Washington Spirit Tackle Early Scheduling Test While Still Evolving

Robyn Gayle defends against Chicago Red Stars forward Jen Hoy in a 2013 NWSL match - Cynthia Hobgood

After the Washington Spirit dominated FC Kansas City on the way to a 3-1 victory the team hit the road for a two-game road trip that started with a 3-1 loss to the expectedly impressive Seattle Reign (2-0-0) with a "six-pointer" against Chicago today.

The western road trip continues today as the Spirit (1-0-2) take on the Chicago Red Stars  (1-0-0) today at he Village of Lisle - Benedictine University Sports Complex at 8 pm Eastern. For those not already keeping score at home, that's three 3 to 1 games thus far with alternating results. If the pattern holds, Washington would head home with a 3-1 victory over Chicago.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. A 3-1 victory on the road against a well-rested Red Stars club is a steep order. Chicago has only played one game this season, while Washington has played three. Saturday will mark their third match in eight days including one against a team (Seattle) playing on 10 days rest and another (Chicago) with six days rest.

"Everyone gets the rough schedule at some point. It's just very frustrating that it's early," Parsons said. "It's just let's not have a three-day playing a 10-day. Let's not have a six-day playing a two-day. That just makes no sense and it's very tough. You don't have more minor injuries; you have more major injuries when the rest and recovery is not there. I'm no sports scientist, but rest and recovery is crucial."

On the injury front, Washington may have dodged a very large bullet Wednesday. At the end of regulation midfielder Christine Nairn had to leave the game with an apparent leg injury. The current assessment is it's a quadriceps strain.

"We feel good," Parsons said about Nairn's injury status. "We also need to be positive because she's been very important for us."

While Parsons is clearly adapting his roster according to matchups and strategy, look for him also be forced to make some changes today in order to counter the fact his team is playing it's third game in eight days.

"With the schedule that we have, we have to take into consideration physical loads all the time," Parsons said. "We have a whole squad that can make an impact. We have to trust players coming in. We have to trust players that start from the beginning. At some points in the schedule, you have to make changes."

Parsons would not tip his hand on starters, but Nairn's injury may force his hand in the midfield. He's certainly got solid options on the bench. Jordan Angeli has been used sparingly, but can be counted on for consistent performance and effort. Mexican midfielder Veronica Perez has interjected energy every time she's entered the game. Whether she's continued to be used as a sparkplug or if she might get time from the start, Parsons is pleased with how she's quickly integrated into the team after missing a few weeks of preseason.

"With Veronica, I'm so excited for her future as a player and for her future with us as a club," said Parsons. "She's someone that will start and win us games. She's someone that will come on and win us games. The bottom line is, you hope when you challenge your players to have that impact any time they come off the bench."

Parsons pointed out today's match is what he called a "six-pointer"-meaning that they need to both get the three points and keep Chicago from getting them.

"Chicago is a very important and big game because that's a team, like us, that's fighting to get into the playoff for the first time," Parsons said. "I feel there's a bit of pressure on us to perform and perform well. They picked up a great result against New York. They're a very strong team. Rory gets them very well-organized, and they are always a hundred miles per hour."

The Red Stars feature one of the other marquee rookies in Julie Johnston, a versatile player that scored Chicago's only goal in her first game-a win of Western New York.  Chicago also added veteran Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. U.S. striker Christen Press has yet to join the team as she completes her time in Sweden for Tyresö in the Champions League so Washington catches a small break there.

Trend-spotting

Last week Parsons said you could start to see trends after three games. To close things out, let's examine a few trends I've noticed emerging this season.

A reimagined Lori Lindsey

Let's start with a positive. After played practically every minute of the 2013 season, Lori Lindsey has seen less playing time this season. No, that's not the positive. But her impact when in matches has been. After not playing in the season opener, Lindsey started and played 45 minutes against Kansas City in what has probably been Washington's most successful half. After not starting against Seattle, Lindsey, along with Perez, entered in the in the second half and was a difference-maker almost immediately.

"Lori changed the game with her calmness, her cleverness, her intelligence," said Parsons. "She probably completed more passes in that period of 10 minutes that we dominated than other players did the whole game."

Lindsey may see a bit more playing time, but Parsons is looking to get the most of the 34-year-old's minutes on the field. He's strategically planning her playing time around matchups to maximize her impact.

"If there are 90 minutes, Lori will want to be out there 100," Parsons said. "But we want her at her best all the time. And to do that, she's going to definitely have some rest. Not like the rest she's had already though. She hasn't played as much as probably could have."

Holy set piece issues, Batman

What has not been an encouraging trend for Washington is goals conceded on set pieces, primary due to poor player marking.

