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Five things about the Washington Spirit posting another huge win, this time over OL Reign

Got that #DubClub feeling over here

Nikita Taparia

Facing their third game in a week, and their fourth in ten days, the Washington Spirit could have been forgiven for slipping up or losing their way a bit against OL Reign. After all, this grueling portion of the schedule has come during a reckoning both within the Spirit as an organization, and throughout the NWSL.

Plus, the Reign entered the match unbeaten in seven, didn’t have to fly to Tacoma from the east coast like the Spirit did, and had the luxury of rotating international superstars like Megan Rapinoe into their lineup. Washington, meanwhile, had to do without Andi Sullivan due to a knock that acting head coach Kris Ward said was so close to being healed enough to play that it was a matter of hours rather than days.

Despite all of that, the Spirit posted one of the most remarkable wins in team history, confidently besting the Reign 2-0 at Cheney Stadium thanks to goals from Taylor Aylmer (in her first pro start) and Ashley Hatch, who took the NWSL Golden Boot lead all for herself.

It’s a lot to talk about, so me (this is Jason, good evening) and André are going to talk about it:

Players first

After the game, Dorian Bailey and Tori Huster spoke to the media. Referencing the ongoing NWSLPA demands to the league and the deadline the players have given the NWSL, they asked for questions pertaining to the off-field movement for better protections for players (as has been the case over the past two weeks). Questions have been edited for clarity, while player responses are verbatim.

In trying to organize these the protests that you’re taking, the negotiations, and NWSLPA work that we don’t see, are there any sources that you’ve looked to for inspiration? Whether that’s other players unions, or other unions, or just really any inspiration that might be helping guide or inform this push for change within the league.

Tori Huster: I think fortunately, we have a great relationship with a lot of the PAs in the U.S. Sorry, the sports-specific PAs. In particular, the WNBA PA, our executive director and their executive director speak pretty frequently. The NFLPA has backed us, really, really well. MLS PA, the same. And then, we actually were just, our affiliation came through with the AFL-CIO. And I think you saw the Portland Thorns went out, and were on the picket line. So we have a lot of support from a bunch of different labor unions across the country right now. And we’re willing to support them as much as they have supported us through this.

To follow up, you mentioned the Thorns participating in a picket line. If there were a strike closer to home here in the DMV, would taking similar action as a team be something you’ve discussed? Or is that something you’d have to discuss as a team before figuring out whether you’d be taking a similar approach to what Portland did?

TH: To support a different labor union?

Yeah.

TH: Yeah, I think that’s something that we would like to organize. It would definitely depend on if we’re traveling or not, or if we’re in season. But that’s certainly something that, I think with our affiliation with the AFL-CIO, that we get the updates more frequently on. You know, who is striking and what they’re asking for. And if there’s something that is nearby, we would definitely want to go out and support.

With everything that’s happening, particularly in the middle of this playoff race, how are you guys taking care of each other? What are some of the things you’re doing to kind of look after one another?

TH: I think really stressing recovery. We’ve been on the road now, three of the last four games. With a cross country trip, recovery is massive. So just little reminders, especially as veteran players, I think Dorian’s like, she’s a vet now.

Dorian Bailey: (laughs)

TH: But trying to get as much recovery in as possible. Taking care of ourselves. We, knock on wood, haven’t had a whole lot of injuries, and we need to keep that rolling as we go into playoffs.

DB: Yeah, definitely. We’ve just been supporting each other a lot through all of this. just like emotionally on and off the field. And we’ve had really great support staff help.

With all these developments over the last couple of weeks, have you had a chance to think about where we were when this started a couple of weeks ago to where you’d like to get?

TH: Are you speaking about the Washington Spirit specifically, or across the league?

The Spirit specifically, with the changes at every level of the organization.

TH: Yeah, within the organization, we’re honestly still waiting on an update. It sounds like it’s gonna require a little bit more time than we would like, but we want the process of sale or whatever happens to proceed correctly. So we’re hoping that with the executive committee, and then the other Board of Governors that are overseeing the league right now, that they are really intentional about whatever ownership comes into the Washington Spirit.

When you say Executive Committee, you mean the NWSL executive committee?

TH: Yes.

With so much going on in the league and the Players Association taking action, I was just wondering if either of you could share how you’re finding that balance of processing all of this and taking care of yourselves as individuals, and then continue on as athletes when you step on the pitch?

DB: I mean, I feel like our team has just kind of come together and we all support each other a lot. Like, it’s been nice to be able to practice with each other and be around each other. And yeah, just, we talked about things openly and with our staff too. Yeah, we’re just really open with each other, and it’s just been...it’s been tough, I will say, but we’re getting through it.

Ashley Hatch is not who we thought she was

We think we know Ashley Hatch. It’s been a talking point here all year: first, can she produce enough to turn the Spirit’s attacking play into enough goals to contend? Then, once she found her form coming out of the Challenge Cup, it was about what kind of service she thrives on. Open space, slashing through the channels to finish. That’s Ashley Hatch. Will the Spirit be able to create those looks? And can the team succeed when they have to create a specific genre of scoring opportunity on such a regular basis? After all, being reliant on one type of chance also means teams can shut you down by just shading towards just preventing those situations.

So then, what should we make of this?

