The Washington Spirit didn’t add to their win total in April, but they also managed to play three respectable games against the clubs currently occupying the top three spots in the NWSL standings. However, the Spirit are looking for wins to go with their improved performances, and in their first-ever game against Utah Royals FC, the door is open.
The club once known as FC Kansas City is winless on the season, but that’s not to say they’ve been pushovers. Laura Harvey’s club has four draws in their five games, and even though they’ve been outplayed for stretches in most of their games, they’ve found a way to bend without breaking at the back, and they’ve been opportunistic in front of goal. At home and just one point behind Washington, they’ll be hungry for their first win.
Key player(s): Estelle Johnson and Whitney Church
Utah has been comfortable playing long balls out of the back both to relieve pressure and to see if they can free Amy Rodriguez up. The USWNT veteran, back from virtually two years out due to pregnancy and a torn ACL, scored her first goal for Utah last week via a combination of opportunism on a long ball followed by a burst of speed and the kind of composure that top goalscorers tend to have.
Johnson and Church need to be dialed in for all 90 minutes, because the Royals have been able to turn a relatively low number of scoring chances into goals of late. Rodriguez, who has dominated multiple NWSL finals, is dangerous enough, but Utah can also call on former Spirit striker Katie Stengel, whose classic target forward approach is a distinct change-up for Harvey. It’s also worth noting that Kelley O’Hara may well be deployed as a winger rather than the fullback position she’s mostly held down with the national team.
On top of all that, this will be the first Spirit game ever played at a high elevation, and the ball tends to travel differently in the thinner air. Much like playing on turf vs. playing on grass, the ball is going to do things Washington doesn’t see on a regular basis, and the center backs (along with goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe) will be tested throughout as a result.
Location: Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy, UT)
Kickoff time: 9:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Taylor Smith, Whitney Church, Estelle Johnson, Caprice Dydasco; Andi Sullivan, Rebecca Quinn, Tori Huster; Mallory Pugh, Ashley Hatch, Francisca Ordega
Bench: Kelsey Wys, Joanna Lohman, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Havana Solaun, Estefania Banini, Tiffany Weimer, Cali Farquharson
Quinn is off the injury report after a hip problem over the past couple of weeks, and while we’re guessing she steps into a starting role, it could well be Sullivan playing the #6 and Dougherty Howard as the third midfielder.
We could also see Banini, who traveled after resting last week following the Copa America Femenina, step in if Jim Gabarra wants a more attack-minded lineup. Banini could join the front line as well, though it seems unlikely that the Spirit want to drop Ordega (3 goals in 3 games), former BYU star Hatch, or Pugh, who has only been the best player on the team thus far this season.
Nevertheless, this is the healthiest the Spirit have been in about 18 months.
Projected Utah starting 11: (4231) - Abby Smith; Sydney Miramontez, Rachel Corsie, Becky Sauerbrunn, Becca Moros; Desiree Scott, Gunnhildur Jonsdottir; Elise Thorsnes, Diana Matheson, Kelley O’Hara; Amy Rodriguez
Harvey has changed her lineup every week so far this season and has a roster full of versatile players, so this is very much a guess. O’Hara could move to left back if the Royals thinks she’s a better player to match up against Pugh, which might open up a spot in the midfield for players like Katie Bowen, Lo’eau LaBonta, or Katrina Gorry. Washington should also watch out for Matheson wherever she lines up, as the Canadian national team veteran remains the Spirit’s all-time leading goalscorer.
Referee: Reyna Fonseca
Available TV: None
What are you drinking?: you know what to do here
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