The Washington Spirit controlled Saturday’s home game against Racing Louisville more or less from start to finish en route to a confident 3-0 win. It was important for Washington to avoid slipping up against a struggling Racing side that had played them close earlier this year, and the Spirit paired a comprehensive, high-end performance all over the field with goals at crucial moments.
Naturally it left us with a lot of thoughts, so me (hi, it’s Jason) and André got to typing those thoughts and putting them on the internet. Here we go:
Aubrey Bledsoe and Ashley Hatch spoke to the media after the game, and with the major focus in the NWSL very much about the abuse and systemic failures that seem to be present around every corner, the questions were not about events in the game, but rather focused off the field. Here’s what they had to say:
Questions have been edited lightly for clarity, while player responses are verbatim.
Normally with two games in such a short amount of time, your focus and time would be fully on soccer. How much time has this movement taken in terms of your schedules? I know you both have NWSLPA team representative work to do.
Aubrey Bledsoe: Yeah. It’s exhausting. Across the league though, every player has committed that we’re gonna do this work together. No one player, one team is just gonna shoulder the burden. So, we’re staying in solidarity across the league. But ultimately, we’re committed to making this league what it needs to be. So it’s gonna take some work, and we’re committed to it, and we’re asking the league to join us in our efforts. But yeah, it’s exhausting. I would love to get back to being a soccer player first and foremost. It’s an around-the-clock job right now, but we’re not gonna stop until we get some change.
Locally, we’ve seen some signs of solidarity with D.C. United players backing you up. Have they been in touch to not just offer support with social media messages, but help with messaging or anything else to further this cause?
Ashley Hatch: I just saw the statement today, about it.
Aubrey Bledsoe: Oh, nice!
AH: I don’t know, it means a lot to see how much support we’re getting from our fans and from the D.C. United players. Obviously we have a special connection with Drew and Andi...
AB: Big Drew fans.
AH: So that was pretty cool. But yeah, it’s just really cool to see everyone come together and finally hear our voices. You know, we need change, and so we’re gonna keep pushing for that. It’s nice to see that everyone else is seeing that.
Please feel free to decline this question, as it’s hitting closer to home with the team and Steve Baldwin. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the reporting from The Athletic, that he made an offer to sell again, and then withdrew it, and even brought up the possibility of looking for a buyer that could move the team out of the area. Have you as a team discussed how you might want to respond to that, or how it makes you feel?
AB: We have not yet. I know a lot of us have seen it, and that’s kind of been the theme this year, is we find out on social media concerning news reports regarding our club. And it’s...it’s, I don’t even have the words to describe the emotions. You know, we love this city. We have made it very clear, the path forward for this team. We believe that Michele will be a great owner and continually put the players first. We made that very clear in our statement, and unfortunately, I don’t think Steve is going to honor our demand, or request. He says that he puts the players first, but I don’t know how he can do that when there’s a chance that we would be moving. So, that is not at all what this team wants. We want to stay here in this city, it’s a great city. They deserve a club, and we have a suitable path forward.
AH: What she said.
How have you been preparing, and how has the coaching staff been responding to everything that has been going on off the field?
AH: Our coaching staff has been very helpful. I think everyone around us has been very supportive and understanding. Even us as players, it’s really hard sometimes to show up every day, when there’s so much going on around us that doesn’t actually involve soccer. It involves us having conversations that don’t have to do with our jobs, or shouldn’t have to do with our jobs. So, we’re all here for each other, and no one steps on the field unless they feel like they can mentally, physically, and emotionally. So we’ve definitely had to pull together, lift each other up. We’ve had some tough days, but we’re here for each other. And I mean...yeah.
AB: One day at a time right now.
I was wondering if you had seen any of the signs or displays in the stands, and what the emotions are taking the field even as everything that’s going on continues to loom over this team?
AB: Yeah, it’s emotional for us. We’ve got our turmoil within the club, and then on the larger scale, across the entire league. We’re all fighting our battles. We just want to turn the page, to be honest. We want to look to the future with hope, and know that we can focus back on our jobs. There’s a lot of work to be done until we can get there, but hopefully at least in our club, we can get some closure in this chapter soon, because it is just really wearing on us.
In terms of both of you being veterans in the league with experience at multiple clubs, and the Spirit over the past few years skewing towards being a very young team, lots of rookies, and they come in not knowing what you have to prepare yourselves for, the kinds of things that the NWSLPA is talking about changing. How difficult has it been to take that role of preparing those players for what they’re stepping into?
AH: I think that’s a conversation that we’re trying to change. I think we want there to be an NWSL where you don’t have to prepare rookies or young players for an abusive coach, or a toxic environment. So I think that’s why these conversations are so important, and that’s why we’re so adamant about change. We don’t want the next generation to have to go through what we’ve had to go through, through our years at the Spirit or any club, or whatever, there’s things that have been made okay, and people don’t talk about, but there’s a lot of things, those aren’t okay. So that’s why we’re talking about those things now, because we need change. I don’t want to have to tell a rookie to prepare for this or that. I want them to be able to come in and do what they came here for, and play soccer to the best of their ability, contribute to the team on the field and have a good, safe environment.
AB: Yeah. And I will say though, that everyone is getting involved. Everyone is letting their opinions be heard, and we’re all working together. Like, no one has been this interested in the NWSLPA before, so as reps it’s really great to get all this feedback. Players want to speak out, they want to feel empowered. So we’re definitely listening to everyone, and everyone is part of this process in rebuilding a better league right now.
