The Spirit used a goal in each half to get their season started right, proceeded to party
It seemed a bit brutal that the Washington Spirit were going to have to deal with last season’s playoff semifinalists, OL Reign, before celebrating last season’s championship victory. However, it turned out to be a bit poetic instead, as the Spirit displayed their familiar resolve (of which the Reign know far too well, and frankly must be sick of) to earn a 2-1 win.
The day was a culmination of many hard-fought for and hard-earned accomplishments, which was evident from the pregame vibe, to the actual game, and celebrations after. I get into the kickoff to the Kang Era, the Spirit’s spirit, Sanchez and Rodman continuing to shine, plus an unexpected fit check. Let’s get into it:
Y. Michele Kang knows how to host a party
This was not only a season opener and celebration of winning last year’s NWSL Championship, it was also the first regular season match with Y. Michele Kang as majority owner.
At least a block away from entering the stadium you could heard D.C.-based go-go band Sirius Company jamming in the concourse. As you entered, there was a merch stand with the new cherry blossom-themed scarf, a line to take photos of the NWSL Championship trophy flanked by life-size cutouts of Spirit players, and tables setup throughout with free programs and miniature regular season schedules.
None of this was particularly innovative or spectacular, but rather a byproduct of treating the team seriously, and as something of stature. Sure, the Spirit having their first championship to celebrate was reason enough to throw a party, but it was also a first impression for Kang. After taking one lap around the stadium concourse I realized I hadn’t stopped smiling the whole way around.
An early test: passed
Last season, one of the many things that stood out about the Spirit on the pitch was how perpetually unfazed they were no matter the game state. Sure, intensity would ramp up when needed, but panic was never evident. Nine minutes into the match OL Reign checked to see if that quality made it to 2022. Unfortunately for them, it had.
The Spirit’s committed sideline press led to Reign forward Ally Watt, who was playing as a traditional chalk-on-the-heel winger, receiving the ball alone with left back Camryn Biegalski on the far flank after a big switch. Watt drove into the box and got Biegalski to leave a leg in for a fraction too long, switched direction then went down, forcing the referee to point to the spot. Former Washington Spirit midfielder Rose Lavelle stepped up to take the penalty.
Now, I have no idea how many times goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury faced Rose Lavelle penalties in training together, but in hindsight it might have been best for Reign to select someone less familiar. Thankfully that didn’t happen. Instead, Kingsbury read the contact, pounced to stop the shot and held onto the ball to prevent a rebound.
After that, Ashley Sanchez took over…
Ashley Sanchez remains the truth
Head coach Kris Ward has noted frequently leading up to this season that last year they didn’t have time to implement new facets of play that would get the most out of Ashley Sanchez. Heading into this season the coaching staff has focused on getting Sanchez on the ball a lot, and in dangerous spaces. Sanchez’s adept first and second touches allow her to receive the ball from a variety of passes, which sets her up to be the thing she loves to be on a football pitch: unpredictable.
“It’s a constant conversation of whatever the gameplan is against the opponent that we have. Whether she pops up on the right side, the left side, whether she sets up underneath Hatchy and just kind of shadows Hatchy specifically, there’s a lot of different details that we go over with her. Then we leave the rest up to her in terms of where to go and find those spaces.” -Kris Ward; source: Washington Spirit
With OL Reign not having Quinn in the starting lineup, it was up to midfielders Jess Fishlock and Nikki Stanton plus center backs Alana Cook and Phoebe McClernon to stop Sanchez from threatening their penalty area. The problem is that in this system, unless Sanchez is shadowed, that’s damn near impossible. For the majority of the first half Sanchez looked like she was playing pickup soccer. She was floating wherever she wanted, zipping through balls between defenders, flicking passes, dribbling by players and being an all around menace. It was a joyous performance that deserved the banger of a goal she eventually scored.
There are many things to like about the goal as well. Camryn Biegalski, who committed the foul that was deemed a penalty, read an attempted lobbed pass out of pressure and leapt to head the ball back toward Reign’s goal. Forward Anna Heilferty read the contact and sprinted to meet the ball after it bounced by Sanchez. Heilferty, another young Spirit talent with more than a packet of sauce, backheel flicked the ball into space behind her for Sanchez to run onto. From there it was only a matter of getting a clean shot off and on target, which Sanchez did brilliantly with a perfectly placed right-footed blast to beat in-form keeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce.
What a strike pic.twitter.com/rF2VtEOxCp
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) May 1, 2022
Are you used to watching Trinity Rodman yet? I’m not!
Some athletes get among other professional athletes and make things that even they know are difficult, look easy. Trinity Rodman is one of these players. It’s impossible not to notice her speed and the ease with which she glides across the pitch to cover yards like they’re inches, but it’s technical ability that makes her so unique. I’m actually mad at myself for not thinking to keep track of her spree of nutmegs. That’s on me, I gotta be better.
