as the top runner-up, and a win would mean two teams in the West get at least 13 points. Turns out it’s very helpful to get both expansion teams in your group!
Anyway, if the Spirit get a point in Cary, they need ACFC to build on last week’s clear improvements and post their first-ever win. The first part of that equation seems possible, as Freya Coombe’s side is in fact figuring things out, but beating the Thorns at this stage seems, to be blunt, pretty unlikely.
The other concern for the Spirit in the Central group, where KC hosts Chicago in circumstances that are very similar to Spirit at Courage. KC leads the group by two points, so the Red Stars have to win to advance. The difference here is that both KC and Chicago have one fewer point than their Eastern counterpart.
Interestingly, no matter the outcome here, the hypothetical East runner-up Spirit would end up ahead of the hypothetical Central runner-up:
- If KC wins at home, they’ll have 13 points, Chicago will be eliminated, and the final knockout spot will go to either Washington or Portland.
- If the Red Stars can win on the road, they’d win the group, and Washington would be ahead of the Current based on goal difference (+5 to, at best, +1 for KC), again leaving the Spirit’s fate in the hands of Angel City. An ACFC win later that night would see three teams finish with 10 points, and Portland’s goal difference would be +2 at the absolute best, so the Spirit would be your final semifinalist.
- In the event of a draw, Chicago is again eliminated with 9 points, KC advances on 11, and…again, the Spirit would need Angel City to get a win.
So, if you want to keep this thing on course in your head, the cheat sheet version is Spirit Win, or Spirit Draw + Angel City Win. And now that I’ve looked at all these scenarios, I’m going to go have a beer and watch something silly. — Jason Anderson
Sanchez skill check
Don’t worry, we’re gonna get to the free kick. But it’s worth noting that Sanchez has found some vicious form in the past few weeks. It’s difficult to juggle the variations in responsibilities, teammates and gameplans that come from playing for club and country, so it took some time to adjust. After dominating Orlando prior to the international break, the match against Gotham was a great opportunity to see how she’s progressing at coping with these two sets of responsibilities.
SPOILER ALERT: Quite well!
Since she’s subbed off, Sanchez created 12 chances in two games, the same tally as her previous seven games. First player to create five or more chances in consecutive Challenge Cup games since Andi Sullivan this year (MD 2 and 3). pic.twitter.com/fgAhzlXB07
— Tony ⚡ (@xGisfornerds) April 17, 2022
The note about Andi Sullivan shouldn’t go overlooked, and it underscores how important Andi is to the team. However, and perhaps even more impressively, Ward’s plan to give Sullivan the game off to recover worked out brilliantly, as Sanchez continued her stellar form.
Both goal contributions were exceptional. The assist for Rodman’s second was a perfectly weighted and placed ball that Ashlyn Harris didn’t have time to come for, and bounced on a line that avoided two defenders and setup perfectly in front of Rodman. The free kick was a combination of audacity, quick thinking and terrific technique.
What a strike!
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) April 17, 2022
Sanchez saw the gap and knew if she telegraphed her intent in any way Harris would take the early step needed to make the save. Instead, Sanchez’s run up is immediate and her connection was clean, the ball was whipped on frame at a pace that didn’t allow Harris enough time to even consider leaving her feet. — AC
Apologies to Rodman and Sanchez, as both writers are washed [ed. note: so washed!] and will from time to time have to ask them directly where their celebrations come from. Rodman reports that this is a TikTok thing that’s hard to explain. To be honest, no explanation necessary, it’s hilarious and fun so let’s hope it sticks around for a bit. — AC
Big picture, big statement
While the match’s start wasn’t ideal, Washington got into gear and comprehensively outplayed Gotham over the game’s final 75 minutes. We’re talking total dominance here.
— Arielle Dror (@arielle_dror) April 17, 2022
The Spirit — without Sullivan, without Dorian Bailey, without Tara McKeown, without Tori Huster, and with Emily Sonnett available for less than 1⁄3 of the match — kept Gotham from attempting a single shot after halftime. At Gotham’s house. In a game Gotham trailed at halftime. In a game Gotham had to win to maintain their Challenge Cup hopes. Look at that flat blue line! Aubrey Kingsbury barely even had to receive a back pass, much less face a shot or a cross, in the second half of this one.
Gotham has some top-tier players and, though their Challenge Cup has been somewhat unconvincing, they are largely seen around the league as a team that should get into the playoffs. The Spirit, short-handed, left them into dust after figuring things out in the early going. That’s a statement, and it’s the kind of thing that makes this a more impressive performance than the 4-1 win over Orlando that preceded it.
If you want someone who knows more than me to say it, well, here’s someone smarter than me saying it:
Kudos to an excellent opponent. I hate losing but some teams and players in this league are special enough that we need to acknowledge when we’ve simply been outplayed by a great performance https://t.co/MPIuE8H6M3
— Yael Averbuch West (@Yael_Averbuch) April 17, 2022
The Spirit are going to add those absentees back in, and they’re going to get Jordan Baggett and Bayley Feist available for longer spells of play in the near future (because yes, the Spirit got that good news on top of the rest of what went on at Red Bull Arena). They even have room to improve from a performance perspective, as they will be looking to extend that last 75 minutes into a full 90-minute showing.
It all adds up to a team that should be seen as the favorites in NWSL this season. — JA