The Washington Spirit will conclude their 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup tonight, as they host NJ/NY Gotham FC at Audi Field tonight. No matter the result, the Spirit cannot advance to the Challenge Cup final, but tonight is still a big occasion: it’s the first time Washington will play in front of fans in the DMV since September 28, 2019.
It also might have some extra meaning to Washington, who spent years utterly dominating their games against their nearest geographic rival. However, in 2020 and 2021, the team that was once Sky Blue FC have eliminated the Spirit from last year’s Challenge Cup on penalties, beaten Washington in the Fall Series with a stoppage-time goal, and came to this venue to win 2-1 just under a month ago.
Resetting the dynamic between the teams might be quite important to the Spirit, who have aims of being closer to the top of the table this year than they’ve had in years.
Key player: Trinity Rodman
Rodman has been the most effective Spirit attacking player in the Challenge Cup, and maybe even the most effective Spirit player full stop. However, itt’s tempting to avoid going too far in hyping a young player that starts their pro career off as well as Rodman has. After all, we’re talking about three games; it’s not a lot of actual data at this point.
On the other hand, Rodman has been electric, and against a Gotham side that has shown a strong preference to staying organized and looking to rely on counters against Washington, it’s on the Spirit to make NJ/NY pay for letting them have possession. It’ll require quicker and more aggressive play all around, and no one has been quicker or more aggressive for the Spirit this year than Rodman.
Rodman may not be thought of as a pass-first creator, but she’s been able to find seams for others, and her ability on the dribble has seen her pile up key passes from multiple spots, both in possession and in transition. The bottom line is that she’s unpredictable, and her ability to pressure defenders without the ball may help tonight as well, given that Gotham has also shown the ability to use possession to take the air out of previous meetings between these teams.
Location: Audi Field (Washington, DC)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Emily Sonnett, Saori Takarada, Tegan McGrady; Julia Roddar, Andi Sullivan, Dorian Bailey; Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez
Bench: Devon Kerr, Camryn Biegalski, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Natalie Jacobs, Chinyelu Asher, Anna Heilferty, Mariana Speckmaier, Kumi Yokoyama
Let’s start with the injury report:
Kelley O’Hara is also out due to a yellow card picked up late in last week’s loss to Orlando. In a 433, she’s probably the right back, but it’ll very likely be Huster there tonight. However, Huster could move into the midfield, with Roddar moving back, or Jacobs could start over Roddar instead.
Richie Burke told reporters at training Saturday that Nielsen and Staab are potentially in consideration to play some minutes tonight, but it didn’t sound like he was planning on starting them. With that in mind, it seems likely that the Spirit will pair Sonnett and Takarada again, which means playing a 433 instead of the 3421 they’ve started previous games in.
Projected Gotham FC starting 11: (4231) - DiDi Haracic; Caprice Dydasco, Gina Lewandowski, Estelle Johnson, Imani Dorsey; Jennifer Cudjoe, Domi Richardson; Paige Monaghan, Sodam Lee, Midge Purce; Carli Lloyd
Freya Coombe has put together a 2-1-1 record against the Spirit over the last nine-and-a-half months, and she’s played a lower-block 4231 in each of those games. As such, we’re expecting that to return, but with McCall Zerboni questionable with a back injury (something she’s been battling for the last couple of years), it’s hard to say who the third central midfielder is. It could be Richardson as the no. 6, or Lee could drop in as the no. 8, with Nicole Baxter or Nahomi Kawasumi playing as an attacking midfielder.
But, Gotham just won a 4-3 thriller against North Carolina playing out of a 433 that included Lloyd as a false 9 who dropped in as a fourth midfielder when out of possession, and Coombe is developing a reputation for being able to adapt to opposing strengths. The 4231 has been her choice against the Spirit, but that 433 helped unleash Purce. It’ll be interesting to see which factor weighs most heavily for Coombe tonight.
Referee: Karen Callado
Available TV: None
Available streaming: Paramount+ (USA only), Twitch (international)
What do we have to say about it?: Nothing yet, but come back later today for a report from training.
What are you drinking?: Probably gonna be water, but I might get ambitious and bring a can of seltzer up to the press box.
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