The Washington Spirit take on NJ/NY Gotham FC with the focus at the moment aimed at dramatic developments off the field. The Spirit’s players have made a unified demand for Steve Baldwin to sell his stake in the club after extensive allegations of a toxic environment and abuse, which has justifiably become the focus of broader attention. Still, today’s game — already a big occasion due to a move to the Philadelphia suburbs to celebrate retiring USWNT legend Carli Lloyd — happens to be absolutely pivotal for both sides as they battle for an NWSL playoff spot.
Key player: Kelley O’Hara
Gotham went on a noticeable cold streak recently, but they got Margaret Purce back, and suddenly beat the Courage 3-1. It’s not entirely due to one player being available, but no one on Gotham’s roster has Purce’s ability to see where the space is going to be when they go direct, and her ability to isolate defenders (with or without the ball) opens up so much of what they’re trying to do going forward.
With Purce likely setting up towards the right, O’Hara (or whomever gets the nod at left back) will have a busy day. Helping protect the channel between themselves and the center backs? Crucial. Being able to flare out wide and defend along the touchline? A must. Being able to help fend off when Gotham gets Caprice Dydasco up the flank as well? Critical.
If the Spirit can keep Purce’s influence sporadic, they’ve got a great chance to keep Aubrey Bledsoe from having a busy night. That starts with shoring things up when defending on the left side.
Location: Subaru Park (Chester, PA)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Paige Nielsen, Emily Sonnett, Sam Staab, Kelley O’Hara; Tori Huster, Andi Sullivan, Dorian Bailey; Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez
Bench: Devon Kerr, Karina Rodríguez, Tegan McGrady, Julia Roddar, Saori Takarada, Taylor Aylmer, Anna Heilferty, Kumi Yokoyama, Tara McKeown
The Spirit have no new absentees on the injury report, though one (Jordan DiBiasi) has been added to the Season-Ending Injury list about a month after the club quietly allowed her to leave the area to focus on rehabbing her hip.
Given the absolutely critical nature of this game with regards to the playoff chase — the Spirit are one point ahead of Gotham, but have one fewer game to play this season — it seems safe to expect Kris Ward to go all-in on what appears to be his first-choice lineup. There are still questions in here: has the team figured out how to better balance themselves with Nielsen at right back? How are the players doing fitness-wise, given that they’ve had just one game in 38 days? And most importantly, how are the players doing after having to take the remarkable step of drafting a public statement calling on Steve Baldwin to sell his share of the team to Y. Michele Kang?
But with no pre-game availability (a situation that, owing to the turmoil around NWSL, resulted from it not being clear whether this game would even be played until the NWSLPA said they were ready to compete yesterday), this is our best guess.
Projected Gotham starting 11: (4312) - Kailen Sheridan; Caprice Dydasco, Gina Lewandowski, Estelle Johnson, Imani Dorsey; McCall Zerboni, Allie Long, Nahomi Kawasumi; Carli Lloyd; Margaret Purce, Ifeoma Onumonu
Gotham has cycled between multiple coaches and multiple formations over their last few games. One key factor leading to the prediction here of this set-up that would see Lloyd play as the high point in a diamond out of possession, and as a false 9 when NJ/NY is on the attack: Purce, who returned from injury in Gotham’s last game to be part of the front line. The dynamic here would be for Purce to stretch the field, while Lloyd and Onumonu take advantage of the spaces between the lines that opens up.
However, a more traditional 433, or a 4231, both feel like options. Against Chicago a month ago, Gotham went that route, with Zerboni playing as a forward destroyer in an attempt to neutralize Morgan Gautrat. With the Spirit even more reliant on connecting with Sullivan deep in the midfield, it wouldn’t be the worst choice to try that approach again.
Referee: Ismir Pekmic
Available TV: CBS Sports Network
Available streaming: Twitch (non-USA only)
What do we have to say about it?: Yours truly tried to synthesize yesterday’s major developments, which are not really about this game but are very much the circumstances the game is being played in.
What are you drinking?: I’m heading up to Chester for this game, and will have several bottles of water in a bag on my passenger seat. There’ll also be a cold brew somewhere in there, before more water at the stadium. Hydration is important.
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