Anyway, Rodman’s combination of awareness, technique and athleticism make her a nightmare to contain. Versus OL Reign, this was illustrated by half of their backline earning yellows for not being able to contain Rodman without fouling. As desperate as they were to keep her at bay, she still delivered an outrageous assist for Ashley Hatch’s match winning goal.
Center back Sam Staab loaded up her left boot and sent a terrific ball from the center circle over the top of the defense to Rodman sprinting along the touchline. Rodman lets it bounce, touches it forward with her chest then times a perfect half-volley touch to float the ball toward Hatch with pinpoint accuracy. But I am just the Dumb Tweets Guy™ on the internet, so take it from head coach Kris Ward: Rodman made quite a difficult skill seem routine.
I hope everyone can appreciate how difficult a skill Trin pulled off there. To hit a half volley on the move with that kind of texture is exquisite. https://t.co/Eysg4rreIR
— KWardSpirit (@KWardSpirit) May 2, 2022
The party after the party after the party
The fun pregame vibe led to a party in the stands as the Spirit produced two quality goals to keep the party going with a win, which then led to the postgame party. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser joined the team on the field for the ring ceremony in which she read names of the players, coaching staff, some team staff plus Y. Michele Kang as their rings were fitted during pops of cheers after each name.
A giant banner was unfurled in the supporters’ section that read ‘2021 NWSL Champions’ with the Spirit logo in the center. Then, Grammy award winning recording artist Ella Mai (wearing a full Spirit kit) performed in front of the team, who later joined her on stage for her last song.
Sometime between the ring ceremony and staff setting up for Ella Mai I was able to sneak a look at the rings up close. I am delighted to report that the original photos did not do them proper justice. They were a lot heavier than expected and the engraving was sharply done.
(Side note: Michele Kang’s yellow cape is resplendent.)
Kris Ward fit check???
No disrespect to Kris, but this section is unlikely to feature him often. Not only are there enough players who get fits off on the regular, he’s also no Casey Stoney. But on the day he wore the shirt from Rose Room Collective, an independent supporter group for D.C. United and Washington Spirit by and for people of color.
After the match (and celebrations, and concert), I asked Ward about his decision to wear the shirt:
“This platform should never be about me; the players are amazing, but I also think I have a vision that’s very much in line with Michele’s in the sense that we want to do a better job of representing the city — and the city is much more than one thing. For me it’s trying to shed light on everyone that comes and supports us, and celebrate the diversity that we have within our group that’s so amazing, not just within our team but our supports groups who continue to support all kinds of causes: from protection of trans kids to Athlete Ally to just trying to break down walls in general.
Just trying to have conversations that aren’t always easy to have, but are important to have. For me it’s engaging with the supporters, it’s a way for me to say that ‘I see you and I hear you’ and I want you to know that you’re appreciated. I’m hopeful that it’s just the start of a larger conversation that we have in terms of growing the fanbase and connecting with our fans on more than a superficial level. That was my intent, just to give a nod to them and hopefully it’s a good first step.” -Kris Ward; source: Washington Spirit
‘What if…’ moment of the day
Forgive this segment, it likely won’t be recurring, but the Spirit came so close to doing an absolute madness that I felt compelled it include it. Though the result of this sequence didn’t change the scoreboard, it was a glimpse into how absurdly fluid, dangerous and fun as hell this team can be.
After a lengthy injury, the Spirit welcomed back Bayley Feist, and she immediately played a part in one of the team’s best moves (on a day in which there were plenty). Sanchez pops the ball over her defender with a backheel flick to Ashley Hatch, who takes a touch wide before checking back and passing forward to Feist in the box. Feist touches the ball to Sanchez who’d curled around her defender and darted into the box. From there Sanchez strikes low with her left but a good diving block sends the ball behind for a corner.
The whole sequence was incredible, and if Sanchez had spotted and squared the ball to Trinity Rodman who was unmarked in front of goal, I’d be writing this from the ancestral plane.
sanchez was feelin it yesterday so i understand taking the shot, but if she had squared to rodman this would’ve been a very difficult goal of the season contender to knock off pic.twitter.com/fIzngicm1w
— andré (@not_carlisle) May 2, 2022
Sam Staab not only routinely drops left-footed dimes from forty and fifty yards, but if you give her enough space and gentle goading postgame, she’ll also probably do a backflip. Given that, it was imperative that she break it out on a day full of celebration. However, on this occasion, fellow defender Emily Sonnett decided to get in on the action as well. Backflips are hard, so instead Sonnett followed Staab’s flip with an 80s movie’esque Victorious Sports Dude pirouette.
Also, I highly recommend listening with the sound on and doing as they say and following the team on TikTok.