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Five things about the Washington Spirit, at long last, overcoming OL Reign in the NWSL playoffs

Before Saturday’s final, we’ve got some thoughts and images from the biggest Spirit win in years

Nikita Taparia

The Washington Spirit are gearing up for the NWSL Championship against the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t take one more look back at the road win that got them here, a 2-1 comeback victory over a star-studded OL Reign side. Trinity Rodman scored on a classic Spirit goal over the top to equalize, and then Ashley Sanchez scored what has to be considered one of the great Spirit goals of all time to win it.

As such, me (it’s Jason, you know the drill) and André had to talk this one over one last time before we turn our full attention to Louisville for the final.

Ashley Sanchez is made of pure uncut audacity

I don’t even know what to say about the winning goal in a playoff semifinal being an outside of the boot chip to the far side netting while standing on the byline. It’s hard to expect the unexpected, but at her core, that’s what Ashley Sanchez wants to do. It’s been an adjustment for Sanchez in new false 9 or attacking midfield roles, but she’s still very much the player who nutmegged Julie Ertz 46 minutes into her pro debut and whipped a scorpion kick assist against the Portland Thorns in the 2020 Challenge Cup. The Reign found that out in the cruelest of ways, and at the worst of times.

I can’t even explain the thought process or audacity here. Every professional soccer player would know the space is open on the far side of the net, and the majority would clip in a low or high cross to try to exploit it via a teammate. Some deploy the ‘hit the ball as hard as you can and hope it finds a path by the keeper’ strategy. A very small, almost comparatively microscopic number of players would think ‘bet if I chipped this with the outside of my boot I could loop it over the keeper and into the far netting’ — and for good reason: IT IS A COMPLETELY BONKERS THOUGHT!!

If you wanted to be chased around the pitch by your goalkeeper, you may think of an try it in training. But I cannot begin to describe the audacity of doing it in any game, let alone a playoff game, let alone as the winning goal to get your team to the Final. — André Carlisle

I have to join in here and say that this is one of my favorite D.C. soccer goals ever not just because of how important it is, but for how unlikely it is. I don’t know that there is an NWSL goal like this, ever. Like André said, the solutions we see players go for in this spot are known:

  • Blast it low at the near post and hope it gets in somehow
  • Blast it low at the far post and pray that you got the absolute perfect angle, because even one degree off and this thing is going out
  • Scoop the ball to the back post and just count on a runner arriving to finish it

We don’t see enough outside-of-the-foot usage in American soccer anyway, probably because it is the outré choice in almost any situation. There’s almost always a way to shift your feet and play that same pass into the same space with your instep, and if the only way to succeed is this high degree of difficulty choice, maybe you’ve made the wrong call. There’s also an element of functional choices in how we bring our young players up. Form is always guided by function first, rather than aesthetics or the desire to try something new.

So I’m just thankful we got to see Sanchez make a declaration in favor of form for form’s sake. It’s like the Men in Black admission test If she had ripped a low shot that clipped Sarah Bouhaddi and got over the line, the goal would count the same on the scoreboard, but would it be this goal? It’s just such a counter to the dogmatic choice; in a league that is so often about winning physical duels or being stronger or opting for power, it’s the delicate option. You don’t always have to Kool-Aid Man your way through.

I don’t know what else to say, I just love this goal. — Jason Anderson

Block Party

Site God Jason Anderson wrote a fantastic piece about the Spirit’s defense under Ward which I hope you read. The key to the defensive turnaround seems to have been players who have been asking for coaching finally receiving it, and a defined defensive structure and set of responsibilities beyond ‘if we have the ball they don’t so it’s fine.’ The latter has a clear fault, even the best of possession based teams aren’t going to keep the ball 80% of the time. Instead, what Ward and the Spirit have done is focus on things they can do out of possession to disrupt and frustrate the opposition.

The results have been four goals allowed in ten games played dating back to August 22 — and no team who’s managed to score has done so more than once.

If you look at the stats versus OL Reign in the semifinal, it looks like the Spirit somehow managed to remain standing after facing a torrent of twenty-three shots. However, the Spirit blocked twelve of those shots, and of the three that were on target, Bledsoe saved two.

This is very mean

This is what the Spirit do: make teams work very hard and very precisely to penetrate their lines to get a sight at goal. But even when they do, unless it’s worked so well that it’s a tap-in — as was the case with Reign’s opener — the Spirit swarm to rush or block the shot, and if anything manages to get through it just has to also beat one of the best goalkeepers in the league. — AC

Picture’s worth a thousand words, so here are 41,000 words

We were very lucky to have Nikita Taparia taking photos at this game, and she sent back roughly a gazillion shots, so here’s the story of the game from her lens.

A thing you need to see

After the match, the Spirit’s two goalscorers gathered for a selfie video and to express their excitement about heading to the NWSL Championship, which was already a great bit of #content.

Then, in the final few frames of the five second video, you get a videobomb from (hopefully soon to be new owner #SellTheTeamSteveToMicheleShesLiterallyRightThere) Y. Michele Kang. — AC

Final Boss, but not the final level

Pardon me for indulging in my past indulgences, but I’m a person who spent a lot of time as a young person playing video games. In a video game, the Final Boss is the big baddie, the nightmare at the end of every game that you might spend so many hours of your life trying to solve that you have to measure the time in days or weeks.

For the Spirit, the Reign have so often been the Final Boss in one way or another. They knocked Washington out in the 2014 playoffs, and again in the 2015 playoffs. A loss at Memorial Stadium in the penultimate game in 2016 was a major factor in not bringing home the NWSL Shield that year. They also handed the Spirit their most lopsided loss of all time, a 6-2 demolition in 2017 that very briefly saw the Spirit get back to 2-1 just past the hour mark only for Ye Olde Reign to produce an onslaught as a reply.

So this team, beset on all sides by bad news, misfortune, distractions, obstacles, and whatever else you could think up, has come through the video game of this season. They’ve leapt over several pits of despair, they’ve overcome different terrain, and they’ve solved a wide range of problems. And at this late stage, of course they would have to take down the Final Boss. The NWSL is not immune to genre convention, and the genre demands an encounter between the protagonist and their recurring foe.

And of course it wasn’t easy. How could it be? This time, the Final Boss had augmented itself with the finest reinforcements they could find abroad (think Dzsenifer Marozsán) and, in a dramatic twist of the knife, a familiar face (Rose Lavelle). Sofia Huerta, a weapon players familiar with the game had seen before, was now used in a new way, but another threat (Megan Rapinoe) was out there on the left, as tradition demands. This might as well be any number of old NES or SNES games, these are all the basics of, say, Dr. Wily’s Castle.

There is something remarkable, and hopefully different, about overcoming the Reign to get to the final. In 2016, the Spirit got past another hopeful striver in Chicago, a team that hadn’t been there before, only to run into what was about to become the NWSL’s first dynasty team in the final. That’s not really a genre trope, but this time, they defeated that same dynasty team, and then they took down their primary end-of-season antagonist.

But like any game with a good story, there’s one last twist. Beating the Reign didn’t bring up that ending cut scene. Instead, just as we think we’re about to see the credits and hear some MIDI tunes, here’s Chicago — a team the Spirit haven’t been able to solve, by the way — coming back for revenge.

Based on my untold hours sitting cross-legged in front of a boxy 20” TV, It couldn’t be any other way. — JA