It doesn’t take a lot to figure out that the Washington Spirit have a huge game tonight as they host the Chicago Red Stars. The standings tell the story: the Red Stars and Reign FC both have 26 points, and they hold the final two NWSL playoff spots. The Spirit, on 21 points, already face a tough task in having to make up that deficit with 9 games left in the season. A loss today would leave Washington with virtually no room for error in the final third of the NWSL season.
If that feels a little alarmist, take a look at the schedule. The Spirit only have four more home games after this. They have to play two road games against the Portland Thorns (whose home-heavy schedule makes them favorites to win the NWSL Shield), and they also have to play one more match against a North Carolina Courage side that has won every single meeting between the clubs.
There’s also the question of form: the Spirit have one win in seven games, and four losses in their last five. The Red Stars, meanwhile, have four straight wins and have only conceded one goal in that time. Getting themselves back on course while slowing the momentum of a team that has one of those precious playoff berths? That’s just what the doctor ordered.
Key player: Sam Staab
The Red Stars have Sam Kerr, and one half of the Spirit’s normal center back duo (Paige Nielsen) is suspended. That’s...bad. Kerr is a force of nature who has just about everything you could want in a forward. Her speed and off-the-ball movement makes her the league’s best player at turning through balls into goals, while she’s also borderline unstoppable in the air. She’s leading the NWSL scoring table by 4 goals (or, 50% of the next-best player’s total) despite having missed several games playing for Australia at the World Cup. You can’t help but marvel at her.
It’s unclear who the Spirit will bring in alongside Staab, but generally speaking, she’s been the player making the largest number of plays inside the box. Being able to produce several big defensive plays inside the 18 — winning headers, slide tackles, last-ditch blocks — is a requirement for keeping Kerr (not to mention the other outstanding Red Stars attackers) from taking over a game.
Today is probably going to be the biggest test yet for Staab, who has to do all that while also avoiding mistakes, likely leading both teams in total touches and passes attempted, and adding a set piece threat. Basically, it’s hard to see the Spirit coming out on top without Staab having a standout performance.
Location: Maureen Hendricks Field at Maryland SoccerPlex (Boyds, MD)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, McKenzie Berryhill, Sam Staab, Elise Kellond-Knight; Andi Sullivan, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Jordan DiBiasi; Cheyna Matthews, Ashley Hatch, Rose Lavelle
Bench: Shae Yanez, Carlin Hudson, Amy Harrison, Dorian Bailey, Bayley Feist, Cali Farquharson, Arielle Ship
It’s unclear whether Richie Burke will go with Berryhill, Hudson, or an unorthodox solution (Huster? Sullivan?) to replace Nielsen. Our guess is Berryhill, but it’s virtually a coin flip between her and Hudson at center back.
Elsewhere, the Spirit are without Mallory Pugh (hip) and Chloe Logarzo as well, making this a very difficult game indeed. Look for Matthews to replace Logarzo on the wing, while Rose Lavelle will return from USWNT duty and figures to step into the starting eleven in Bailey’s spot.
Projected Chicago starting 11: (4231) - Alyssa Naeher; Casey Short, Katie Naughton, Sarah Gorden, Arin Wright; Julie Ertz, Nikki Stanton; Yuki Nagasato, Vanessa DiBernardo, Katie Johnson; Sam Kerr
Rory Dames is in a tricky spot, as three key starters (Morgan Brian, Danielle Colaprico, and Tierna Davidson) are all questionable. He has the depth to hold all three out from his starting eleven, and as he’s been trying to manage minutes all year via rotation and smart trades — this team is so deep they can bring Savannah McCaskill in off the bench, even while resting three starters — so we expect him to lean in that direction.
However, he could easily bring Brian or Colaprico in for Stanton in defensive midfield alongside Ertz, while Davidson could come in at left back. In the latter scenario, Wright would probably push up to play as a left winger, with Johnson almost certainly the first substitute to check in.
Referee: Ekaterina Koroleva
Available TV: NBC Sports Washington
What are you drinking?: Feels like a good day for a cold brew coffee on the way in, and some water once I’m there.
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