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Washington Spirit enter NWSL playoffs in top form thanks to ‘overlooked’ defense

Aubrey Bledsoe, Julia Roddar, Sam Staab, & acting head coach Kris Ward explain the changes that have produced five shutouts in seven games

Nikita Taparia

The Washington Spirit are currently on one of the most remarkable runs in NWSL history. Since the beginning of August, they’ve picked up more points (21) than any team in the league, which is very good, but it’s the context that really makes the past three months incredible. A decade’s worth of crises — a coaching change, the only Covid-19 protocol-related forfeits in league history, a public ownership dispute, and the larger movement seeing players demand control of a league that has failed them — have all been playing out while the Spirit have been trying to seal a playoff spot.

How has this happened? The word “resilience” has been thrown around for good reason; the team sticking together and performing well amid everything that has happened is an achievement in and of itself. Despite the changes off the field, they’re still a confident possession team. The attack, too, has drawn plenty of praise. With Ashley Hatch winning the Golden Boot and two of the NWSL’s premier young talents in Rookie of the Year nominee Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez, how could it not?

It’s at the back where the Spirit were looking just a little bit off earlier this year, and that’s where their most obvious improvements have come since Richie Burke’s suspension eventually became a dismissal for cause. Since that change, the Spirit have conceded just five times in ten games. The trend has been improving as the season reached its close: opposing teams have managed to beat Aubrey Bledsoe just twice in the last 652 minutes of play. In an October jam-packed with five vital games, they conceded just a single goal.

The underlying data says this is no mistake. Per American Soccer Analysis, Washington’s expected goals against since the coaching change is 9.91, which is the lowest total in the league over that period of time. They’ve allowed just 111 shots under acting head coach Kris Ward, which is the stingiest figure in the NWSL in the same timeframe. In other words, they’re giving away fewer chances than anyone else, while still maintaining their attacking threat and ability to wear teams down with possession.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as putting in the work.

Speaking with Black and Red United last week, acting head coach Kris Ward said that the players requested more focus on defending at training. “It was just looking at what the players wanted to some degree. A lot of what had happened earlier in the year was just based on what we would do with the ball, and a lot less on how we want to defend,” explained Ward. “We did some defending, it just wasn’t a ton, and the players had asked for more. They wanted more clarity.”

Those requests came early. With the Spirit announcing that Burke was no longer in charge just four days before a trip to face the Houston Dash, Ward said the coaching staff — which at that moment consisted of him and goalkeeping coach Paul Crichton — effectively only had time to work on the pressing phase going into that match.

Washington tormented the Dash in the first hour, getting out to a 2-0 lead while smothering Houston, but eventually the humidity and mental fatigue of that week’s news left the Spirit without the legs to see the game out. The Dash fought back to get a point, but according to Ward, Washington walked out with a lesson. “There are some really great moments of us pressuring Houston and winning the ball back, but it wasn’t sustainable over 90 minutes, and so that just stimulated some more conversations from all of them as to, ‘okay, how can we evolve this?’”

Ward and Crichton set about giving players a clearer picture of what their structure would be, whether pressing or playing in a mid-block. Training focused on things like collective shape, pressing triggers, and “the not-sexy side of things,” as Ward put it. “We want to be very well-drilled on once the ball is actually cleared, stepping up together, making sure we’re condensing, we’re re-marking, and all that kind of stuff.”

Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said that under Burke, the “600 passes, 60% possession” dogma was the intended solution to defending, with the idea being that if the other team can’t get the ball, they can’t attack effectively. That focus, according to her, came at a cost.

“To be honest, defenders got overlooked in terms of development, organization, structure, all of that,” said Bledsoe. “(Burke) didn’t want to choreograph us so much. He felt that by giving us too much information, we would become little puppets, so to speak. But really, we crave that. We wanted more structure and feedback.”

As with anything, the process took time. The Spirit had to come back for a 2-1 win at home over Orlando, and then were held to a 0-0 draw at Audi Field by North Carolina. However, Ward was pleased with that second performance from a process perspective, and said that he was able to use a specific sequence — one where the Spirit built pressure through their shape, collectively guiding the Courage into a turnover without having to expend a lot of energy — as a proof-of-concept when the team went over film in the days that followed.

