The Washington Spirit are back at Audi Field tonight, with another huge crowd expected as they host Reign FC. The occasion is already big enough just based on ticket sales, but this game is also absolutely critical to Washington’s playoff hopes. The Spirit have six games left to play, and are six points outside of the final NWSL playoff spot at the moment. They’re also five points back of their opponent tonight, which essentially makes this game a must-win.
With Mal Pugh back and expected to start, and Reign FC bringing her USWNT teammates Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long to town, the game’s stage and importance are only amplified. Tonight should be one to remember.
Key player: Jordan DiBiasi
The key to defeating this perennially organized Reign FC side remains ideas and quick passing in the midfield. That makes this a bad game to be without Rose Lavelle, but that’s exactly the scenario the Spirit face tonight. The return of Mal Pugh from injury will give them field-stretching speed and the ability to break defensive lines on the dribble, but ultimately Washington’s hopes hinge on how well they pass the ball in the final third.
That’s where DiBiasi comes in. The rookie has been among the Spirit’s top goalscorers this season, and she’s often able to draw defenders before moving the ball along. Tonight, against a team that features plenty of experience in the spine of their lineup, DiBiasi needs to be at her best. Any time spend dwelling on the ball will allow Reign FC to get into their defensive shape, which is the path to another cagey game between these teams. With the Spirit needing a win, they’ve got to regularly open the game up, and it’s hard to imagine them doing that without a standout performance from DiBiasi.
Location: Audi Field (Washington, DC)
Kickoff time: 7:30pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Amy Harrison; Andi Sullivan, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Jordan DiBiasi; Mal Pugh, Ashley Hatch, Crystal Thomas
Bench: Shae Yanez, Megan Crosson, Bayley Feist, Chloe Logarzo, Cali Farquharson, Cheyna Matthews, Arielle Ship
Richie Burke will have to do without Lavelle, who remains in concussion protocol after not being cleared by US Soccer, as well as Tegan McGrady (thigh) and Dorian Bailey (ankle). Elise Kellond-Knight has returned to training after a hamstring strain, but Burke ruled her out in terms of being able to start against her former club. There’s a chance she could figure into the 18 ahead of Crosson or Ship, but this game might have come a few days too soon for her.
That leaves Harrison as the probable starter at left back. Elsewhere, with Pugh fit to play somewhere in the 60-70 minute range, look for Burke to go back to the 433 he has preferred whenever she’s been available.
Projected Reign starting 11: (4231) - Casey Murphy; Theresa Nielsen, Megan Oyster, Celia Jimenez Delgado, Steph Catley; Allie Long, Beverly Yanez; Bethany Balcer, Rosie White, Darian Jenkins; Jodie Taylor
The structure here could end up being 433, with Long dropping deep underneath Yanez and White, but there’s a home game/road game difference in how Vlatko Andonovski has been setting Reign FC up of late, and dual holding midfielders is the more defensively secure look.
The big news here is that captain Lauren Barnes is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. She’s been ever-present this season, and it’s not 100% clear who would replace her at center back. Andonovski has former Spirit defender/midfielder Rebecca Quinn and former Spirit draft pick Schuyler DeBree in his ranks, but recently opted for Jimenez Delgado as part of a back 5 at North Carolina, so look for the Spanish international to get the nod.
Referee: Jon Freemon
Available TV: NBC Sports Washington
Available streaming: Monumental Sports Network, Yahoo (domestic). That link will take you right to the stream.
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What do we have to say about it?: We have a report from training, including some injury updates and thoughts on the game from Burke and Sullivan, and yours truly talked more about this game on the latest episode of Coffee & Valkyries.
What are you drinking?: You know wholoves to drink water in the press box at Audi Field? Why, it’s me, Jason!
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion.