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Washington Spirit “looking good” as they begin the 2021 NWSL preseason

Richie Burke spoke to reporters on the Spirit’s newcomers, injuries, and their approach to the Challenge Cup

Washington Football Team / Courtesy of Washington Spirit

The Washington Spirit’s pursuit of an NWSL title began in earnest last week, with players convening for the opening of preseason. The winter cold may have driven them indoors — for at least the first two weeks of training, the Spirit will be training at the Washington Football Team’s indoor bubble — but that has not slowed the side’s preparation down.

“We’ve been looking good,” said head coach Richie Burke on a conference call with reporters late last week. “Pleased to be back on the training ground, with players playing football, it’s the lifeblood, it’s work.”

The start of Washington’s preseason was delayed a day as the club had to cope with both a snowstorm and getting negative Covid-19 tests confirmed for players and staff. The pandemic is just one strange aspect ahead for all NWSL clubs, who are also coming to grips with by far the longest preseason in league history. Players were due to report on February 1, but the Spirit’s Challenge Cup schedule doesn’t begin until April 9, making for a nearly ten-week preseason.

“It’s a really, really inordinately long preseason. In the history of preseasons, in all the time I’ve been involved in the game, I’ve never seen one this long before,” said Burke, who emphasized that he didn’t want to pile too much on the squad too early. “Typically players are flying out the gates and want to get going really quickly, and you have to rein them in. So this week has been about establishing proper professional load levels, and mix in a little bit of the dynamic stuff that our High Performance director Michael [Minthorne] wants with them.”

Burke, who has talked up a change in tactical approach this season, added that the Spirit will start to really dig into that aspect once they move to a warm-weather camp in Florida at the start of next month. “It’s been a little bit of mixed planning for the first four weeks. There’s a lot of other stuff that we need to get in place to lay a platform. So we when we do go to Florida, we can get our tactics in the right place.”

Burke has most of his squad in place, but there are exceptions. New signing Julia Roddar isn’t expected to report until after the end of the February international window following a call-up with the Swedish national team, and first round pick Tara McKeown (who is opting to play the spring NCAA season at USC), the Spirit have just about everyone in, with Covid-19 tests coming back negative in time for a first session of the year a week ago.

There are also injuries. Attacking midfielder Jordan DiBiasi is in Colorado finishing rehabilitation of a hip injury that impacted her last year. According to Burke, she’s expected to arrive either just before this first leg of camp, or to meet the team in Florida.

Burke also revealed a more significant long-term absentee, with striker Averie Collins suffering a torn ACL in what was described as a “non-contact” injury suffered during voluntary workouts before the official start of preseason. “She’s undergone reparative surgery and she’s out for what looks like a season-ending injury... [It’s] a shame, she looked absolutely immense when she first came in.”

Losing Collins is certainly a blow, as the Spirit do not have any alternatives when it comes to fielding a traditional target forward with her height and strength. Ashley Hatch remains the obvious starter, and while Washington has plenty of forwards, the bulk of the group is more experienced playing on the right or left wing rather than in a traditional number 9 role.

According to Burke, once the Spirit get through “all of the typical bureaucratic processes” with the NWSL as far as Collins is concerned, they’ll make a move to replace her on the roster. “We’ve got a couple of targets in mind, we’re moving some things along in that area,” later adding that the club anticipates making two more signings in total before the season gets underway.

There are also lesser injuries among the players who went to USWNT camp, with Burke noting that Aubrey Bledsoe, Kelley O’Hara, and Andi Sullivan all came back with “Slight knocks, nothing major, nothing massive. Just things that we have to be mindful of.” Bledsoe had already joined training at full speed after a build-up, while Sullivan is “five, six days” away from participating at full speed.

O’Hara’s unspecified injury is slight enough that Burke said it was more of a matter of just lowering her overall exertion ahead of a demanding SheBelieves Cup later this month. The Spirit are taking a similar approach with Emily Sonnett, Washington’s other USWNT call-up, with Burke noting that “because it’s very, very early doors, there’s no need for us to be pushing them along... Right now, April is the target for all those players.”

Burke made a bit of news on the schedule front as well, saying that the Spirit’s Challenge Cup group will include the North Carolina Courage, Sky Blue FC, the Orlando Pride, and expansion side Racing Louisville. While Burke said the Spirit would love to win the tournament this time around — “We have conversations about setting our goals and this is the group that’s now got a lot of serial winners, couple of World Cup winners in there as well now. And they want to win. They don’t want to set any low targets. They’re not looking for anything but the best.” — the club’s priority remains the NWSL Championship.

“We’ll be going into that trying to win every match, but I think [the Challenge Cup is] going to be a big ask for us, especially as we’re trying to evolve as a team tactically and incorporate some new players that are unfamiliar, some internationals a little bit unfamiliar,” explained Burke. ‘“The real prize is the end of the season, that’s all we’re looking for, but if we can we can get off to a great start and out the gates quickly in the Challenge Cup, then I’ll take that as well.”

Of those newcomers, Burke noted that Japanese international Saori Takarada has already impressed. “Takarada looks very smooth. You know, [her] technical ability’s off the charts. She’s very, very good,” said Burke, adding that the 21 year old had already begun English lessons, and was getting help from the Spirit’s other Nadeshiko player, Kumi Yokoyama. “[Takarada] looks like she’s going to be moving along really, really well.”

According to Burke, the Spirit’s crop of rookies had the customary eye-opening first pro training session, but have already made up some ground. “They were very good today, I was very happy with what they provided today... The rookies are gonna have to go very quickly in this very, very competitive environment.”

Washington Football Team / Courtesy of Washington Spirit

Plenty of attention will be paid to forward Trinity Rodman, Washington’s first pick in last month’s draft, due to both her elite youth national team play and her famous father, NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman. While Rodman’s athletic metrics were apparently very impressive, Burke was sure to emphasize his new recruit’s enthusiasm for improving her game.

“She wants to learn, she wants to get better. We have some data sources that we look at that register the number of touches — both right foot and left foot — the number of high-velocity ball strikes right foot, left foot [during training], and one of the discussion points that we talked about was the imbalance between her right foot and her left foot... Hers was a marked imbalance,” noted Burke. “So we had to have a conversation with her, and today in training, she was hitting balls with her left foot, moving it with her left foot, and I commented about it and she said ‘Yeah, I don’t want to see that data again!’”

With the amount of time left in the preseason, there is plenty of time for Rodman and the rest to battle for playing time on what is a very deep Spirit team this year. Burke called the idea of sorting out a lineup “a bit of a conundrum” at this point, especially while not having potential starters like DiBiasi and Roddar still to arrive for training.

Realistically, Washington’s squad will start the year with five players with solid spots on top national teams, plus four more battling for a bigger role with the USWNT, several potential NWSL Best XI starters like Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, and younger players with huge potential like Rodman and Tegan McGrady pushing to be in that discussion.

“I’m looking at [the group] and thinking ‘oh God, where’s everyone gonna play? We can only start eleven!,’” said Burke. “But it’s a good headache to have.”