Before we get to the shot, this is a Spirit counter that appears to have only one option at the start: a pass out to the right for Tara McKeown. The window’s open, but the angles are difficult here in terms of playing a pass that McKeown would be able to receive without slowing down, and slowing down on the counter is usually how you end the danger.

So Hatch keeps her options open, taking multiple touches that allow the pass to remain an option while pushing play further forward. And just as the four defenders around her start to make some decisions — Lauren Barnes commits (probably too hard) to protecting the center, while Alana Cook has caught up enough to actually be within reach to possibly challenge for the ball, or at least foul — Hatch makes her choice too.

Normally, a player that fits the image of who Hatch is on the field would be expected to look for the combination here. Touch it over to McKeown and then sprint hard to the left, hoping that McKeown can somehow get the ball over or through or around the herd of defenders for an easy look inside the box. And that might have worked, given McKeown’s track record (anyone who watched her play at USC last year saw a lot of assists from combination play in this area when the Trojans broke quickly upfield).

Instead, Hatch opted for the howitzer. That’s a combination of technique, the element of surprise (notice how quick the wind-up to shoot is), and of raw power that leaves Sarah Bouhaddi reacting late and seemingly not even getting close to making the save. It’s one of the goals of the season, and the kind of goal you only score when your confidence is sky high.

Every season comes with some surprises, or some players showing that in one way or another, they need to be reevaluated. With Hatch, it’s been the diversification of her game this year: she’s been a better passer, seeing more options, and as this goal shows, she’s not as dependent on a specific kind of service as we thought just six or seven months ago. It makes her far more difficult to defend, and it’s a big reason why the Spirit are so close to securing a home playoff game for just the second time ever. — JA

P.S. where’s the “Hatch for Best XI” hype train? Plenty of players with similar accomplishments are getting that kind of chatter, but there are a grand total of seven NWSL regular season games left in 2021, and Hatch is the Golden Boot leader. There are plenty of good candidates being publicly backed by fans and NWSL observers, so what’s it gonna take for Hatch to be one of them? — JA again, sorry I thought I was done but had to say this too

“Adversity”

Because it is so common, it’s difficult in sports to dissect game performance from off-pitch/field/court happenings. Narrative™ demands that we flatten everything into ‘adversity’, and proclaim the accomplishment of athletic feats under such ‘adversity’ as a sign of strength or mental fortitude — worse, it can even be framed as a hurdle to clear on the way toward greatness. This trap makes it difficult to truly comprehend what this Spirit team has gone through, but the key is, regardless of whether they never won a game, or became the third team to clinch a playoff spot even after losing six goals and six points due to two forfeits, neither scenario erases emotions felt and endured this season, and in previous seasons under the former manager and the still current controlling owner’s boy’s club.

Nearly everywhere you turn in women’s soccer there’s a story of athletes enduring and accomplishing amazing things under extreme duress. Megan Rapinoe and the 2019 USWNT team endured waves of attack from conservative pundits, including the then-president of the United States. Black players have spoken out about the difficulties of being in the bubble in Utah during the 2020 Challenge Cup during a summer of protest over the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. This season, along with the Spirit, OL Reign endured inappropriate comments regarding their fitness from former manager Farid Benstiti; Thorns players had to publicize a request for Timbers and Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson to be placed on leave while serious allegations brought to light by Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly are being investigated (he was eventually placed on leaves from the Thorns side of his duties); and Racing Louisville players endured an environment that eventually got their former coach Christy Holly fired ‘for cause’.

It has unfortunately, furiously, and embarrassingly been the norm for women’s soccer players to compete under duress that could be avoided with basic morality. It may be difficult to not marvel at players’ accomplishments over the coming days and weeks with addendums like ‘with everything else that’s going on’ or ‘adversity’. But we owe it to the players to not only continue to elevate their voices about what happens away from the two hours they’re on our televisions, but by also making sure we aren’t flattening lived experiences.

When we talk about this Spirit season, it is true that they have had to endure a coach that multiple players said was verbally abusive, a former coach alleged to have sexually harassed players last year, a front office staff member in Larry Best who reportedly used racist nicknames for players (and is still with the team), an owner who attempted to protect all three of these men instead of the players, plus a public ownership battle that led to players releasing one of the most remarkable letters to any owner ever.

If that’s a lot to say, I understand — imagine what it must be like to endure. — André Carlisle

Your Weekly #SellTheTeamSteve Update

Playoffs BAYBEEEEE

The Spirit have been in some fairly incredible form of late, and just at the perfect time. OL Reign, who had a chance to snatch the Shield away from the Thorns, have also been in remarkable form. Having just played North Carolina in North Carolina, then travelling across the country to play a team in Tacoma three days later, is a tall order for any team. However, the Spirit went into Cheney Stadium and came out with a clean sheet, two goals, and the three points that secured their spot in the 2021 NWSL Playoffs.

If you take a peek at the table, it was crucial for the Spirit to wrap it up as soon as possible. The end of the regular season is already bonkers, with Gotham having to make up games before everyone plays their final match of the season. Houston, North Carolina, Chicago and Gotham will all be fighting for the final three playoff spots.

Climbing to safety allows the Spirit to approach the final match, a home match at Audi Field against Houston Dash on Halloween, in any way they want. They can choose to rest players to gear up for a match, or keep the momentum and try to haunt Houston’s offseason by keeping them at 32 points and potentially out of the playoffs. So, basically, trick or treat. See what I did there? I’ll see myself out. — AC