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Injuries, surprises, and the Washington Spirit: Looking back on the first month of the season

State of the Spirit looks back on the opening four weeks of the NWSL season

Caitlin Buckley

The start to 2017 has been tough for the Washington Spirit. Fans and observers were heavily critical of their offseason moves, and then once the season got going they saw two vital starters forced out with injuries before they got to their first halftime of the year. The next week? Another starter was forced off injured early, and a second picked up an injury that kept her out for the following two weeks.

All the while, goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe was under siege, and after three games Washington had just one goal despite playing twice at home. All the predictions of a tough year looked like they were coming true. However, last week the Spirit came out on top in a thrilling 4-3 game against Sky Blue. It was the kind of game that can spark a team, but it could also be a false dawn against a team that was missing three starters of their own.

That’s the 35,000 feet view, though. Let’s get into the gritty details. As a reminder, here are the games under discussion:

4/15 - Spirit 0:1 North Carolina Courage
4/22 - Orlando Pride 1:1 Spirit
4/29 - Spirit 0:1 Houston Dash
5/6 - Spirit 4:3 Sky Blue FC

Injuries

The last thing a team that came into 2017 able to call on just four players who started last October’s NWSL final (with two starters from that game injured and five no longer with the club) was a rash of injuries. Figuring out how to incorporate four rookies - that’s 20% of a full roster - and three new acquisitions in Kristie Mewis, Kassey Kallman, and Havana Solaun would be hard enough as is.

Unfortunately, a rash of injuries is exactly what the Spirit have gotten so far. Joanna Lohman, the beating heart of the Spirit in so many ways, played just 19 minutes before having to leave the season opener with what turned out to be a season ending torn ACL. Starting forward Cheyna Williams had to be subbed off with an injury less than 20 minutes later in what was a worst case scenario start to the season.

The next week saw Katie Stengel forced off with what looked like a serious knee injury (mercifully, it turned out to be a shorter-term issue). On top of that, Mewis hurt her quad early in Orlando, and though she gutted it out for 67 minutes, a quad strain kept her out of the next two games. All of these injuries come along with still waiting on Caprice Dydasco, Cali Farquharson, and Kelsey Wys to recover from torn ACLs suffered in 2016.

It’s not entirely surprising, in that context, that the Spirit have started slowly. There isn’t a team in the NWSL deep enough to sustain this many injuries and stay among the playoff places. It also makes Saturday’s win that much more important. Washington found a way to win against Sky Blue despite a) arguably missing four starters from of their front six, b) with Estelle Johnson, a career center back, starting at right back, and c) with three attacking starters (Solaun, Dougherty Howard, and Arielle Ship) having a combined eleven pro appearances.

They’re still a good distance from battling with North Carolina at the top of the standings, but making progress despite the importance of the missing players - not to mention the lack of continuity that comes with those injuries - is a good sign.

Formation changes

The Spirit have gone back and forth between formations, including two in-game switches. With the injuries involved, there’s a solid argument that the 352 gets more of Washington’s best players in positions that are more natural for them. The Spirit have three strong center backs, and dropping one to suit a back four would mean an injury-hit team not putting their best eleven players on the field.

However, it has to be said that the Spirit have looked better in the 433 both from the start (against Sky Blue) and when they changed into it during games (against North Carolina and Houston). The same thing seemed to happen in the preseason. Sometimes a team just plays more comfortably a certain way, and fighting that might not be worth it. In the 433, the Spirit find their passing angles more quickly and seem to transition into the correct defensive positions faster. For the time being, it seems like the way to go.

One key factor here that might allow for the Spirit to has been Estelle Johnson’s play as a right back. When the Spirit have changed out of the 352, they’ve moved her into a wider role while dropping Kassey Kallman into a left back role. After the Houston game, Johnson told reporters that she hadn’t played as a fullback since her time with the Philadelphia Independence back in the days of WPS, but she’s more than holding her own out there.

That allows the Spirit to play 433 even when the club’s one natural right back Caprice Dydasco is building up to start playing after a torn ACL last season, and it also means not having to throw Cameron Castleberry - a winger at UNC who appears to be a player they want to convert to right back - into the deep end of the pool a month into her rookie season.

