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Four things about the Washington Spirit solving the problem that is the Houston Dash

The Spirit thought their way through yet another tough challenge, and booked a home playoff game as a result

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit got a playoff primer this Sunday against the Houston Dash, with both sides needing points to guarantee something important. The Spirit couldn’t be sure of their first home playoff game in five years without a win, while Houston had to avoid defeat to qualify for the postseason. The stakes were not quite the same as a playoff game, but they were in the neighborhood of the closest facsimile, and the Spirit showed what they’re made of in a 1-0 win.

André and I (hi, it’s Jason again) have our thoughts about this game, so let’s get into the good Halloween vibes of this one:

Problem solvers

The Houston Dash, at the core of their identity, are a problem. I mean that in the best way: playing the Dash is unpleasant for everyone. They press hard, they make flowing games very difficult, they’ve got the perfect forward for that identity in Rachel Daly, they have the best set piece taker in the NWSL in Kristie Mewis, the whole starting eleven is vastly experienced, and so on. They’re a tough out.

That showed in the early stages in this game, where the Spirit were being pushed into a Dash kind of game. Houston created numerous early corners (never good news against a team that has, as was just said, Mewis delivering the ball), they were winning some tough tackles inside the Spirit half, and by the time we were 30 minutes in, Houston had held Washington to under 0.2 expected goals. The game, in other words, was going according to the Dash’s plan.

Kris Ward noted that the game may have been a bit more scrappy in part because of the two-week gap between games, and said that the Spirit had to solve this one in part by simply steering the ship in at halftime without any major errors. The players “had to manage the first half,” according to the acting head coach, making sure to see their way through the Dash’s best phase of the game without any real issues.

You can see where the Spirit start to figure things out to some extent in this chart from Arielle Dror from American Soccer Analysis:

The Dash attack peters out around the 30th minute; Opta says they had their fifth shot of the game in the 33rd minute, and in the next 50 minutes they managed just two. In that same chunk of time, the Spirit took 12 of their 15 shots on the day.

Post-game, Ward said the coaching staff identified some moments to speed play up in the build-up, and some pockets that were available to change the game’s geometry. Sam Staab agreed, saying that while she didn’t feel like the Spirit had played badly in the first half, that “we had to adjust our angles and how quick we were playing.” The result of those adjustments? Washington had Houston under immense pressure to start the second half, which may have pushed the Dash into a tactical change that turned out to be a game-changing error (we’ll get to that in a moment).

This is becoming a recurring theme for Washington. They haven’t had too many games in this 6W-3D-0L run they’re on (forfeits aside) where they’ve showed up, do what they do, and roll to a win. The 3-0 win over Louisville might be the only one that fits that category. That’s life in NWSL: you’re never going to be so much better than your opponents that you can just roll through games on cruise control. You have to be sharp every single time, and you constantly have to adjust. Just ask Houston or Gotham how it was playing bottom-of-the-table Kansas City recently.

And so the Spirit, dealing with Ashley Sanchez being ill before kickoff, came back against Orlando. They fought their way to a win over KC, who took an early lead and outplayed Washington throughout the first half, at Legends Field. They did enough to contain Gotham on one of the most emotional nights in league history, and took the Courage’s best punch to win in Cary for the first time ever.

Over and over, the Spirit have been confronted with a problem, and they keep coming up with a solution, be it players figuring it out in real time, using halftime to talk it over, or with substitutes. There’s so much to be impressed with when you think about this Spirit team, but this quality is so important. — Jason Anderson

A thing you need to see

After the match there were celebrations and hugs and the general joyousness you would expect. However, spotted amongst the huddle of players seemed to be one who was VERY popular amongst the rest of her colleagues. Photo after photo was requested and taken until, upon closer inspection, this “player” turned out to be prospective owner Y. Michele Kang, who walked onto the pitch in a full kit, cleats and everything.

After the match, we did our #journalistic duty to get to the bottom of this. Turns out players asked Kang if she had a Halloween costume, and when she said no, they had an idea. “We didn’t know if she was gonna follow-through on it,” said Staab postgame, “but it was so cute, we’re glad she did!” — AC

Better assist, Sam Staab or James Clarkson well,,, it hard too say

For multiple reasons, ranging from the grotesque to the spectacular, this has been one of the most intense NWSL regular seasons ever. It was fitting then that the playoff picture would come down to one match, and on Halloween no less. With the North Carolina Courage drawing 0-0 in Portland, Houston needed to match or exceed that result to make the playoffs. For the first seventy minutes, things were going well.

