The Washington Spirit got five goals from five different players on Saturday night to beat the University of North Carolina 5-0. Despite a slow start, the Spirit’s attack strengthened throughout the night. None of the five goals were particularly traditional: a 45-yard rocket, an own goal, a long, unassisted run, a free kick from 20 yards out, and a goal on an empty net. While the Spirit couldn’t create much centrally, they found various ways to get around that.
The Spirit maintained the 3-5-2 formation the team used last week, though Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra indicated after the game that the 3-5-2 isn’t necessarily going to be the club’s primary system this season. “It’s a system that we didn’t work on as much last year,” Gabarra said. “We’re not going to have just one system. Last year that was the system we went to at the end and we need to work on it before we go back to our primary system that we used most of the season last year.”
“Shelina [Zadorsky] and Steph [Labbe] are only here for a couple of weeks and we felt like it was important to work on that system first,” added Gabarra, referencing the upcoming Canadian national team camp.
The Spirit made just one change to their starting lineup from last week’s win over Penn State, with Stephanie Labbe replacing DiDi Haracic in goal. That said, there was a tweak in alignment, as Joanna Lohman played further forward than her midfield partners Tori Huster and Line Sigvardsen Jensen:
The game started off slow for both sides, but the Spirit were able to get some shots off. Cheyna Williams and unsigned draft pick Cameron Castleberry (twice) had shots in the opening ten minutes. The Spirit were possessing well in the midfield but couldn’t turn that into an attack. Castleberry did well driving forward from the right but on the left flank, Kassey Kallman - who was most often a center back for the Boston Breakers - played more defensively.
Katie Stengel had to drop too far back in order to get the ball and while she is adept at setting up her teammates, she isn’t the player to create her own chances. As a result, the Spirit had to rely on turnovers and poor goalkeeping from UNC to get going in the first half. Gabarra noted their struggles at generating an early attack: “We were really disappointed in the first thirty minutes. I think our passing and movement, which is something we focused on, was really poor.”
Around the half hour mark, things started to change. Castleberry passed to Stengel on the right flank, who in turn set up Williams. After some contact, Williams took a tumble, but no call was coming.
In the 34th minute, Line Sigvardsen Jensen got her first goal with the Spirit. After a through ball forced her to come out of the box to clear, UNC goalkeeper Samantha Leshnak mis-hit the ball straight to Sigvardsen Jensen. The Denmark international easily settled the low ball and lofted a 45-yard shot to the upper corner while Leshnak was out of position.
UNC had a couple close chances, with none better than a 40th minute breakaway. UNC forced a quick transition after a Spirit corner kick saw Huster nearly score with a header. Forward Megan Buckingham had a fast breakaway, forcing Labbe to come way off her line. Buckingham rounded Labbe, and seemed sure to convert into an empty net. Defender Estelle Johnson tracked back fast and managed to force a low-angle shot from Buckingham, who hit the outside of the post.
“There was a bit of miscommunication from our back three and that’s a problem we’re going to have to fix,” Zadorsky said. “I think that is just making sure we’ve got the cover. With three, we can be exposed if we don’t get the timing right, but credit to Estelle for getting back.”
Five minutes into the second half, the Spirit got some good fortune. Stengel sent a corner kick into the goalmouth which the goalkeeper fumbled, partly thanks to pressure from Johnson, and couldn’t recover fast enough to prevent an own goal.
Williams scored a solo goal two minutes later. Catching a loose ball from a UNC turnover, Williams sped up the right wing and converted to the far post while fans were still sorting out how the previous goal had gone in.
The Spirit made four substitutions in the 54th minute. The formation remained the same, with Kristie Mewis, Lindsay Agnew, Arielle Ship, and Meggie Dougherty-Howard all stepping right into the roles vacated by Lohman, Williams, Stengel, and Huster:
In the 67th minute, Johnson and Kallman were replaced by trialist (and former Boston Breakers defender) Lauren Lazo and offseason acquisition Havana Solaun. Lazo took up Johnson’s spot in the three-back and Solaun - who per our friends at Ride of the Valkyries did see occasional time out wide while with Seattle Reign FC - taking over for Kallman as the left wingback.
It took Ship and Agnew a while to get integrated into the attack, but by the end of the half both rookies had several great chances. In the 73rd minute, Ship had a breakaway as the Spirit broke UNC’s attempt to pressure, but nothing came of it. A minute later, Ship made another good run and despite nearly being knocked over by a Tar Heels defender, she managed to pull off a decent shot.
Moments later, Gabarra made two more like-for-like subs, replacing Castleberry with trialist Crystal Thomas on the right flank. Another trialist, Marion Crowder, replaced Sigvardsen Jensen at defensive midfield.
Thomas, a Georgetown product, had an instant impact, delivering a powerful cross from the right flank to Agnew who was in a great spot. Unfortunately, the Ohio State product shot a yard over the crossbar. UNC had a brief reply, as forward Sydney Spruill had a run through the center in the 76th minute that Labbe stopped.
Mewis was instrumental in opening up the Spirit attack, functioning as the playmaker the Spirit lacked in the first half. She hit a hard, curving shot that crashed off the post in the 78th minute, giving a preview of what she could do going to goal.
Agnew had a breakaway in the 80th minute and drew a foul one yard outside the box. Mewis took a powerful free kick which whipped over the wall with such speed that UNC’s goalkeeper didn’t have time to react.
“With the Breakers a couple years ago I hit a pretty good one, but it just felt right and I was ready for it. I just had this weird feeling and knew it was going in and I hit it perfectly,” Mewis said.
Mewis created a couple more chances in the final minutes of the game. Her pass in the 84th minute set up a Ship shot which hit the crossbar but no Spirit player was in the goalmouth for the rebound.
In the final minute, Mewis was deep in the midfield but sent a through ball to Agnew who beat the UNC goalkeeper in a race for the ball. 30 yards out of goal, Agnew gave herself some space before rolling a long shot into the unguarded net.
Mewis performed very well as playmaker, but she has yet to start this preseason. When asked about that, Gabarra said “You can see what she can do on the offensive side of the ball. It’s going to take some time for her to learn and get adjusted to how we want to play, and she’s made a lot of strides in two weeks, but she hasn’t done enough to get to where we’re going to [start her].”
Gabarra added that “There are other players in the middle of the park that have been with us and playing the way we want to play. It’s great to see her reaction when she gets on the field, she’s scoring goals and trying to do the things the way we ask of her.”
Despite heavy pressure from UNC, the Spirit played much better this week than last Saturday against Penn State. Naturally, some of the improvement was down to fewer lineup changes during the game, but the Spirit looked much more comfortable in the 3-5-2 than they did last week. Even though UNC tried to attack more than Penn State, the Spirit held up defensively down both flanks.
On when Washington would deploy the 3-5-2, Gabarra indicated it would depend on several factors. “We’ll use it depending on opponent, home or away, depending on where we are in the game...we need to make sure each player is comfortable in their role.”
On the injury front, Francisca Ordega and Alyssa Kleiner were held out due to what a Spirit spokesperson termed slight injuries.
Meanwhile, Caprice Dydasco - who tore her left ACL in the NWSL final - participated in some warm-ups with the team. Gabarra was optimistic about her recovery.
“She’s doing really well. We have to put the reins on her, make sure she doesn’t come back too quickly, but she’s way ahead of schedule. Her return to play, she could probably be back in 6-8 weeks, it’s crazy. It’s also something where we’re going to make sure we...don’t rush her back and she re-injures herself trying to get back too quickly,” Gabarra said.
Next Saturday the Spirit return to the Maryland Soccerplex to play Duke University. Kickoff is set for 2:00pm.