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Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars: Three keys for the Spirit’s hopes at the NWSL Championship

The Spirit face a very different sort of foe in Chicago in today’s final

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit face the Chicago Red Stars in tomorrow’s NWSL Championship, and it should make for a very fascinating tactical battle. Washington advanced through the first round of the playoffs by surviving North Carolina’s energetic start, eventually turning the tables once the Courage got tired. In the semifinal, the Spirit were on the back foot for spells due to OL Reign’s ability to find pockets to either side of midfield, but through brave defending, a classic Washington goal over the top, and some improvisational brilliance, they advanced again.

Chicago is not NC, and they’re not the Reign. They will not be pressing the Spirit into a frenetic game, and they aren’t going to attempt to dominate possession and set up shop in the Washington end for long periods. It’s been a while since the Spirit had to play an opponent that was willing and able to defend deep for long spells, and as such it’s a different kind of challenge standing between them and a first-ever trophy in team history.

Here’s how the Spirit can bring the NWSL Championship home:

Target sighted

The Spirit have been the deadliest team in NWSL when playing over the top. It’s not hard to figure out why: Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman are up front, and few NWSL defenders can keep up with them if they get into a footrace. Both players are smart off the ball, rather than just being fast (though, they are really fast), and do well to set their defenders up for momentarily losing track of them just as they take off. That’s how you get a goal like last week’s equalizer from Rodman, or several Hatch goals this season.

They also have multiple players who are among the best on the planet at serving a long ball. Sam Staab has been the danger woman lately, serving up the assist for Rodman last week, and for Rodman’s winner against Houston on Halloween. Andi Sullivan has established herself as just as much of a threat when not closed down. The combination of players who attack space well and players who can serve passes up on a dime? It’s tough to stop, and that’s why this genre of Spirit goal keeps popping up.

It’s a problem most teams in NWSL have trouble solving, because they want to play an open, entertaining game. Generally, the Spirit have success with this tactic by either a) catching teams in moments where they fail to apply pressure to the ball despite having a higher defensive line, or b) manipulating their opponent until Staab or Sullivan can be given the ball in this kind of space. Teams that play mid-block or high press give up this kind of space trying to win the ball higher up the field.

Chicago is not one of those teams. Look for the Red Stars to draw a low line of contention, pressuring the ball only once the Spirit are within 50 or so yards of goal. They’re choosing their risk: they’ll give away the time Staab and Sullivan need in exchange to take away all the space Hatch and Rodman run into. The over the top threat dries up if you never give space up, and that’s what the Red Stars will choose.

That means the Spirit have two options: either lure Chicago out of that low block — which both Portland and Gotham FC have shown is incredibly difficult — or finesse their way through the resulting wall of Chicago flag-inspired white shirts.

Option one, for the Spirit, likely means getting a feel for what Chicago’s pressing triggers are, and actually playing into them. That’s dangerous, but it can cut both ways: if the Red Stars step as a group to compress the ball in midfield, they’re necessarily bringing their defenders up high, which for a moment will open up the space to go over the top. Escaping that pressure is the hard part, but a team with Sullivan, Dorian Bailey, Emily Sonnett, and Ashley Sanchez is equipped to draw multiple players to one place only to move the ball out of that area quickly.

Option two is what we’re going to see more of, though. That is, a Spirit side that will require its forwards to hold play up and connect, rather than make the runs in behind that they so clearly enjoy. The good news here is that Hatch has worked hard at improving this side of her game, while Rodman and Sanchez have both made plenty of highlight reels this season with their dribbling moves.

However, it’s the other projected starter in their front four, Tara McKeown, that may have the most important role. McKeown’s first touch and intelligent movement make her an excellent compliment as a target forward. We tend to think of a target striker as a battering ram, but McKeown does the job with thought and technique more than brawn. She’s been able to time her movements away from center backs, and then move the ball along quickly and without fuss. Much like Bailey goes underappreciated in central midfield as a connector, so too does McKeown as a reference point on the front line.

Finding her feet and making runs off of her should be seen as just as important for the Spirit, who just got a lesson on what won’t work from Chicago’s semifinal. Christine Sinclair is a legend in the game who has seen it all, but the Portland Thorns simply couldn’t get her involved against Chicago. Why? Though her position this year has been largely playing at the point of a midfield diamond, her role is not far from what we’re talking about for McKeown.

It didn’t work against Chicago because Sinclair’s position left her constantly surrounded by defensive midfielders. Her starting point was between Morgan Gautrat and Sarah Woldmoe, and later Chicago shifted from a 3421 to a 3331, with Woldmoe always in Sinclair’s space and help coming from Gautrat and Danny Colaprico to either side. Portland never really adjusted to this, and their attack swiftly became a repeat of Sophia Smith trying to conjure up a solo goal.