Seize your moment
This is a short one, but it’s something I think is pretty interesting: Andi Sullivan’s penalty kick now means the Spirit have outscored opposing teams 6-0 in the first 15 minutes of the second half on the year. What that means is that just shy of 1⁄4 of their goals this year come in the opening stages after play resumes.
This is a team, in other words, that figures games out as they go on, and uses halftime to get on the same page, make the needed adjustments — whether that’s formation changes, substitutions, or just individual players changing something about their play — to devastating effect.
As much as the Spirit controlled this game, it was also only 1-0 coming out of the break, and Racing started to grow into the game at the tail end of the first half. Quickly emphasizing that the door on a Louisville win was in fact closed may seem like a quirk of timing, but it’s a season-long trend, and it allowed the Spirit to manage this game confidently while also seemingly robbing Louisville of any momentum coming out with their own halftime tweaks and changes.
Washington’s ability to consistently give themselves an advantageous game state is especially critical right now in this sequence of many games in few days. It allows them to quickly sub Sullivan off, for example (Kris Ward said she was checked out and is fine after being landed on awkwardly), preventing a tough decision to keep a crucial player on the field in a way that might risk their availability for the next game. That’s a luxury that isn’t there if this one drags out at 1-0, and when the schedule is so compressed, turning dominance into a bigger lead ends up having a tangible impact on future games. — Jason Anderson
Now, let’s talk #Tactics
The matchup between Racing Louisville and the Washington Spirit proved be a uniquely intriguing one from a tactical standpoint. Firstly, the Spirit lined up in their traditional 4-3-#SellTheTeamSteve, but with the twist of tucking their fullbacks narrow. The effect was twofold, as the Spirit not only had numbers in #SellTheTeamBill, but the shorter distances allowed them to squeeze the opposition with a suffocating #SellToMichele.
This tactic proved successful all night, with the only question a(n unfortunately) familiar one: would the Spirit #SellTheTeamSteve enough to make their dominance tell? Though Ashley Hatch scored in the 8th minute (from a pinpoint #SellTheTeamSteve from Trinity Rodman), given the flow of #SellTheTeamBill, it was a nervy wait for the second. Louisville struggled to link play or even get out of their own half, but at only #SellTheTeamSteve there was always the chance of a #SellTheTeamBill finding the boot of Ebony Salmon for a #SellToMichele.
Indeed, Spirit faithful had to wait until the #SellTheTeamSteve half, plus rare referee whistle and point to the spot, for a #SellTheTeamBill goal. Andi Sullivan stepped up to #SellToMichele the ball into the bottom corner from a straight runup that gave Michelle Betos no time to react. Finally, the team had a deserved #SellTheTeamSteve and could exhale and enjoy their free-slowing #SellTheTeamBill – a rare treat for this young Spirit #SellToMichele.
Though it was great fun watching the Spirit dominate and earn their reward for it, given the weight and toll of everything happening within and around the NWSL right now, it’s unfair to read too much into this game from a tactical standpoint. But if one thing stood out, even in postgame, it’s the team’s total commitment to #SellTheTeamSteve #SellTheTeamBill #SellToMichele. — André Carlisle
How is this happening?
The Spirit have been surrounded by so many crises — Richie Burke, ownership, Covid-19 protocols, the NWSL-wide reckoning — that it’s hard to remember that this team has now played six games without losing since Burke was ousted. Those forfeit losses are real, of course, but in soccer games that took place, they’re 3W-3D-0L, and on the weekend made what seemed like light work out of Louisville.
It would be completely understandable for this team to have trouble getting into their normal groove. They have so much to process, while also doing a ton of extra labor on the side in terms of the PA and pushing for a sale of the club. None of that is soccer stuff, and all of it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy.
And yet, the Spirit are in 5th place, and are one of the NWSL’s three clearly in-form teams (OL Reign and Houston are the others, and Washington of course plays both of them in the next 20 days). They could, with the right results, go to sleep on Wednesday night in 3rd place, which is to say in position to secure a home playoff game for the second time in club history.
I don’t have a deep thought here. It is wild that they’ve kept it together, and at a level that allows them to be a serious playoff threat in the world’s most competitive league. — JA
One more before we go
For my money, this is NWSL Pass of the Year. Apologies to Dzsenifer Marozsán and that pass to Eugenie Le Sommer a couple of weeks ago, but I feel about the situation like Ol’ Dirty Bastard did about Puffy and Wu Tang Clan: that pass is good, but this pass is the best.
It’s perfect. Trinity Rodman weighted this up, and struck a driven, 40-yard pass while running and with Erin Simon trying to close her space that just so happened to be just close enough to Sinclaire Miramontez to convince her to go for the ball, but just far enough that she would miss it by what appears to be literally just one inch.
It’s also got just enough on it that it changes the angle of Ashley Hatch’s run...which of course also changes the angle Michelle Betos — who also had to calculate for what to do if Miramontez did get a touch — could take to close said angle. Those extra decisions for Betos didn’t apply to Hatch, whose job remained the same the whole time, and left her with a shot she’s been finishing off probably 300 days a year for 15+ years.
This is a play that’s up in some truly rarified air. The only pass I can think of that is on this level in Spirit history is this completely outrageous outside-of-the-foot Crystal Dunn pass from early in 2016:
Get used to this: Dunn to Matheson. pic.twitter.com/QcgAfxiVaM— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) April 29, 2016
I don’t know how MVP or Best 11 voting is going to go, but I think Rodman has a legit chance to get onto the latter, and might receive some top 3 votes on the former. She’s been that good all year, even as teams are going out of their way to make someone else do the damage for the Spirit. Her ceiling is...honestly I don’t know, there might not even be one. — JA