It’s been a long wait for the Washington Spirit, with the coronavirus pandemic upending plans for the entire NWSL, but they’re just hours away from finally playing a competitive match in 2020. The Spirit will face the Chicago Red Stars in the second game of the NWSL Challenge Cup, an event thought up to preserve some kind of league schedule after Covid-19’s arrival prevented anything close to the originally planned slate of games from being played safely.
It’s been a strange trip to this point, but the Spirit are trying to take it in stride. “There’s a good vibe around the football club, there’s a good vibe around the hotel,” said head coach Richie Burke in a remote press conference on Wednesday. Despite the oddity of the event — one being played almost entirely at one venue, with no fans present — Burke said his young squad has come to the Wasatch Front to build on last year’s 5th place finish.
“I hate to lose at anything and my players know that, and we are here to win. We are here to win every possible game that we can,” said Burke. The Liverpool native added that he still wants to see his squad put on a good show and stick to the possession-based style that drew praise league-wide in 2019. “I am happier with my team and, my players, when they play really really well, they play the type of football that we like and we enjoy, and, you know, our DNA is set to play a certain way, and we are not going to change for anybody, and the players are really bought into that.”
With the Orlando Pride having to drop out of the tournament due to a rash of positive Covid-19 tests just before they were going to fly out, the pressure in this preliminary round has been removed. Where initially one team would miss out on the quarterfinal round, now everyone will advance, something Burke says will make his job easier. “That pressure is alleviated a little bit, cause they know they are going to be playing five matches, and we’ve tried to convince our players that, look, listen, for us is really important to win the last three, you become the NWSL tournament champion by winning the last three. So that will be our focus, and we try to make sure that these younger players don’t get over-stressed and over-anxious.”
That said, Burke has not changed what he expects from the Spirit: “We fully expected to not be the team that missed out [on the knockout round], we didn’t plan for missing out in any matter, shape or form, so the mindset for our team hasn’t really changed.”
With a roster that includes seven rookies and six more new signings, Burke admitted that the lack of a traditional preseason leaves him with less knowledge than he’s used to heading into a season. “I wish I had a really good gauge of it. We’re gonna have to roll the dice with some players,” said Burke, who also noted that the late schedule change caused by the Orlando Pride’s withdrawal from the Challenge Cup has added to the situation. “I’d like to have a little bit more hard information. We didn’t get to play anybody in preseason but ourselves, but some players looked really really good. I’m hoping that translates into a performance against our opponents on Saturday.”
Rookie Ashley Sanchez is among that group, but Burke sounded like he has no worries about the 4th overall pick in this year’s NWSL College Draft. “Sanchez is looking fantastic in the preseason. She’s going to start [today], and that kid is an incredibly talented kid. And, you know, our job is to make sure we keep moving her forward because she’s a prodigious talent,” said Burke, who noted that USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski is monitoring the 21-year-old attacker.
Sanchez isn’t the only player selected at the draft that might be in line for a start tonight. Burke cited the versatile Natalie Jacobs, mentioning that she’s “looked very, very good” playing as a right back and in other defensive spots in training, as a candidate to see action against the Red Stars.
That said, Burke wanted to strike a balance between holding the youngsters to a high standard while understanding that this season’s completely abnormal look makes it tough for anyone to be at their very best. “This is their job now, to get paid to do this is a vastly different circumstance than they had in college or in amateur football. And I think to give them an awful lot of kudos, the younger players have been very switched on and very understanding of that demand. And for the most part, [they’ve] managed to meet those demands.”
Burke referred to the oddities of the Challenge Cup as “a real baptism by fire for those players,” but is overall pleased with what he’s seen from them in training and when the club has played 11v11. That doesn’t change the fact that a full preseason followed by a regular NWSL schedule would have been beneficial, with Burke adding “If I had a 24 game season, I would’ve been able to do an awful lot more things developmentally with these players.”
Team captain Andi Sullivan emphasized that Washington trusts their new players to get the job done, whatever their roles end up being. “We always tell them they wouldn’t be with us if they couldn’t play our style,” said Sullivan. “It’s a hard adjustment, but we believe in them. We think they’ve done an awesome job so far.”
Kumi Yokoyama was arguably the club’s highest-profile acquisition during the winter, and Burke was enthusiastic about the Japanese international. “She and Rose Lavelle look like they’ve been playing with each other for the last five years,” said Burke, before adding that Yokoyama has also formed a bond with striker Ashley Hatch. “Her and Hatchy actually got off to a really good start and a good understanding. Kumi’s a really good footballer,” said Burke, who expects the former AC Nagano Parceiro forward to rely on her technique and guile to find space as opposed to her speed.
“I also think she’ll be able to be a perfect foil for Hatchy, who is a little bit more of an end product player, “ explained Burke. “And, you know, I think Kumi is one who will score some goals, but she’s more adept at setting people up. Both her and Sanchez are just...the consummate assist artists.”
The Spirit will face the game with three players missing through injury. Crystal Thomas was at one point a doubt to even make the trip to Utah, but her prognosis has improved. Though the forward won’t be available to face Chicago, Burke said the Spirit “hope that we can get her at least match ready by the middle of next week, maybe.”
Newcomers Brooke Hendrix (ankle) and Jaye Boissiere (hip) will miss out as well. The latter, deemed questionable on the official injury report before Burke said she’d be out with “just a little tweak,” sounds closer to being able to participate in Wednesday’s match against the North Carolina Courage. Hendrix, meanwhile, has been battling an ankle issue in recent weeks, and rolled it in a non-contact situation at yesterday’s training session.
The Challenge Cup kicked off this afternoon with both teams wearing Black Lives Matter shirts during the warm-up, and with every starter from both sides kneeling during the national anthem. Burke said that he hasn’t addressed his team about the sociopolitical significance of their platform and that movement, but said more than once that he would support any player who wants to take a stance on the matter.
That includes rookie defender Kaiya McCullough, whom Burke cited as someone helping educate the entire group despite her being new to the club. “Kaiya I think is a fantastic kid. You know, she’s been incredible in helping us all understand better this movement so, whatever she wants to do, whatever she decides to do, I’m going to support her 100%.”
Within the squad, the word “excited” was a theme in remarks made available to media from Utah. Hatch compared the start of the Challenge Cup to a normal away game, saying that “It’s fun to be with the team in a hotel environment... We’re ready to go, having team meetings, getting prepped for the game and our strategy and all that.”
Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe admitted the situation is “unique,” but said that after being isolated during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, missing the normal preseason set-up, and finally getting to Utah, that the Spirit are “gonna be just itching to play a real competitive match, and I think we’re gonna see some really good soccer.”