Portland never tried to push Sinclair’s starting point up in between their forward pair, and that allowed the Red Stars’ mob of defensive midfielders to reduce an all-time great to a bystander. The Spirit, playing a 433, will have McKeown starting higher up, which means that her movements away from that point will be designed to find pockets, rather than starting in the pocket already (which is where Chicago wants her to be).

So if the Spirit are going to pick the lock, it’s not just about Sanchez and Rodman. If you see McKeown picking up a bunch of touches and connecting well with the rest of the attack, the Spirit are on their way to prying Chicago open.

A little patience

Rory Dames gave us a view on how Chicago wants to go about the game:

That might not sound like much, but what this means is that the Red Stars are going to place their focus on risk avoidance rather than taking risks to make things happen. They’re going to restrict their rolls of the dice to moments when they have numbers back, rather than gamble in transition.

The knock-on effect from that mindset is a tempo that is set on slowwww. The Red Stars do not want a thriller, and the more open this game is, the less they’re getting their way. So, look for them to only take risks when they’ve played long, and almost always with their wingers rather than central midfielders. Dames doesn’t want Vanessa DiBernardo trying to dribble three players in the middle; he wants a game with hopeful 2-3 player raids forward, or to pounce on Spirit mistakes, or to have the game settled on set pieces.

On one hand, the Spirit spent most of the last three years preparing for this scenario. Before the coaching change in August, Washington was NWSL’s most possession-oriented team, and they were looking to turn every game into one where the other team was stuck in a defensive block that the Spirit slowly wore away until they broke through. They’re no longer that team, though, having added some high-press elements into their play, stepping their line up, and being more horizontally compact. Those are among the changes that have sparked this incredible late-season run.

However, it’s not as easy as simply turning back the clock. It has to be said here that the Spirit weren’t exactly turning all that possession focus into consistently great results, and no team made that more clear than Chicago. The Red Stars took seven of a possible nine points in their meetings with the Spirit, and they did it by being extremely comfortable with the slower tempo. The Spirit got as much of the ball as they wanted, but the tempo was actually too slow for their liking, and Chicago was often quite comfortable with how things were going in all three games. They got some luck along the way (Staab being called for a stoppage time handball despite tucking both arms behind her back comes to mind) but ultimately those scores were reflective of the three meetings.

So the Spirit will need to be patient, and willing to exchange a lot of passes that only give them very modest gains in terms of positioning and space. The idea is to not be the team that blinks first. If the Spirit are forcing things, Chicago is in good shape. However, if it’s Washington coaxing the Red Stars to chase things they shouldn’t, or shift their defensive block in pursuit of pressure that isn’t going to work, the stage is set to seriously attack Chicago’s goal.

Pugh Pugh Pugh

The major news today is that Mal Pugh and Kayla Sharples, who missed the semifinal while in the league’s Covid-19 protocol, are both available for tomorrow’s game. While there are unanswered questions about how that happened — “early in the week” points to them starting the protocol on 11/8 or 11/9, so there is time for this to be possible within league guidelines — it has happened.

First of all, we should discuss the formation impact. Chicago played out of a 3421 against Portland, and later shifted their four central midfielders from a box to a diamond to mirror Portland. We may see that if Chicago is trying to protect a lead or force penalties if we get to extra time, but this was a reaction to Pugh being out, and to Portland’s diamond 442.

Washington is not the Thorns, and Pugh is back, so we should fully expect the 4231 that Chicago has chosen against the Spirit in all three meetings this season (as well as most of their other games in 2021).

Why change back? For one thing, this still allows Chicago to mirror the Spirit’s midfield triangle, just like they wanted to match the Thorns by going with a fourth player in the middle. Pugh’s success playing from the left has been such this year that it outweighs whatever benefits the Red Stars would gain from last week’s 3421 (that, at times, was more 5221). They may be risk-averse, but they’re going to set up their star player to do her thing.

While we have to acknowledge that Pugh may not be well enough to start (that’s why Johnson is listed as an alternate in that image), Washington has prepared for her. Kris Ward even dropped one hint about his approach during pre-game media availability from Louisville, noting Sullivan as a factor in containing Pugh. That points to Sullivan playing right-center midfield (with Bailey at left-center) and Sanchez playing as a no. 10 rather than the lone no. 6 set-up the Spirit played for much of the season.

Shifting personnel isn’t the only solution with Pugh, though. O’Hara and Sonnett will have to be especially sharp, calling on everything they’ve learned training with Pugh with the USWNT to prevent her from drifting into the half-space on that side to either create for others or score the prototypical Mal Pugh goal. Keeping her bottled up along the touchline, or forced to dish the ball off early in moves rather than close to the top of the box is vital.