The first happened on a free kick against Western New York with Cuéllar losing Brittany Taylor to give up a goal. And Seattle scored on two corner kicks Wednesday. Just three minutes into the game, Kendall Fletcher got free of Danesha Adams to put away a goal on a cross in from Jessica Fishlock after a short corner. The second, coming just three minutes into the second half was not quite so glaring as Nahomi Kawasumi was undeniably dangerous.

"The lapse in concentration on set pieces is extremely disappointing and frustrating. We had moments where we just fell asleep," said Parsons. "But that ball from Kawasumi, might be one of the most dangerous crosses I've ever seen. Yael kind of got caught out by Winters. Even if Yael was at the right side and the right moment, coming in at that pace, she's probably heading it into the net herself."

But Parsons was quick to say the team would put in quite a bit more time during training working on set pieces. And it's a good thing. Because let's be honest, this club was woeful on set pieces, at both ends of the field last season too. Let's agree that we'll probably be discussing this point again.

Defense, how can you be so inspired and so frustrating at the same time?

The Spirit defense has had some remarkable performances. Robyn Gayle expertly shut down Western New York's Samantha Kerr. It was primarily Ali Krieger that made Sydney Leroux a non-factor in Seattle Wednesday. The back four held Lauren Holiday scoreless in the win over Kansas City.

But the fact remains they've given up seven goals, the most in the NWSL. Ashlyn Harris has the most saves in the league with 12. I've frankly lost track of how many times she's been stranded on an island one vs. one with opposing attackers.

Primarily, the breakdowns have come right up the gut, in central defense. There have times when the center backs were caught pushed too far forward, with attackers getting in behind them. There's been too much space too often around the penalty box, which resulted in two goals-one by Vicky Losada (WNY) and one by Fishlock (Seattle.) And there's been enough inconsistency that the central midfielders are dropping back in support, removing them out of the attack too often.

Last season Tori Huster was converted from midfield to center back and went on to be named the team's top defender. She has been decent this season, but has shown some signs she's still got a ways to go. I have to wonder if the time spent at midfield with Western Sydney in the offseason has resulted in some transition challenges. But he fact remains she's a relative newcomer at the position, a point Parsons clearly understands. With Huster, have patience. The development continues.

Pressley is a tough one to figure out. On paper, she's an ideal center back. And she's made some spectacular plays, there's no doubt about that. But she's made far too many mistakes-mental lapses, giveaways, inaccurate passes-for this level of play. There have also been moments of either fatigue or possibly lack of effort where she's simply out of position. Pressley was a much-needed mid-season addition in 2013. But if one takes a look back at Washington's August run of two wins and a tie, it was with Marisa Abegg stepping in after Pressley was injured.  Maybe that was a coincidence. Maybe not.

"Toni and Tori have grown miles in a couple of weeks," Parsons said. "When you've got Robyn and Krieger next to them and Ash behind them, there's no reason why they can't grow. They continue moving forward."

So Parsons clearly isn't ready to sound an alarm. Player development is part of the game, of course. He does have support on its way by June the form of Bayern Munich's Niki Cross. But the reality is Harris needs stronger central defense in front of her now, not in June. Or none of this will matter. Players can step up. Or Parsons can look at making a change sooner rather than later. With Gayle obviously able to play in the center, he's got options in Bianca Sierra and Cecilie Sandvej. And let's not forget Angeli has played center back. She's got the smarts and desire that might be just what is needed at this juncture.

Faster than a speeding...Crystal

As ineffective as rookie midfielder Crystal Dunn was against Western New York, she was doubly dangerous against Kansas City. She really created both of Diana Matheson's goals, drawing defenders and finding on open Matheson twice. What must defenses think when they see Dunn coming at them like a locomotive?

She looks to be mostly at full fitness now so I suspect this next span of games will be a better indicator of what her impact can be. Given the loss of Tiffany Weimer to a season-ending ACL tear, Dunn is likely to take an increasingly significant role on offense. It's hard not to imagine Dunn pairing with Jodie Taylor up top, with Matheson driving the attack.

As Dunn continues to settle into a new system and her first go at being an integral part of an offense at this level, it will be fascinating to see what the yet-to-be-named U.S. Women's National Team Coach will do with her. Until now, she's been used only on defense. But the more she impresses on offense on this level, the better a case she makes for being considered at midfield for the U.S..

There is just no denying Crystal is attack-minded first, defensive-minded second. Those are instincts. And I'm not so sure I'd recommend ignoring them.

In the meantime, Washington will absolutely need Dunn to play a larger and larger role driving the offense. Parsons has been rightly patient and not putting a huge amount of pressure on the rookie. But let's be clear. This one is special.

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