A brutal summer heat wave was not enough to force the Washington Spirit to alter their preparations for tomorrow night’s game against the Houston Dash. It’s been so hot out that the game’s kickoff time has been pushed back to 8:00pm. Today’s post-training interviews weren’t immune, as Burke greeted the media under the shade of trees at one end of the Maryland SoccerPlex’s stadium rather than standing out in the sun.
While the rest of the NWSL got to play last week, Washington is coming off of a bye, and according to head coach Richie Burke, the time off did his squad some good.
“We needed to really regroup,” said Burke, reflecting back on two consecutive losses that represent his side’s first real wobble of the season. “Those two results were not exactly what we wanted, but some of the performances in spells were pretty good... We hope we get back to doing what we’re really good at.”
Washington’s plans have not been helped by a recent string of extraordinarily hot days that have seen temperatures regularly approach triple digits. “It’s very difficult to ask the players to perform at their optimum level,” said Burke after what he termed a “light” session in terms of physical exertion. “There were no high-intensity loadings today whatsoever. We’re basically going through a little bit of shape and working on our organization, our structure.”
Burke made sure to add that this isn’t really a change from the norm. “These are typically short [sessions]...organization, restarts, things of that nature that are just fine-tuning, the finer details. Most of the hard work and the main structure of what we want to achieve for the week is done Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.”
Asked if the weather was going to alter his approach against a Dash side that walked out of the Plex with a scoreless draw last month, Burke pointed out that the Spirit’s typical style of play may actually be more suited to this weather than teams who are more aggressive without the ball. “[The heat] is a factor, you know, but our philosophy and our style of play is helpful a little bit. We don’t like to chase and press... We like teams to cough the ball up through our structure and our organization. We have a semi-press for 3-4 seconds out of possession, and then we let them turn over to us through our structure. When we have [the ball], we value it and we keep it.”
Burke said he expects a different dynamic than their last meeting, in which it took well over an hour before the Spirit started generating any real momentum against an organized, stubborn Houston side. “We’ll have the capacity to go a little bit more direct. Mal Pugh’s lightning quick, and she’s very savvy and times her runs brilliantly, so they’ll need to be very cautious of that. We’ve been changing our tempo a bit, especially in that final third, and hopefully that’ll create some problems for them.”
Nonetheless, with a forecast pointing to a temperature well above 90 degrees even at the later start time, Burke expected the heat to be an unavoidable obstacle for both teams. “I think the game will be decided in little fits and starts, little 2-3 minute bursts of explosive play or explosive movement. That might well be the deciding factor, and hopefully it’ll be from one of our players.”
The Spirit have been buoyed in recent days by both returning USWNT players and a new acquisition. Pugh was training with no apparent limitations, and Burke termed her “raring to go.”
However, in the case of most of those players, there’s a catch. Pugh is a good example: she hasn’t started a competitive game since the U.S.’s 3-0 win over Chile back on June 16, and as a result is not quite 90 minutes fit. “Because she hasn’t played enough [recently], she’s probably gonna be at 75-80 minutes. If we get to that stage with her, we’ll look on our watch and be very happy,” said Burke.
Midfielder/defender Amy Harrison, who has a total of 59 minutes played for club and country since leaving for France back in May, is in a similar situation. An injury relapse for rookie Tegan McGrady (quadriceps) could see her get a start at left back, as was the case against the North Carolina Courage at the end of June, but Burke has options. Megan Crosson — who missed Washington’s last two games with an illness — is off the injury report, and Dorian Bailey could also retain her spot after starting in the 4-3 loss to the Orlando Pride two weeks ago.
Burke also sounded a note of caution with Harrison’s international teammates. Elise Kellond-Knight, recently acquired in a trade with Reign FC, started twice in France for the Matildas, but between post-tournament recovery and the vagaries of being traded to a team on the other side of the country, needs some time to work her way into full fitness. “Elise is still a ways off. She’s probably at about 35 minutes max, where she can really play at a high intensity level,” said Burke.
There may also be an issue with the third of the Spirit’s Aussie contingent, as midfielder Chloe Logarzo has picked up a knock just this week. “Logarzo this week had a little bit of a breakdown. She’s got a little tweak in her calf that’s symptomatic of this stop-start, action, no action, games, no games... We’ve had to manage that, and our medical staff’s been brilliant with that one.”
Finally, Rose Lavelle is expected back from being honored in her hometown of Cincinnati in time for tomorrow’s game, but is almost certainly not going to play against the Dash. The club’s plan is for her to take the Houston game in from the stands before possibly being in uniform for Wednesday night’s road game against Sky Blue FC.
“Rosie is the type of player that would play on the side of a hill, field full of rocks, with a cheat for a referee. She doesn’t care, she just wants to play. But I’m hoping that we can get her to the point where she can play next Wednesday against New Jersey. That’s the target for her,” said Burke of the scorer of the USWNT’s crucial second goal in their World Cup final triumph.