Bledsoe said that the focus on fundamentals is not something that top-level professionals can ignore, and that the “back to the basics” approach has both sharpened the team’s defending and provided clarity once they’ve taken the ball back. “We’ve sorted out our pressure and just our collective defensive shape. And I think that’s really helped everyone play more freely, because you know what’s expected of you,” explained Bledsoe. “You know (that) ‘okay, I can be creative in these moments, but here I need to do this or that.’ We really wanted more instruction. That’s been our emphasis now, and it’s also empowering. If you give expectations and roles, now the players can go meet them.”

Sam Staab, who just made the NWSL Team of the Month for October, cited a specific adjustment to the team’s structure. Under Burke, the Spirit’s emphasis on retaining the ball meant taking a risk of asking his center backs to spread far apart in possession. It’s a common tactic for any team focused on controlling the ball, but it comes with an obvious risk: if the ball turns over, it’s very easy for the other side to attack or press that space before Washington had time to stall them and get organized.

A high-profile example came back in July, when a stray pass back put Staab under tremendous pressure on a play that ended with a red card. While that decision was later overturned by the league, the Spirit still fell 3-2 to Gotham FC, and the moment shows the risks of how Washington used to build out:

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Paige Nielsen is, by design, over 30 yards from Staab as Washington intended to spread Gotham out to the maximum width of Segra Field’s surface. However, the moment one bad pass was played, the Spirit were in a very difficult spot. It was the risk they had chosen, but it wasn’t necessarily proving to be worth the potential consequences.

Under Ward, there has been a shift: Staab and Emily Sonnett now take up positions closer together and higher up the field, reducing both the horizontal space between them and the vertical space between the center backs and the midfield. “Just in case we have any sort of errant pass or anything like that, we’re closer together,” explained Staab. “(We’re) closer to the rest of the team to be able to intercept the ball or make a play on the ball instead of having them come and get a shot at us.”

“We wanted Sonnett and Sam to be a lot closer together,” added Ward. “It might be 5-, 10-, 15-yard difference, but it just reduces the ability of those counter attacks very swiftly.”

Staab outlined the case for the new starting positions, which pair with more of a willingness to press than were seen earlier this year. “We win the ball up higher up the field, and so our attack doesn’t have to go from 18 (yard box) to 18. It can go from half-field to 18,” said the third-year defender. “We can win the ball up higher, we understand with our press where we’re going to go (after) winning the ball. I think we’ve proven over the last couple of years that we can progress from our 18 to the next 18, but we haven’t really shown that we can win the ball back in the middle of the field and go from there,” later adding that “we’ve added that little bit of transition into our game as a team, and I think being on the same page defensively has really helped out with that.”

Sacrificing some ability to possess may mean the other team has more of the ball, but it also means the Spirit aren’t as much of a high-wire act in the back, and that’s been a popular shift. “If we would lose the ball early, it was really hard for everyone to get back,” said Julia Roddar, who has had to make those hard runs as a fullback and as a midfielder this season. “I think now lately we’ve been better at staying together as a team... I think the balance within the team has been better.”

Ward said that the adjustment was in part due to building around Sonnett, but said that he was impressed with how swiftly Staab had been able to adapt. “They took to it better than we thought, better than we had seen earlier in the season. They took to doing things and I think there’s a lot of credit to Sam for that. Because Emily asked her to play a little bit higher than she wants to. Sam wants to be a little bit deeper, and so it’s getting on the same page in that regard.”

For her part, Staab says that she and Sonnett “just needed time to get to know how to play with each other” before adding that she still thinks they can improve. Bledsoe, who has had arguably the best view of their improved play as a duo, said that Staab has benefitted from playing next to one of the most intense competitors in the NWSL.

“I think Sam is really finding her stride. I think she’s really thrived playing next to Sonnett,” said Bledsoe. “If you tell someone what you expect of them, you give them the opportunity to meet those expectations. And I think Sonnett has kind of done that for Sam. Having Sonnett on Sam’s right, and just kind of matching that energy and intensity, I think Sam is unlocked another level.”

