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Washington Spirit notebook: Spirit beat IMG Academy 5-0, prospect of games at Audi Field brighten

Thoughts on the Spirit giving a three-back a look, and possibly playing more games in the District

Jordan Small / Courtesy of Washington Spirit

The Washington Spirit’s camp in Florida continued over the past week or so, with the team trying out a new formation in their second preseason game and some potentially promising news as far as venues go once they get back to the DMV next week.

Let’s get through the news and notes:

IMG Academy 0:5 Washington Spirit

On Saturday, the Spirit took a while to get going before eventually rolling to a 5-0 win over a select team from IMG Academy. Ashley Sanchez scored from the penalty spot and added two assists, while Bayley Feist struck twice in a five-minute span midway through the second half. USWNT regulars Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett, back in camp and participating in a preseason game with the team for the first time, respectively opened and closed the scoring.

Spirit starting 11

Richie Burke has talked about considering a shift in formation to something involving a back three, and this game was his first look at it outside of training sessions. The 3421 included O’Hara and Tori Huster as wingbacks, while Sonnett played in the middle of a three-back that included Paige Nielsen to her right and Sam Staab to her left.

Team captain Andi Sullivan played 45 minutes while wearing a protective mask, while Trinity Rodman started up front. According to a team spokesperson, presumptive starter Ashley Hatch was held out of the match due to a couple of slight knocks as a precautionary measure; she trained without limitations yesterday.

O’Hara opened the scoring in the 29th minute on a header, while also hitting the crossbar late in the half. Rodman and Sonnett both had early goals called back for offside as well.

At halftime, Burke made five changes but — per the Spirit comms staff on the ground in Florida — the formation was not altered. Anna Heilferty and Tegan McGrady came in as wingbacks, Natalie Jacobs replaced Sullivan in central midfield, Saori Takarada came into the game somewhat surprisingly as a defender, and Kumi Yokoyama replaced Rodman as the no. 9.

Takarada has mostly been known as an attacking player, whether that’s out on the wing, tucked inside underneath a center forward, or as part of a strike pairing, but in the 2020 Nadeshiko League season she spent quite a bit of time playing as part of a back three. On the Plex Weather podcast in January (yes, this is a shameless plug), Burke had said this was a possible position for Takarada, though at the time it seemed like his thoughts for her were more focused on an attacking role.

Spirit 2nd half 11

The Spirit had more success in front of goal in the second 45 minutes, with Sanchez putting away an early penalty won by McGrady. Feist then scored in the 64th (benefiting from some tidy work from Sanchez and Takarada on the right wing) and 69th minutes, and Sonnett nodded home the game’s final goal on a set piece from Sanchez.

Rookie Sydney Schneider and trialist Morgan Andrews came on for the game’s final 21 minutes, with Schneider in goal and Andrews coming into central midfield (with Dorian Bailey moving into one of the two attacking midfield roles underneath Yokoyama in what is apparently a very, very fluid attacking system).

It remains to be seen whether the Spirit will adopt this as their preferred formation going forward, but an argument can be made that this is the best way to get the team’s best players on the field without anyone having to play a position that’s an awkward fit for them. It also creates major competition in the front three, with Sanchez, Hatch, Yokoyama, Feist, Rodman, Takarada, Heilferty, and Jordan DiBiasi all vying for starting jobs.

One major variable: Julia Roddar, who has yet to arrive in camp due to the various bureaucratic hold-ups that go with getting a U.S. visa. In this formation, Roddar is likely to end up competing for time as a wingback, which would see her, O’Hara, McGrady, and Huster all battling for two spots (with Bailey, who can play just about anywhere, providing further depth). That has a domino effect, with Huster also perfectly capable of starting in central midfield alongside Sullivan, or as part of the back three.

Possibility of Audi Field opening for fans?

News broke yesterday that the District government is going to allow teams to start applying for waivers to allow limited fan attendance at games. As vaccinations slowly but surely become more common, there are signs that fans may be able to safely attend games before too much of the year is gone.

The Spirit are already set to play their Challenge Cup games at Segra Field with a maximum of 1,000 fans, but Mayor Muriel Bowser said yesterday that D.C. United was looking at 2,000 (or 10% of capacity) at Audi Field as early as their home opener on April 17.

What does that mean for the Spirit? It’s hard to say exactly without knowing the exact finances involved in renting the stadium, booking security and medical teams, and all the extra expenses that come with holding a game at any venue, but it’s doubtful that Washington would find it feasible to host games in the District with just 2,000 fans creating the revenue to offset all those costs.

However, with the D.C. government taking this step a month before United’s first home game, it points towards a day when the Spirit could theoretically host a game with enough fans allowed that the costs of playing at Audi Field could be offset by the money a larger crowd brings in. In other words, there is probably a limited capacity figure that still allows the Spirit to play in the District — where they say they want to hold as many games as they possibly can — without suffering a hefty financial loss.

B&RU reached out to the Spirit for official comment on the prospect of Washington applying for a similar waiver for regular season games, but as of publication has not received a reply. We will update this story with any developments.

NWSL covid results

In more positive covid-related news, the NWSL said that from March 8-13, they conducted 849 tests on players, staff, and other team personnel, and zero came back as confirmed positives. Since a press release on February 10 saying the league had five positive tests during the early days of the official start of the preseason, the NWSL has had just one confirmed positive.

Rookie update

We covered this in more depth a few days ago, but Rodman, Heilferty, Schneider, and Mariana Speckmaier all signed deals with the Spirit. Rodman’s deal runs through 2023, while Heilferty and Schneider are on contracts through 2022 with a club option for 2023. Speckmaier’s deal is for 2021, with an option year for next season.

Meanwhile, Tara McKeown scored her 3rd goal for USC, but the Trojans’ unexpected struggles continued. They watched an early 2-0 lead at Colorado evaporate yesterday, and even after McKeown won an overtime penalty kick, they couldn’t put the Buffaloes away. Late in the second half of overtime, Colorado completed their comeback, winning 3-2. USC is now 3W-0D-3L on the season, and has fallen out of the United Soccer Coaches top 25 rankings.

Still, from a Spirit perspective, McKeown has looked like the player Washington thought they were getting on draft day. She has 3 goals and 1 assist in 468 minutes, and has generally been at the center of the majority of promising USC attacks.