FanPost

Three Possible Formations for the NWSL Challenge Cup

With the NWSL Challenge Cup staring tomorrow, the Washington Spirit are scheduled to play their first game against the Chicago Red Stars. The Spirit released their 26-player roster on Tuesday, and while several NWSL teams will be missing their star players, Washington will have the majority of their roster available. On the eve of the NWSL return, here are three ways the Spirit could line up in their opening match and throughout the tournament.

Last year’s go-to: 4-3-3

GK: Aubrey Bledsoe

RB: Tori Huster

CB: Paige Nielsen

CB: Sam Staab

LB: Tegan McGrady

RM: Rose Lavelle

CM: Andi Sullivan

LM: Jordan DiBiasi

RW: Ashley Sanchez

CF: Ashley Hatch

LW: Kumi Yokoyama

The 4-3-3 was head coach Richie Burke’s favored formation during the 2019 campaign, making it the lineup Spirit fans will most likely see during the Challenge Cup. Bledsoe is an easy start at keeper regardless of formation, and the back line of Huster, Nielsen, Staab, and McGrady was the consistent unit last season. Despite several offseason additions on defense – Jenna Hellstrom, Brooke Hendrix, and Kaiya McCullough – the defensive chemistry established by last year’s back line makes them a safe bet to start. While the loss of Mal Pugh will be felt this year, Lavelle is an upgrade considering her heroics at last summer’s World Cup. She will join a mega-talented midfield with fellow national team player Sullivan, and 2019 rookie of the year runner-up DiBiasi. In terms of the attack, with the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NWSL draft, the Spirit selected Ashley Sanchez out of UCLA, and while still very young, she has represented the United States at both the U17 and U20 World Cup. Lethal striker Ashley Hatch (team-leading seven goals last season) should start up top, while new signee Yokoyama will provide skill from the wing.

More attack-minded: 3-4-3

GK: Aubrey Bledsoe

RB: Tori Huster

CB: Sam Staab

LB: Paige Nielsen

RM: Jenna Hellstrom

CM: Jordan DiBiasi

CM: Andi Sullivan

LM: Tegan McGrady
RW: Rose Lavelle

F: Ashley Hatch

LW: Kumi Yokoyama

Sanchez drops out of this XI for two reasons. As a rookie, she lacks NWSL experience, but more importantly, she could be an exciting piece to bring off the bench late in games. One of the players I feel will make an instant impact this season is Hellstrom. She made the roster for the Canadian national team that made it to the knockout stage at the 2019 World Cup, she has blistering pace, can dribble at defenders, cross the ball, or take it herself and score. The 3-4-3 allows for Burke to utilize the speed of his payers on the wing, with Hellstrom and McGrady being afforded the opportunity to get forward, while also being able to help on the defensive side of the ball. The midfield will again be anchored by DiBiasi, who will also be able to go forward, and Sullivan, whose defensive sharpness will provide excellent cover. Meanwhile Lavelle moves into a more attacking position, which will allow her to showcase her speed and craftiness.

Playing to the midfield depth: 3-5-2

GK: Aubrey Bledsoe

RB: Tori Huster

CB: Sam Staab

LB: Tegan McGrady

RW: J. Hellstrom

RM: A. Sullivan

CM: P. Nielsen

LM: J. DiBiasi

LW: R. Lavelle

F: Ashley Hatch

F: Crystal Thomas

Arguably the biggest strength of the Spirit is the incredible midfield depth the team has at its disposal. In this XI, not much is sacrificed at the back, for Huster, Staab, and McGrady are a capable trio, which allows Nielsen, who has superb anticipation and distribution skills (90.9 passing accuracy in the defensive half), to move up the pitch, but also drop back to help defend. With two proven goal scorers, Hatch and Thomas (three goals last season), the speed and creative impetus of Hellstrom and Lavelle on the wings will cause matchup nightmares for opposition defenses. By stacking the midfield, the Spirit maximize their talent going forward, fortify their strength through the middle, and capitalize on their ability to defend. The combination of speed and midfield depth will provide Burke with plenty of tantalizing options come Saturday and throughout the tournament.