It’s a remarkable statement given how well Washington defended in 2019, with Nielsen and Staab emerging as one of the best pairings in the league. However, that recent history points towards another reason the Spirit believe they’ve been stronger defensively: sheer competition for time. Sonnett is one of five Washington defenders who regularly play for their national team, while the club also has some of the NWSL’s top defenders — think Nielsen and Tegan McGrady, among others — vying for minutes.

Thirteen different players have spent portions of the season playing on the back four, and that doesn’t include Dorian Bailey (who made numerous starts as a fullback in 2019) or mid-season defensive addition Morgan Goff. Ward says that at training, the Spirit “try and make sure that it’s very balanced in the sense of, it’s not necessarily the quote-unquote first group that’s getting all the reps. Everyone gets the same amount of reps,” meaning that anyone that steps in has a firm grasp on the team’s new approach.

Ward cited a dynamic with parallels to what he’d seen while working as a scout with the Seattle Sounders in MLS, where mid-season additions were seen as a way to spark competition and increase sharpness throughout the team at a moment where players could start to get comfortable. The Spirit, of course, got that boost from different sources: the sudden coaching change and the post-Olympics return of Sonnett, Kelley O’Hara, Saori Takarada, and Julia Roddar. Those developments meant that a team that was doing well enough (but arguably not playing their best soccer) suddenly had intense battles for playing time all over the field.

That has been most noticeable at the fullback spots, where nearly one-third of the roster has made at least one appearance. Between the addition of O’Hara and Roddar in the winter, some mid-season improvisation that saw players like Anna Heilferty and Chinyelu Asher (a forward and midfielder, respectively) playing on the back line, and Nielsen’s quality making her difficult to leave out of the team, the outside back roles have become the question marks when it comes to guessing the next Washington starting eleven.

That’s not necessarily a problem, though. “We have incredible depth this year and a lot of unique styles and personalities of players, which is exciting,” said Bledsoe. “It’s also made it extremely competitive, but it’s given us an opportunity to rest players, and to kind of switch up our tactics and strategy depending on our opponents.”

For Ward, this has been another philosophical change. “It’s not necessarily the situation of us always playing our best eleven. It’s a situation of us playing the best eleven for that situation. And that’s been different than it was under (Burke). That’s a different mentality. And so it’s taken some of them some time to get used to it, but I think they’re all seeing now that it’s been positive, and there’s nothing to say that on any given day, their number won’t be called.”

That may sound like coach-speak, but the proof is on the pitch. Under Ward, five different fullback pairs have started in ten games, and Washington has used 13 substitutions to replace a starting outside back (at least one in every single game). Ward said the moves have allowed the Spirit to “manipulate the game,” giving them the position of being the protagonist and leaving the other team reacting to a new look.

Roddar, whose versatility makes her a major factor in that kind of in-game switch, said that the shift towards more clearly defined duties and structure has made it easy to move to a new spot mid-game. “I feel like now lately that we have a good structure. In defending it’s still about winning the ball back, or trying to make the (opponent) slow down. So I think you can do that even if you’re a left back or you’re in the middle, it’s similar rules to win the ball back, so I think that helped me to switch during the games. I still know what I’m supposed to do.”

While that could be a problem, Staab at least has plenty of experience with a rotating cast to her left. “That’s kind of how it’s been my whole career, so I don’t really know any different,” she said, perhaps recalling a 2019 season in which four players notched at least five starts at left back due to a variety of reasons. Dealing with it, from Staab’s point of view, boils down to “communicating and getting on the same page about how you want to communicate for certain things.”

In so many ways, adapting to challenges and change has been the norm for this team in 2021. There are the obvious big issues of an organizational culture that has required major change that is still ongoing, and unprecedented Covid-19 protocol-related forfeits. But there have also been the less heralded issues: calling two very different venues home, or having to play a “home” game in Houston, or having spent time training at numerous venues throughout the DMV.

Given the context of the Spirit’s season — one truly unlike anything ever seen in NWSL before — perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a group that could keep going no matter the challenges. With everything that’s happened, what’s a significant structural and philosophical change to how the team approaches games?