The Washington Spirit’s game against Reign FC tomorrow night was always going to be a big deal. It’s the club’s second match at Audi Field in 2019, and the Spirit are approaching another sell out. USWNT star Megan Rapinoe, a staple for the visitors, would have been a draw even before the World Cup, but since winning the tournament’s Golden Ball, her fame has transcended the soccer bubble.
Most importantly for Washington? It’s effectively a do-or-die game as far as their NWSL playoff hopes are concerned. The Spirit are 5 points behind Reign FC in the standings, with a game in hand, and depending on the result of tonight’s game between the Houston Dash and Utah Royals FC, could be anywhere between 6-9 points out of the final playoff spot when the whistle blows on Buzzard Point.
“Playing in front of a crowd in a stadium like that is great for us. And they’re well aware of the consequences of results at this stage. We’ve targeted this little three-game mini-season...to propel us into the playoff picture. It’s a sort of win at all costs mindset. We’re not looking for points, we’re looking for wins,” declared head coach Richie Burke after training on Monday.
Still, Burke admitted that the occasion is hard to completely ignore. “It’s difficult not to [have a different mentality],” explained Burke. “But you know, for us, we train the way we’ve trained all season long. We maintain our quality and our principles of how we want to play.”
“I think we’re just locked in on a good performance and three points. I think all those external things will benefit us, and it’s just giving us some extra fuel,” added captain Andi Sullivan.
The Spirit got a bit of bad news as the week wore on, as Rose Lavelle was ruled out of the match after not clearing US Soccer’s concussion protocol. Both Burke and Lavelle had expressed some cautious optimism about her prospects to play some part on Saturday, but ultimately she’ll miss her third straight match since being hit in the head by the ball in a 3-1 loss at Portland.
Lavelle is joined on the injury report by rookie Dorian Bailey, who sustained an ankle injury during what has turned into a three-week gap between games. The Spirit were supposed to face the Orlando Pride a week after beating them 2-1 at Audi Field, but that game was postponed due to Hurricane Dorian’s approach.
With Bailey and Tegan McGrady (thigh) out, and Elise Kellond-Knight only just back from a hamstring strain suffered just under a month ago (Burke seemed unsure whether she would be fit enough to even make the bench at this juncture), left back remains a question mark for the Spirit. Most likely, Amy Harrison will make her first start since early August as a result.
The news wasn’t all bad, though. Mallory Pugh, who had missed five straight games with a hip injury, made her return to action during the USWNT’s last pair of Victory Tour games, and was training without restriction this week. She is expected to start up front, whether the Spirit continue to play with two forwards or revert back to the 433 they’ve largely preferred when Pugh has been available.
On the gap between games, Burke chose to highlight a positive. “Typical of a squad at this stage in the season, got a couple of niggles and bumps and bruises... It’s been difficult to manage, but in truth there’s a couple players who could use a little bit of extra days [off]. Some of them have been carrying knocks and trying to get away with it, trying to push through, and [the break] has given them a chance to recover.”
Burke noted that Washington had a closed-door scrimmage at the Maryland SoccerPlex this past Saturday to help maintain sharpness and to get back into the rhythm of playing serious games.
For her part, Sullivan seemed confident in the side’s ability to be at their best despite the unexpected break. “I think this group has been very good at dealing with things that are kind of unexpected. You know, we’ve had lots of weather delays and things like that. I think everyone’s been extremely professional, and I’ve been impressed with that.”
Washington’s games against Reign FC have both been tight, tactical affairs that ended with neither team grabbing a win. A 0-0 draw at the Plex back in early May was followed by a 1-1 stalemate in Tacoma in mid-June. Burke noted that head coach Vlatko Andonovski “is a very good tactical coach” before adding that the presence of Rapinoe and Allie Long — both of whom were not available when the teams met previously — is a potential game-changer.
Asked how the Spirit could open the game up against a well-drilled opponent, Burke said “A big field, a big stadium, a little different tactical tweak for us hopefully will open up what we want. Speed of play and technical speed is going to be a big factor for us, because if we don’t play quick enough, they’ll assemble and defend in the way that they do.”
Sullivan said that the Spirit had been spending plenty of time in training on their execution in the final third. “That’s something we’ve been struggling with the last few weeks. We have a lot of great build-up and setting up chances, but just the final dagger [hasn’t been there]. That’s less about preparing for them and more about preparing ourselves.”
Still, as much as the Spirit are focused on the game in front of them, there’s still some room to appreciate the positives of having a big game on such a big stage. Sullivan said that she didn’t really get a chance to think about it until after the victory over Orlando was complete. “It didn’t really hit me until afterwards, especially being from this area and seeing all these people from my hometown,” explained the Virginia native. “I was a fan, growing up in this area, through multiple leagues and never got to see a crowd like that. I just think about all the players that came before me, and the foundation that they laid so that I could be a player playing on that field. It’s awesome. So I want to pay it forward...for the players that come after me.”