In the second game of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, the Spirit partook in what ended up being a wildly entertaining affair. While it was an excellent game, the most powerful moment came before the clock started, when Chicago Red Stars captain Julie Ertz knelt with defender Casey Short, who was visibly emotional during the playing of the national anthem. During warm ups, players wore "Black Lives Matter" shirts and kneeled during the national anthem and before the game to show solidarity with the BLM movement, which, among many goals, seeks to combat systemic racism and police brutality. With the return to sports, the NWSL has a platform to reach American audiences and advocate for issues in which change is long overdue.
With respect to the game, here are several main takeaways.
Bledsoe and the backline
Last year’s goalkeeper of the year picked up where she left off. Aubrey Bledsoe wasn’t asked to do much in the first half, aside from dealing with several corners, which she did with ease. There was also one moment right before halftime when a cross came in, but Bledsoe was alert to the danger and was quick off her line. Her number was called in the second half; in the fifty-sixth minute she made a quality save on Kealia Watt. Chicago would turn up the pressure at the end of the game, and Bledsoe made a game-saving, point-blank stop in the 89th minute to preserve the win.
The starting back line of Tori Huster, Sam Staab, Paige Nielsen, and Tegan McGrady had a solid game. Huster was caught out of position several times but provided pace on the wings and sublime passing. On the left side, McGrady was asked to defend the speedy Watt several times, and she was more than up to the task. The young left back also made an important tackle on Rachel Hill inside the box, for which her timing had to be perfect, and ended up winning a goal kick for the team. Both Huster and McGrady played well, but it was the center back pairing of Staab and Nielsen that quieted a high-octane Chicago offense. Staab made several key blocks and maintained possession to work out of the back, but for me, it was Nielsen who had a standout performance. She made several superb passes, was calm and composed on the ball, displayed wonderful anticipation, and stifled the Red Stars’ forwards all game long.
The future USWNT midfield
Rose Lavelle has already established herself as one of the first names to be included in the starting XI of the USWNT midfield, and Andi Sullivan was on the fringe when Jill Ellis was the head coach but looks to be in Vlatko Andonovki’s future plans, which only leaves Jordan DiBiasi. While she is more of a longshot candidate to start in the midfield for the USWNT, she is only 23 and was selected to the preliminary squad for the She Believes Cup.
In last night’s game, Spirit fans got a glimpse of the world class player Lavelle is. In the eighth minute, she picked up the ball in the middle of the pitch, drove with speed and aplomb, baited the Chicago defense and slipped a perfectly timed through ball to teammate Ashley Hatch. And while Naeher made a wonderful left-footed save on Hatch, Lavelle did well to follow up the play and sent a cannon of a shot into the upper right-hand corner. Lavelle looked dangerous in midfield all game long and pulled out several tricks and flicks to evade defenders. In a post-game interview, she said of her goal, "I think we kind of saw the opportunity to press. Hatch made a beautiful run and I just picked up on the rebound." She will be the creative impetus for Spirit teams for years to come. Sullivan was again the heartbeat of the defensive midfield, helping to break up any Chicago counterattacks, and DiBiasi looked confident going forward, displaying great chemistry with Lavelle and Hatch, serving up through balls which led to several chances.
8 PM MST start time will be key
Three of the four preliminary games the Spirit will play are scheduled to start at 8 PM MST, meaning that the heat won’t be as intense as it would be for a 12:30 game, especially since the matches are being played on turf fields. Playing these later games, with cooler temperatures, will help the Spirit come the knockout phase, for the team will have fresher legs than other teams forced to play more day games. Another crucial component to the Spirit’s success in the knockout round will be the youth of the team (the Spirit have one of the youngest squads in the Challenge Cup). The younger players won’t be as fatigued, which will pay dividends later in the tournament, for players are operating on a combination of condensed training and lots of games played in quick succession will be more susceptible to injuries.
Which brings us to injuries…and substitutions
An unfortunate head collision left McGrady worse off and forced the second-year left back off the field. Hopefully she will be healthy and ready to go for the next game against the North Carolina Courage on Wednesday. In addition to McGrady, Hatch pulled up with a knock to her right leg and was forced off for several minutes. She would later come on; however, the central striker would be subbed off in the eighty-sixth minute. The Spirit also set a record last night – becoming the first NWSL team to make four substitutions at once – when, in the sixty-fourth minute, Bailey Feist, Dorian Bailey, Meggie Dougherty Howard, and Jenna Hellstrom came on for Kumi Yokoyama, Tegan McGrady, Rose Lavelle, and Tori Huster, respectively. In a tournament format, in which teams are playing every third day, depth is key. Hellstrom looked dangerous dribbling down the wing, and head coach Richie Burke has been vocal about utilizing her blistering pace. Collins, meanwhile, had a golden opportunity, and forced an incredible save out of Chicago goalie Alyssa Naeher late in the game.
Giving 110 percent
After scoring seven goals last season, Hatch started off the Challenge Cup in impeccable form. She scored the team’s second goal, which was a pure hustle play. She took advantage of a poor touch from Naeher inside Chicago’s box, scoring in the first minute of the second half. Her work rate and tenacity will endear her to Spirit fans. When asked of what she thought of Hatch’s performance, Lavelle said, "I think Hatch did a great job getting in behind. She put in a lot of hard work and runs and we love finding her there." She looked capable of running at defenses and was an outlet for the Spirit center backs all game long. She will be instrumental in the team’s ability to stretch defenses and break on the counter.
In her first ever start in the NWSL, Ashley Sanchez wound up playing the entire game. The Challenge Cup is a phenomenal opportunity for the fourth overall pick from the 2020 draft to show why she is an integral part of the Spirit and USWNT going forward. On multiple occasions, she displayed great pace running at the defense. She picked the ball up at half-field and dribbled just outside the box. She needs to work on the final touch, but that will come as she adjusts to the professional game. She showed why she is such a highly rated player; this was a promising start for the young forward.
By my count, the Spirit should have scored a total of six goals last night. Lavelle failed to convert on two one-on-one chances versus Naeher, Hatch had a chance to score early in the game, and Sanchez saw the ball drop to her, but held on to the ball too long and saw her shot blocked by a defender. The Spirit’s attack looked potent and dangerous, and they will look to develop even more team chemistry throughout the tournament to use as a building block for when the NWSL season eventually resumes.
The Spirit dominated possession throughout a majority of the game, and the Red Star’s goal was against the run of play. It was a really unfortunate deflection that saw the ball drop to Morgan Gautrat (née Brian), which she buried in the bottom left corner. Bledsoe got a hand to the shot, but it was struck with too much pace for her to stop it.
What a way to start the Challenge Cup! Offensive firepower, strong individual and team defending, with plenty of bright spots to build upon. Even without superstar Sam Kerr or national team player Tierna Davidson, this Chicago team still had plenty of talent on the pitch, notably USWNT star Julie Ertz and starting keeper Naeher, and national team players Gautrat and Short. While the Spirit played well in the first half, there were some nervy moments after Chicago scored. Burke will look to work on closing out games, but this was an entertaining game against a quality opponent that provided hope and excitement for Spirit fans.