The NWSL Challenge Cup wasn’t where the Washington Spirit were supposed to end up. 2020 was supposed to be a big year for the Spirit, who with new leadership on and off the field showed real promise. The idea for this year was to take the next step forward, to move from being a team that played pretty soccer to one that could consistently worry any other NWSL club.
And then, just after the club flew to Florida to start their preseason, the world ground to a near-halt. The league, with so much momentum following the USWNT’s World Cup triumph last year, had to scramble to even have games at all. It’s awkward, among other things, but it’s what we’ve got.
And for the Spirit, who kick off today against the Chicago Red Stars, it’s still an opportunity. A club that has never lifted a trophy is dead set on creating a winning culture, and make no mistake: winning the Challenge Cup would go a long way towards doing that.
Key player: Ashley Hatch
The Red Stars, having undergone some significant changes in the offseason and missing their best passers on the back four and in the midfield due to injury, are looking like a team that might be opting to grind things out while giving younger players a chance to prove themselves. That sounds like an opening for the Spirit to make a statement, but they should be wary of overconfidence. After all, with this long between real games, the approach that’s less likely to end with big mistakes is the no-frills, physical style.
Washington’s entire team will have to be very sharp to play Richie Burke’s possession-oriented style, but even if they are, they may find chances hard to come by. That brings us to Hatch, who may finally have a supporting cast built for her skill set. There may not be a ton of chances or fluid play tonight, but when those looks come, Washington can’t afford for their leading scorer in each of the last two seasons to misfire.
Location: Zions Bank Stadium (Herriman, UT)
Kickoff time: 10:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Natalie Jacobs, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady; Jordan DiBiasi, Andi Sullivan, Rose Lavelle; Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch, Kumi Yokoyama
Bench: Devon Kerr, Katie Lund, Kaiya McCullough, Tori Huster, Jenna Hellstrom, Dorian Bailey, Jessie Scarpa, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Bayley Feist, Meghan McCool, Averie Collins, Katie McClure
Washington has talked about a 3412, but judging from Burke’s comments to the media yesterday, I think we’ll see a 433 in this specific game. He confirmed that Sanchez will start speaking to media on Thursday, and hinted that Jacobs could get her first pro start as well.
Elsewhere, it seems doubtful that there are many surprises. Burke is excited about the potential of Yokoyama helping Hatch becoming a dominant goalscorer, and Washington getting to put Lavelle, Sullivan, and DiBiasi together all at once was exceedingly rare last year.
NWSL teams can dress every player for games during the Challenge Cup, but the Spirit are very likely going to have three players in street clothes:
Projected Chicago starting 11: (4231) - Alyssa Naeher; Zoey Goralski, Sarah Gorden, Julie Ertz, Casey Short; Morgan Brian, Vanessa DiBernardo; Savannah McCaskill, Yuki Nagasato, Kealia Watt; Rachel Hill
Rory Dames is probably going to put his best available team on the field for this game, but it’s not clear what that team is. This is partially due to Chicago having versatile players, but there are also injuries to key starters Tierna Davidson and Danny Colaprico. Goralski or Bianca St. Georges could start at right back, or we could see Short at center back and Julia Bingham on the left.
In the attack, Michele Vasconcelos could easily end up starting on either wing after having a great 2019 season cut short by injury. Nagasato and Watt are probable starters, but Vasconcelos, McCaskill, Hill, and others are all vying for the other two roles in the front four.
Referee: Katja Koroleva
Available TV: None live. The league originally said games would re-air on CBS Sports Network, but since the schedule shift once the Orlando Pride opted out of the tournament, there’s no schedule for when games will be replayed on TV.
What do we have to say about it?: Yours truly is 50% of a brand-new Spirit podcast that you have plenty of time to listen to before kickoff:
We’ve also got more in-depth previews of Chicago, North Carolina, Portland, and Houston, as well as pieces on the thoughtful responses to the Black Lives Matter movement from McCullough and McGrady (we have another in this series coming very soon!). We’ll also have another piece on how the team is doing heading into tonight’s game coming up this afternoon.
What are you drinking?: I ended up going to sleep way earlier than normal and woke up before sunrise, so if I don’t get a nap in before the game today I’m probably going to need some iced tea or coffee, or even the rare treat of a small can of Cherry Coke. Caffeine might be required.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion.