The Washington Spirit, coming off of just their second playoff win in their history, are out west to face OL Reign in the NWSL semifinals. This is a familiar trip for the Spirit, who have fallen short twice before in semifinals played in Washington state, but this season the story has been different. The Spirit have been the winners in both of their trips to Tacoma this year, and are in fact the only team to beat the star-studded Reign since mid-August.
Key player: Ashley Sanchez
Lost in last week’s celebratory mood was the fact that Sanchez never really got going against North Carolina. It wasn’t that she played poorly, but rather that even with plenty of touches, she was kept in check by the Courage, forced mostly to simply connect play rather than be her normal game-breaking self on the run. In a game where the Spirit took 33 shots, Sanchez had just one attempt, and created two more for others. Washington ended up coming to life against a tiring NC side after replacing her and shifting where the playmaking load was carried.
Still, that’s no reason to think she’ll be subdued again today. Playing in soggy conditions on a playing surface that is too narrow and too short, there won’t be much room to operate. That can bottle up creative players, but for a player as talented as Sanchez, this can be the perfect chance to show that her creativity and technical ability are the answer to the lack of space and the conditions.
Location: Cheney Field (Tacoma, WA)
Kickoff time: 3:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady; Andi Sullivan, Ashley Sanchez, Dorian Bailey; Trinity Rodman, Tara McKeown, Ashley Hatch
Bench: Devon Kerr, Karina Rodríguez, Paige Nielsen, Camryn Biegalski, Julia Roddar, Saori Takarada, Taylor Aylmer, Anna Heilferty, Kumi Yokoyama
The Spirit have only one new injury, and it’s a big one: Tori Huster is out with a torn achilles tendon suffered in extra time last week. That leaves a pretty tricky choice in turn, which is to either push Sanchez up as a false 9 or wide forward and bring Aylmer into the midfield, or stick with the 433 but play it aggressively, with McKeown coming in and Sanchez as a true #10 supported by Sullivan and Bailey. Based on how effective McKeown was last week, and the approach against the Reign a month ago in a 2-0 win, we’re expecting the latter.
The weather is a factor here, though, and that might impact the fullback choices. It appears the main battle is between McGrady and Roddar at left back, but given the water-logged playing surface, it is possible we see a more conservative choice (probably Nielsen at right back, with O’Hara moving across).
Projected OL Reign starting 11: (433) - Sarah Bouhaddi; Sofia Huerta, Alana Cook, Lauren Barnes, Kristen McNabb; Rose Lavelle, Quinn, Jess Fishlock; Eugénie Le Sommer, Dzsenifer Marozsán, Megan Rapinoe
Sam Hiatt is the only player out for the Reign, who seem likely to start all their big stars as a result. That means no place for top scorer Bethany Balcer, who will instead function as a change-up off the bench. Marozsán will function as a false 9, with Le Sommer slashing in from wider spots as the main goal threat.
The Spirit will also have to figure out a way to either track Huerta, who is given plenty of freedom to get forward in what is an asymmetrical set-up in the back, or keep her so occupied that she can’t get forward. This may be the key tactical battle on the field, as Huerta finished tied with Rodman for the assist lead in the regular season thanks mostly to a late-season switch to right back.
Referee: Matthew Franz
Available TV: CBS Sports Network (USA and Canada only)
Available streaming: Twitch (rest of world)
What do we have to say about it?: Andi Sullivan is my guest on the latest Plex Weather, in which one of the numerous topics is this game. Also, if you want something to amuse yourself with before kickoff, there’s a different episode of the show that is about cicadas rather than soccer.
What are you drinking?: I didn’t sleep super well, so this might be a game that requires some Irish Breakfast tea just to keep me fully functioning.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion.