It’s been a challenging offseason for the Washington Spirit, who went from losing a championship in an extraordinarily cruel fashion to seeing numerous starters depart or get injured. After all those changes, a new-look Spirit side will be tested right out of the gate, as they’re hosting the 2016 NWSL champions. The Western New York Flash were the side who took the title out of Washington’s hands, but they’ve since moved south and become the North Carolina Courage.
Key player: Katie Stengel
As the Flash last year, North Carolina scored 40 goals in 20 regular season games (that’s five more than anyone else), and then produced 6 more goals in two overtime playoff matches. While the Spirit managed to go up to Rochester and shut them out, the fact is that the Courage are not the kind of team you expect to beat 1-0.
The Spirit is most likely going to need to two or three times to get a win, in other words, and it appears that Stengel’s play is going to be vital. Washington looked more and more like they’re focused on playing to Stengel’s feet and relying on her ability to dish the ball off from there as a major part of their attack. If Stengel can find Cheyna Williams on the run, or drop the ball off to Kristie Mewis coming from the midfield, the Spirit attack will be able to generate enough chances to keep pace in what might turn into a shootout.
Location: Maryland Soccerplex (Boyds, MD)
Kickoff time: 3:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (352) - Stephanie Labbe; Estelle Johnson, Whitney Church, Shelina Zadorsky; Cameron Castleberry, Joanna Lohman, Tori Huster, Kristie Mewis, Kassey Kallman; Cheyna Williams, Katie Stengel
Bench: DiDi Haracic, Alyssa Kleiner, Line Sigvardsen Jensen, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Lindsay Agnew, Arielle Ship, Francisca Ordega
The Spirit are going to be by and large a 433 team this season, but I can’t shake the suspicion that the same 352 that actually worked pretty well in the NWSL final will be what we see against a direct, physical North Carolina side. The focus on playing half the preseason in the 352 would have been misplaced if head coach Jim Gabarra weren’t using it in an early game.
However, if they opt for 433, look for one of Johnson or Church to move to the bench, with Castleberry and Kallman moving to right and left back, respectively, and Ship likely coming into the lineup as a wide forward opposite Williams.
Projected Courage starting 11: (442) - Sabrina D’Angelo; Yuri Kawamura, Abby Dahlkemper, Courtney Niemiec, Jaelene Hinkle; Debinha, McCall Zerboni, Samantha Mewis, Rosana; Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams
Abby Erceg, who seemed likely to replace for the departed Alanna Kennedy at center back after being a defensive midfielder for much of last season, is out with a knee injury. Niemiec is the most likely replacement, but if there’s a weakness in this Courage lineup, it’ll be right up the gut.
On the other hand, the addition of Debinha and Rosana has arguably made an outstanding attack even more dynamic. The forward duo of Williams and McDonald is still the main problem, though, as both piled up goals and assists throughout 2016.
Referee: Ekaterina Koroleva
Available TV: None
What do we have to say about it?: Our field guide includes links to our preseason recaps, an overall team preview, and previews of the defense, midfield, and forwards. It’s the most exhaustive resource on what to expect out of Washington this season.
From the other side, the fine folks at Dirty South Soccer have a preview from the Courage perspective.
What are you drinking?: Coffee on my way in (probably an Americano), and water in the press box. We’re trying to be professional over here.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion as the Spirit get 2017 underway!