In their last preliminary game versus the Houston Dash, the Washington Spirit’s commanding play resulted in a 1-0 victory. Before jumping into the match analysis, at the beginning of the second half, Spirit captain Andi Sullivan pulled up, appearing to injure her left knee. She was helped off the field by the training staff, but was later seen giving a thumbs-up to USWNT Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski. Every soccer fan will hope that the injury isn’t serious and that the former number one overall pick will be fit for the knockout round, beginning July 17.
Coming into this game, the Spirit were on six days rest (last played July 5), compared to just three days for the Dash (previous game July 8), and the lack of recovery time immensely benefitted Washington. Houston’s tired legs were reflected in yesterday’s stat line; Washington had 13 shots, eight of which were on goal, to Houston’s seven shots, one of which was on goal. Washington had three corners to Houston’s one, and the Spirit connected on 593 passes, while Houston completed 393. Players like Rachel Daly, Shea Groom and Kristie Mewis, Houston’s top offensive players, looked tired and couldn’t break down Washington’s compact and well-organized defense. This was also the first morning game for the Spirit, but the heat didn’t seem to have much effect on this vibrant Washington side.
Against a Houston team that loves to get forward, the back line of the Spirit was extremely disciplined. The defensive trap baited Houston offside a total of seven times, stifling any momentum the Dash were gaining in the final third and helping the Spirit retain a majority of the possession. Washington Head Coach Richie Burke demands a lot of his players, asking the team to dominate on the ball and patiently work out of the back. His team showed their ability to dictate the tempo of the game and work the ball up the field, building from the defense up. The final possession between the two teams measured 59 to 41 in favor of Washington.
Building from the back
Crucial to the Spirit’s ability to maintain possession and move the ball around the field is goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. She assumes the role of an additional field player with her passing ability. Without her, the Spirit surely would have trouble working out of the back and managing possession as consistently as they do. Despite only one shot on goal, Bledsoe was quick off her line several times in the final minutes of the game when Houston made several forward charges. The reigning goalkeeper of the year has looked sharp in net for the Spirit through the first four games and will be vital if the team is to make a deep run in the knockout round.
Over the course of the preliminary games, Bayley Feist, Ashley Sanchez and Kumi Yokoyama have all made significant improvements, with each player receiving quality minutes. What is most exciting about these players is how much they’ve grown into the tournament in such a condensed period of time.
Starting with Feist, her progression in each game illustrates how much she has improved from year one. In four games as a rookie last season, she recorded one goal and two assists on a total of six shots; through four games in Utah, she has three shots and one goal (imagine what that production would look during an entire season). Not only has she been given a larger role this year, she has been trending upwards in each game of the Challenge Cup. Her successful passing percentages in the three games she started are as follows: 79-percent against North Carolina, 76-percent versus Portland and back up to 79-percent yesterday against Houston. While her passing has been consistent, the real development has taken place in front of net. She did not register a shot on goal against the Red Stars and had one shot off target in each game versus North Carolina and Portland. In game four, however, she had a total of four shots, three of which were on net, contributing the game winning goal.
In what was a beautifully worked team effort, Huster played the ball out wide to Kumi, who fed Hatch in the middle, before laying it off to Feist who was clinical and composed with her strike, deftly placing the shot in the bottom corner. "I saw Hatch driving down the line and she cut it back, played me and I had open space and I took it with my right foot and it just happened to go in," Feist said. Capable of playing multiple positions, Feist prefers to patrol the midfield, which allows her to flex her creative dexterity going forward. "When he [Burke] puts me in the midfield, I really try to get involved in the attack" she said. "Midfield is definitely a more comfortable position for me but, obviously, wherever the team needs me, and I’m most willing to play whatever." The way Feist continues to advance her game in the midfield and on attack only strengthens the depth of this Spirit squad.
As the fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft, Washington hoped Sanchez should would make an immediate impact in this tournament. She has started three games and made one substitute appearance during the Challenge Cup, and, like Feist, her overall game has massively grown over the course of four games. "She’s growing with confidence, she’s growing in belief" Burke said. "She’s finding a way to survive and be effective at this level. She’s playing against some really good players, but I love the kid and I think she’ll be great for our football club." Transitioning as a rookie isn’t always easy, especially when opposition defenses know the hype around a players’ skill level and game plan for that player.
While Sanchez found some room on the left wing in the first game against Chicago, she too frequently forced needless passes, giving away possession, as evidenced by her 57-percent successful passing rate. Against North Carolina and Portland, Sanchez compiled a successful passing rating of 54-percent and 44-percent, respectively. Her at times sporadic passing was indicative of a young player adapting to the professional level. In yesterday’s match against Houston, however, her passing rate jumped to 70-percent. As the tournament grew on, and as defenses started dropping back more, Sanchez made more purposeful runs, was more conservative with the ball, and made several key passes that led to clear goal-scoring opportunities, assisting on the game-tying goal against Portland. As her confidence grows, so will her transcendent skill.
When the Spirit signed Yokoyama this summer, expectations were high. A stalwart for the Japanese national team, she had experience at some of the biggest clubs in Europe, including FFC Frankfurt. In her NWSL debut against the Red Stars, her touch was off, which contributed to a dismal 50-percent successful passing rate. She came off in the 64-minute after an underwhelming appearance. After not featuring against the Courage, Yokoyama started in both matchups against the Thorns and the Dash. After adjusting to the pace and style of NWSL play, Yokoyama has looked much sharper, forcing saves from keepers, sending crosses in from the wings, and linking up with the midfield to create scoring chances. Against Portland she completed 26 of 29 passes (90-percent) and connected on 27 of 31 passes (87-percent) in yesterday’s affair versus Houston. As much as these three players grew into the tournament, they weren’t the only ones. As a team, the Spirit took steps forward each game, culminating in the team’s most complete performance against the Dash.
Burke made several decisions to conserve the legs of his players for the elimination round. Tegan McGrady was subbed off at half time, Ashley Hatch, Kumi and Sanchez all exited the pitch before the 80th, and, most notably, Rose Lavelle was not listed on the team sheet. While a shutout against a high-octane Dash offense was impressive, this team was able to secure the win without the services of their midfield magician. Leaning too heavily on one star member of the team can be debilitating when that player misses time. Winning without Lavelle highlighted the team’s depth and resting their star player means she will be fit and fresh for the knockout phase. The Spirit have been smoothing out the kinks and are as poised as any team to defeat the two-time defending champion Courage come the knockout round.