Then, for some reason which the Spirit surely appreciated, Dash manager James Clarkson decided to pack it in, revert to a back 5, and play for the point. It was an odd decision for multiple reasons, and one is that they were defending well with their previous back 4. Also, a Spirit goal would leave them chasing the game with the wrong personnel on the pitch. None of this mattered, and just over five minutes later Trinity Rodman was latching onto a lofted ball from Sam Staab and burying Houston’s playoff hopes.

Let’s take a moment to marvel at this absolutely sublime ball over the top from Sam Staab. It’s a remarkable combination between two players that spanned 23 of the pitch. Also, does it look familiar? It should!

When given time on the ball, the Spirit have scored this exact goal two other times this season. The one prior to this Staab-Rodman connection came via Andi Sullivan, who found Rodman over the top against the Chicago Red Stars. The time before that? Well, it’s just downright poetic.

May 26, the Spirit were playing a “home” game, against the Houston Dash, in Houston due to incomplete construction work at Segre Field, their second home venue. During the match Andi Sullivan was shown a red card in the 50th minute with the score knotted at 1-1. Twenty minutes later, former Spirit player Natalie Jacobs clipped a ball over the top to Ashley Hatch for the go-ahead goal, and eventually all three points.

After the Halloween disaster, James Clarkson was asked by Theo Lloyd-Hughes of The Striker Texas if he would change anything about his approach to go defensive in the 70th minute, to which Clarkson replied, “I wouldn’t do anything different.” Thanks! — André Carlisle

I don’t want to pile on here, but go take a look at the gif from Halloween again. The Dash play a 4141 normally, and this lower line of confrontation they were adopting as the game wore on (as an answer to the Spirit solving them and taking control of the game from around the 30th minute or so) was not a bad idea. It was slowing things down, and by sitting back, they leave less space in behind for the Spirit’s forwards to get on the run.

And in that gif, it’s easy to piece together how that formation would have dealt with the build-up the Spirit were attempting: Rachel Daly pushing play towards one touchline and cutting off Emily Sonnett, Nichelle Prince on Julia Roddar, and Shea Groom fronting Staab on the ball. There are ways through for the Spirit, but they’re a higher degree of difficulty. This gums up the works, which if you’re on course for a 0-0 is pretty good news.

Going to 541, the Dash removed Jasmyne Spencer, moving Groom out to the left wing. But their line of confrontation didn’t change, which means that while Prince is still on Roddar, and Daly’s still trying to funnel Staab towards the touchline with no outlet, there’s no one to front the ball. In the gif, you can see Sophie Schmidt (now part of a central midfield duo, which means she can’t step as high or as quickly) slowly making her way into that space, but she needs the entire shape to adjust to her stepping out like that, which takes time. That time is when Staab controls the ball, picks her head up, and has alllllll day to spot Rodman’s run. As André just established, that’s a big “don’t” against Washington.

“Honestly, I just saw their (defensive) line pretty jagged,” said Staab after the game. “They were leaving spaces open, and Trinity is one of the most athletic people I’ve ever seen, so if you just find some space to put it in, she’s gonna go get it.”

“We had been looking for it all game, and obviously we played a couple, but we didn’t get ‘em off,” said Rodman. “Her last touch, we kind of had eye contact,” — and I have to tell you, Rodman couldn’t contain flashing a predatory sort of grin that any great forward has thinking about an opening like this — “and I was like ‘okay, you gotta play it,’ and made that run in behind.”

The formation change gave Staab the time to play the ball, but that probably would have been fine with a changed line of contention, or a more organized back five. Or, don’t change formations, bring in more defense-first personnel, and now you’ve got enough pressure on the ball to prevent an easy (alright, “easy,” that is still an absolutely perfect ball from Staab that maybe four center backs in NWSL can reliably deliver) pass over the top for Rodman.

Houston tried a half-measure, and half-measures don’t work at this stage of this particular NWSL season. — JA

One last thing

Halloween is the best holiday, and this is the best banner. — JA

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United