Pleasant surprises

In 2016, the NWSL’s speed of play seemed a bit too high for Line Sigvardsen Jensen, and it also appeared that she was only really comfortable in the deep role occupied by Tori Huster. While she appeared to be a player capable of playing in the NWSL, the Danish international didn’t exactly take the world by storm.

So when Joanna Lohman’s season was ended just 19 minutes into the opener, it was hard to know what to expect from Sigvardsen Jensen, who became a starting midfielder as a result of that injury. She had some decent preseason moments, including a goal from 45 yards, but out-of-season college teams aren’t the same as an NWSL league match.

That first appearance didn’t go all that well, but then the Spirit as a whole struggled for the full 90 against the Courage. However, Sigvardsen Jensen was having a quietly solid game the next weekend even before scoring Washington’s first goal of the season in Orlando, and very nearly repeated the feat the next week against Houston (the headers on both goals were virtually identical).

Last week, Sigvardsen Jensen completed 92.7% of her passes in what was otherwise a hectic game full of vertical play and turnovers. Her early assist for Francisca Ordega’s opener was a big plus, and she once again nearly scored from a free kick served into the box. It was probably her best game since joining the team.

Sigvardsen Jensen has managed to be legitimately dangerous in attacking situations one or two times a game on a consistent basis despite having to play further forward (she’s now the Spirit’s #8) than what is probably her comfort zone. That’s an element that I don’t think people expected out of her, and she’ll have to maintain it for the Spirit to remain an unpredictable for their opponents.

Elsewhere, Havana Solaun’s role on arrival was not exactly clear. In Seattle, Solaun was seen as an attacking midfielder, but during the preseason Gabarra used her centrally, as a wide forward, and even as a wingback. Other offseason acquisitions (mainly Mewis) left her with no clear path to playing time in the middle, and the Spirit’s forward line is stocked with a ton of options.

In the opener against North Carolina, Solaun provided a rare spark for the Washington attack, earning the chance to start in Orlando. There, she very nearly scored and was involved in most of the Spirit’s notable chances. While the Houston game didn’t go that well for her, she rebounded this past weekend with one goal and one assist against Sky Blue.

Mewis, Stengel, and Cheyna Williams are all inching their way back towards playing again (all three are in the Spirit’s traveling party for tomorrow’s game), but Solaun’s play has been strong enough that she’s probably going to stay heavily involved in the lineup.

What needs to improve

While the Spirit are making progress, there’s still plenty of work to be done if they’re going to win consistently. In possession, they need to be more mobile off the ball to allow for the one- and two-touch passing that was so common last year. Part of that is the lack of familiarity within a squad that changed a lot this offseason, but even with that in mind the Spirit could be doing better.

Defensively, Washington has struggled to maintain a good shape all over the field on a consistent basis. That has made it easy for their opponents to attack them, and harder for the Spirit to pressure the ball in numbers. That has allowed for other teams to swing the ball wide frequently, and switching the point of attack has exposed some substantial gaps.

They’ll also have to work on how they administer a lead. In Orlando, having frustrated their hosts and taken a lead on the hour mark, they endured unceasing pressure before eventually giving up a late equalizer. Last weekend against Sky Blue, they saw an early 1-0 lead disappear quickly. They responded to that well, getting back out to a 3-1 lead, but they ended up only winning 4-3 (a result preserved by a fantastic 94th minute Stephanie Labbe save).

Most importantly, though, Washington needs to start games better. The Courage and Dash both dominated the early going at the Soccerplex, and both got themselves a lead inside the first 30 minutes. Even in their win over Sky Blue, the Spirit nearly conceded within the first 80 seconds (not to mention giving away two good chances and a goal in the first five minutes of the second half).

If nothing else, Washington has to start games with the right mentality and the right level of focus. Winding up on the back foot, even in home games, has served to exacerbate all of the other issues they’re having, and it’s no secret that getting out in front in soccer usually leads to good outcomes. Starting with tomorrow’s game against Seattle - a team that jumped all over the Dash at home en route to a 5-1 win - the Spirit have to be dialed in from kickoff.