The Washington Spirit are in the NWSL championship game against the Western New York Flash after a season in which they topped the table for most of the year. That probably paints a settled sort of picture for folks that haven’t followed the team closely, but that picture would be inaccurate. Certain positions have been settled for Washington - the midfield trio is locked in, for example - and we know Crystal Dunn will definitely start somewhere along the front line.
However, coach Jim Gabarra has often shown a preference for tailoring his lineup to the opponent. Throw in an Olympic break that came almost 75% of the way through the season, and a desire to get many different forwards with little NWSL experience acclimated, and the path to having an unpredictable starting eleven at this stage starts to become more clear.
That’s not to say Gabarra has been juggling formations or adopting multiple approaches. The Spirit play the same system home and away: 433, possession soccer, patient build-ups peppered with the occasional long ball designed to put Dunn into space to run against a defender. The player rotations tweak elements of this, but because the Spirit play the same way every week, the rotations in the starting eleven don’t really spark major changes.
Here, then, is what we expect to see in Sunday’s final:
Let’s start with some sure starters. Kelsey Wys, after playing just once before the Olympic break, seized her chance to become the Spirit’s #1 when Stephanie Labbe went with Canada to Brazil. Wys has been solid and steady, qualities commonly associated with team captain Ali Krieger. Krieger’s speed and strength will be helpful against the direct approach the Flash employ, and her experience - we’re talking about a player with winners medals from the World Cup, the Champions League, and the Frauen-Bundesliga - is invaluable for the Spirit.
On the other side, Caprice Dydasco may be the most improved player on the team. After some errors in the season opener, the UCLA product spent six games on the bench, and only returned to the lineup (at right back this time) when Krieger traveled with the USWNT to the Olympics. Whitney Church’s mid-season rise to a starting role saw Gabarra bring her in at right back, and Dydasco went back to the left (displacing Alyssa Kleiner).
Despite the shuffling, Dydasco has played every second of twelve straight games, and her ability to stand up to opposing wingers one-on-one means Gabarra is free to allow her to get forward on the left wing. Nonetheless, the Flash will certainly be trying to challenge her as often as possible via Makenzy Doniak on the right. We might also see Lynn Williams or Jessica McDonald flare out wide looking for a mismatch in terms of physical size, though Dydasco has seen that more than once this year.
Before the Olympics, center back appeared to be just as settled. Megan Oyster and Shelina Zadorsky were the starters, Estelle Johnson was the most likely to step in, and Whitney Church was seen as more of a right back/defensive midfielder. Johnson did replace Zadorsky during Canada’s run to the bronze in Brazil, but there was a major surprise coming after the end of the Olympic break.
The Spirit went to Houston to make up for a rained-out game on August 18th, and Church was starting over an apparently healthy Oyster at center back. Since that game, Oyster has one start, and that was on September 3rd. In the three regular season games and semifinal that have been played since, Church has been paired with Johnson four times and Zadorsky once (in last week’s win over Chicago). Johnson and Zadorsky were also used as a duo for a mid-week game. Oyster has appeared as a sub, but has not started.
Normally this would be cut and dried, but there are some significant wrinkles. Oyster’s one start in all of these games came against Western New York, for one. Gabarra himself said he strongly considered her and Johnson last week before deciding to go with Church against the Red Stars.
Oyster is the biggest talent of the group, and her combination of speed and height are very appealing given the direct nature of the Flash’s style of play. Church may be more physically strong - another area where WNY tests teams - but Paul Riley will surely have seen her vulnerability on early balls over the top. Chicago caused Washington endless trouble going that route, and adopting that approach won’t even be a departure for Western New York. Johnson also offers up a strong argument, as she only committed 3 fouls in 990 regular season minutes. Against arguably the best set piece team in the NWSL, defending without fouling will be important no matter who plays.
Zadorsky was mostly excellent against the Red Stars, particularly in emergency defending inside the box. However, she was beaten on the lone goal of the game, and Johnson did displace her for a while after the Olympics. On the other hand, Zadorsky is the more accomplished passer of the ball, and that may be what keeps her in the team. The Spirit need to make this a game based on possession rather than racing from endline to endline, after all.
As much as the back four has been changed so often, the midfield trio is Washington’s most steady group. Joanna Lohman has played over 85% of the possible minutes she could have this year, and that makes her the member of the midfield that saw the fewest minutes. Lohman’s job is to be the high-energy, physical ball-winner. Tori Huster will hold at the base of the midfield, looking to shut down any attempts to create through the middle. Numerous talented attacking midfielders have found themselves completely unable to influence games due to Huster’s ability to anticipate their plans and block passing lanes.
Christine Nairn (named the team’s MVP yesterday) is the playmaker, but she’s not necessarily a traditional #10. Nairn stays in deeper positions looking to spread play out, and has also shown the occasional knack for shifting wide right to swing crosses in. Nairn’s positioning here is worth watching, as WNY usually uses Abby Erceg as a very conservative #6. Against the Spirit, that role doesn’t make much of a difference because Nairn isn’t often pushing into that space.
Up front, we know Dunn will start, but we don’t know where. She’s mostly been on the right wing, but she started on the left in the semifinal. Of course, Dunn is allowed tremendous latitude to roam around and find the game. Last week, for example, she spent a good chunk of the first half slashing all the way across to the right in an effort to overload Chicago left back Casey Short. No matter where she ends up, Washington will look to feed her the ball as often as possible.
Opposite Dunn...well, it could be a lot of different players. Estefania Banini got the start last weekend, and her ability to unlock defenses and play between the lines could really unsettle the Flash. However, she did seem a bit rusty against the Red Stars, and the competition for this spot is fierce. Plus, Western New York’s speed and physicality could make it hard for Banini to find room to operate.
Spirit veteran Diana Matheson’s work rate and cleverness off the ball are a tempting option. While Matheson is only 5’1”, she is usually able to initiate contact rather than get pushed aside. Cheyna Williams has been dealing with a recent knee injury, but she made the trip to Texas and has become more of a threat on the dribble this season. She’ll add more size and speed in a game where that might be required. Francisca Ordega could theoretically show up on the right as well, though that seems like a bit of a long shot.
Speaking of Ordega, the Nigerian international was brilliant against Chicago, using her work rate, physicality, and ability to create chaos all over the field. However, if Gabarra really wants to slow the pace down and force WNY to get away from their track meet comfort zone, Katie Stengel’s back-to-goal play is an awfully appealing option. It’s worth noting that, in their last meeting, Stengel got the start (and scored Washington’s goal).
Off the bench, one of the non-starting center backs could come in to move the Spirit into a back five. If Washington is protecting a lead, the Flash will be pumping in as many long balls and crosses in as they possibly can, so this would not be a shocking move at all. Gabarras has also turned to Kleiner as a wide midfielder - moving from 433 to 4141 - more than once this year.
Up front, whoever gets the other wide forward spot opposite Dunn will probably get cycled out for another of the many candidates for that role. However, if the Spirit want to push for a goal, we could see a forward come in for Lohman, with Banini dropping into the midfield. Matheson could also come in directly for Lohman, with Nairn dropping off a bit to help Huster. It wouldn’t be surprise to see Stengel sub in for Ordega (or vice versa). If things get desperate, look for either a move to a 424 with Stengel and Ordega paired up as center forwards, or a “352” that really functions as a 334.