In the second "upset" of the Challenge Cup, the two seed Washington Spirit fell in penalty kicks to Sky Blue FC (quotes because anything can happen when teams go into penalties). "We didn’t lose today, we lost in a penalty shootout," said Spirit Head Coach Richie Burke after his team were eliminated from the tournament this past Sunday. An unfortunate turn of events saw Sam Staab’s rocket of a shot glance off the crossbar and a timely Kailen Sheridan save on Bayley Feist sent Sky Blue to the semifinals. Despite an early exit, the Spirit saw plenty of positives during their five outings at the Challenge Cup and will look to carry that momentum into the offseason and into the 2021 season.
Minutes for young players
Between the 2019 and 2020 NWSL College Drafts, the Spirit have made a combined 10 selections. Of those 10 players, eight saw significant minutes in Utah. Tegan McGrady and Staab – both 2019 first round selections – were key contributors to a backline that yielded only four goals in five games. McGrady logged 408 minutes out of a total of 480, while Staab played every minute of the Spirit’s five games. Dorian Bailey, another 2019 first round pick, received the nod in several matches, playing a total of 348 minutes and was tasked with covering for the injured Andi Sullivan. Jordan DiBiasi, last year’s runner-up in rookie of the year voting, only logged 191 minutes over the course of three games due to a hip injury. The last member of the 2019 draft class was second round pick Bayley Feist, who was given 372 minutes and played in each of the team’s five contests, contributing a goal.
The 2020 draft class meanwhile was headlined by Ashley Sanchez, who served as the offensive impetus on the left wing for a majority of the tournament. She saw a total of 356 minutes and played in all five contests, adding one assist. Two other rookies, Averie Collins and Natalie Jacobs experienced the competitiveness of NWSL play, contributing 91 minutes in three games and 147 minutes in three games, respectively.
While this Spirit team was the youngest of the tournament, Burke was effusive in his praise for his players. "I’m immensely proud of my team, it’s a young team," he said. "Six of the starting players are from our 2019 and 2020 draft classes, all first and second-round picks, and putting them to play that brand of football, that quality football, I’m very, very pleased. It goes well for the future of our football club that we’ve got that depth and talent in so many young players."
While the development of recent draft classes has been emphasized, several "older" players continued to grow throughout the tournament as well, namely Ashley Hatch (409 minutes in five games) and Kumi Yokoyama (266 minutes in four games). For Hatch, not only was she able to showcase her tenacity and endless motor, the Challenge Cup served as a further national team audition in front of Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski (under whom she was selected to the provisional roster for CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying this past January). Yokoyama, on the other hand, used the tournament to acclimate to the pace of play and physicality of the NWSL, looking more impactful in each performance.
Missing key players
While Rose Lavelle and Sullivan, the two Spirit players who figure to be national team regulars under Andonovski, both featured in the Challenge Cup, a minutes restriction for Lavelle and an MCL injury for Sullivan capped their minutes. While the Spirit missed Lavelle’s magic in the midfield, Sullivan’s exit demonstrated how vital she is to linking play through the middle and conducting the movement of her teammates. "She’s just missed in and around the team, whether she’s playing or not," said right back Tori Huster. "We miss her and we hope she’s doing well. She’s already on the road to rehab. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win for her today, but she’s amazing."
The minutes restriction and injury allowed the Spirit to manage situations without Lavelle and Sullivan by giving younger players meaningful minutes. With both players set to miss time next season while on international duty, the Spirit must be able to stay competitive in the league. The constant fluctuations NWSL rosters undergo throughout the season highlight the importance of depth. Teams that are able to maintain a consistent level of play, even when missing their top players, are the ones that have the most success in the league. Using the Challenge Cup as a trial run for the times when Lavelle and Sullivan won’t be available, the Spirit were able to understand and analyze what those absences mean to the team.
Burke is known for his possession based tactics and emphasis on building out of the back. This is the perfect system for the Spirit to utilize, for the center backs and goalie have the passing ability to knock long balls up the field, the outside backs have the speed to dominate the flanks, and the midfield can link up play with the forwards causing dangerous one-on-one matchups. The lynchpin in this entire process though, is Sullivan. The Spirit found success against Chicago and Houston (and to a lesser extent Portland) mainly because Sullivan cleaned up any defensive errors and made sure to move her team forward, avoiding complacency. Without Sullivan and against a capable Sky Blue midfield trio, Bailey and Natalie Jacobs performed admirably, but the Spirit were too often stuck in the defensive half. Just take a look at the passes attempted by the back four in Saturday’s game.
The Spirit played most of their passes between the back line, however, there was a lack of forward movement and distribution. In other words, the Spirit maintained possession in an area of the field that was not immediately dangerous, allowing Sky Blue to sit back and absorb pressure. To further illustrate how the Spirit struggled to build out of the back, here is the heat map from Saturday’s quarterfinal.
With the exception coming on the right wing, the Spirit had trouble truly generating offense. Burke’s brand of soccer is so successful because sustained possession leads to chances, with his teams breaking down the opposition to gain favorable attacking matchups. The issue against Sky Blue, possession did not lead to goals. The Spirit were patient, but spent a majority of the game in their own defensive half and failed to convert on the opportunities they created.
"I thought we dominated the ball, we dominated possession, we played our way, we created chances," Burke said. "Sanchez had a great header in the first half, Sheridan makes a great save, and Kumi’s through one on one, and takes a bad touch, Kumi hits the crossbar, great chances. So, I can’t be complaining and kicking my team when they are down. I was very, very proud of them, I told them that at halftime, on the quality of football they were playing."
And Burke is right, Washington did dominate the possession for a majority of the game. In fact, his team bossed the stat sheet in most categories. Seven shots on goal to Sky Blue’s two. 509 passes to Sky Blue’s 422, with 54-percent of the possession favoring Washington. Despite commanding the game, the Spirit were wasteful with scoring opportunities. "We’re a little bit profligate in the final third where we don’t link right, we don’t link well, we don’t finish chances off that we should," Burke said. "Our ball possession and chance creation levels is pretty good. It’s the execution and completion of that’s a problem for us."
And it wasn’t just Burke who lamented the failed attempts. In a postgame interview, starting goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said, "We’ll regroup. That one definitely hurts. Especially to have the run of play and to not make the most of our opportunities."
As one of the veteran voices on the team, Huster further acknowledged how the team can improve in terms of finishing. "I think that’s something we are going to have to work on, just being clinical on the final third, and is not just down to Hatchy scoring a game-winning goal," she said. "I was, I think, in maybe right in at the penalty spot, could have easily put that away. We had some other chances, but they weren’t clear-cut chances, and that’s something that we are going to need to look at and revisit."
Despite a disappointing end to the Challenge Cup, credit must go to Sky Blue and the work Head Coach Freya Coombe and her staff have put in leading up to the tournament. This is a team that has hit the reset button on its culture and stands committed to improving the atmosphere for its players, staff and fans. All the best in the semis against a talented Red Star team.
"We’ll be back"
I’ll end with some final thoughts courtesy of Bledsoe. "We’ll regroup…I know we’ll bounce back…We’ve got lots of growth ahead for us."