On Sunday, the Washington Spirit hosted their first preseason game in the region since 2019, and their first preseason game at Audi Field period, falling 2-1 to Sky Blue FC. Attendance was limited to a socially-distanced set Spirit investors and a small crew of very fortunate media members allowed to take notes from the stands.
It wasn’t a conventional way to cover a game, but these aren’t conventional times. Instead of a conventional recap, what I have for you is a collection of thoughts and impressions based on what went down on Buzzard Point this weekend.
Spirit 1 (Sanchez 37)
Sky Blue 2 (Monaghan 6, Lee 60)
Washington set up in the 3421 they have talked about this winter, and that they used in their last preseason game. The only change from the lineup from that previous match was Ashley Hatch coming in up top for Trinity Rodman, and if everyone’s healthy, this is — give or take Kumi Yokoyama and Tegan McGrady — a solid bet for the lineup in the Challenge Cup.
The Spirit started brightly, but a turnover handed McCall Zerboni possession with Washington spread out in an attacking posture. Zerboni smartly played the ball immediately forward to Paige Monaghan, who slashed in from the right wing and fizzed a shot that had enough power to get past Aubrey Bledsoe in the 6th minute.
Ashley Sanchez got Washington level in the 37th minute with a goal that is kind of the ideal for how the Spirit want to attack. A fluid passing move involving several players eventually ended with Sanchez guiding home a golden chance from just inside the box.
The Spirit made a real push to start the second half, but couldn’t quite turn their threatening play and high pressing into real chances. Sky Blue didn’t offer a ton, but on the hour mark, they took the lead on this incredible goal from Sodam Lee:
Zerboni got a second yellow card in what turned into a rather chippy game as things went on, but the teams seemed to agree on the fly that they’d all be better suited to playing 11v11, so Sky Blue replaced her with a sub. Even with the disorganization that caused, and a switch to a more familiar 433 from the Spirit, Washington couldn’t get themselves level.
Spirit (3421): Bledsoe (Kerr 73); Nielsen (Takarada 46), Sonnett, Staab (Speckmaier 73); Huster (Roddar 61), Sullivan (Jacobs 61), Bailey, O’Hara (McGrady 61); Feist (Rodman 35), Sanchez (Yokoyama 46); Hatch (Heilferty 73)
Sky Blue (4231): Haracic (McGlynn 46); Skroski (Dydasco 61), Johnson, Freeman (Lewandowski 68), Dorsey (Flores 7?); Zerboni (Baxter 7?**), Cudjoe (Aylmer 61); Monaghan (Purce 61), Baxter (Lee 46), Kawasumi (Eddy 61); Lloyd (Onumonu 72)
How are the Spirit actually going to look?
As much as we’ve talked about the Spirit changing formation, they haven’t gone away from their core characteristics: they want to have the ball, they want to be a front-foot team, and they want to win games because of their mastery of angles and technique more than anything else.
The adjustments Richie Burke has made are designed to make them even more that kind of team than previously. There were some interesting layers in this game, including some clever rotations in possession between Andi Sullivan and Bayley Feist, and there were times where the Spirit formation was more 325 (with Huster and Kelley O’Hara pushing up as high as the forwards) than anything else.
They also had the bulk of this game’s notable chances. Huster nearly scored within 90 seconds or so of the Monaghan goal, and then Hatch was called for a foul pushing the ball over the line in the aftermath. Sanchez had a couple of near misses, as did Huster on two other occasions in the first half. The Spirit’s wingbacks, in particular, are going to get plenty of looks this year, as they’re often the third runner getting forward late to catch the defense off guard. We think of these as positions with a lot of defensive responsibility, but this year it seems like the Spirit will also need their wingbacks to get on the scoresheet from time to time.
Burke has set a goal of attempting 600 passes per game, and while we didn’t have any data on that, it wouldn’t surprise me if they got close to the mark in this game. Emily Sonnett saw a ton of the ball, which brings up a notable shift in how the team builds out of the back. Over the last two years, this has been based on the triangle of Sullivan, Paige Nielsen, and Sam Staab. Now, at least in this formation, adding Emily Sonnett to the mix diversifies their options. They’re still looking to form passing triangles, but it’s less obvious now which players are going to end up being on the ball in a given sequence.
We’re also going to see a very fluid attack. I mentioned the rotations Sullivan and Feist had going, while Sanchez (1st half) and Yokoyama (2nd half) clearly had freedom to drift further into the middle to find space and dictate play.
What still needs work?
The familiar issue of turning danger into genuine chances was back again. I said they had the bulk of the chances, but much like last year’s Challenge Cup penalty kick elimination against Sky Blue, this game saw the Spirit feel like the more dangerous team without creating a huge number of actual looks.
Sanchez, Huster, Hatch, Yokoyama, and Trinity Rodman all had their chances, but the challenge for the Spirit remains about both creating more shooting opportunities across the board, and creating more of the specific kind of through ball looks that Hatch has seemed to thrive with in the past.
Finally, the willingness to push so many numbers forward in possession comes with an obvious danger: after a turnover, how do you prevent teams from simply playing it forward as quickly as possible into all that space? This style could be a real marvel to watch if it works, but it’s also a high-wire act for the whole team, and this game was a perfect example of how it could go if the Spirit is not quite great on a given day.
What about the newcomers?
Let’s start with Sonnett, who will probably end up regularly leading both teams in touches in games this season. She seemed to grow louder as a leadership presence as the game wore on, especially once the team’s established leadership contingent had subbed off.
Saori Takarada had a fascinating 45 minutes, as she ended up playing on the right side of a three-back, then at right back in a 433 (where she was actually pretty dangerous and got into really good attacking spots deep in Sky Blue’s half multiple times), and she finished the game alongside Sonnett as a center back duo.
She’s clearly got the instincts of an attacking player, and Burke said last week that she’s playing in the back right now in part to bolster her Olympic prospects, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At one point, Takarada nearly pulled off a long-distance one-two that, if it had panned out, would have sent her through on goal having started the sequence at center back.
You already know about Kelley O’Hara, so I just want to highlight one remarkable sequence at the start of the second half. The Spirit high-pressed to start things off, and in a very short sequence (maybe two minutes, max) O’Hara won four separate 50/50 challenges to keep possession alive for Washington. Even knowing what she’s capable of, it was wild to see one player repeatedly win the ball back in such a short span.
Trinity Rodman’s potential will jump out at fans pretty quickly. The issue she ran into in this game was timing and taking the right angle. One potential 1v1 with the goalkeeper saw her take the ball inside too early, allowing a classic Estelle Johnson slide tackle to arrive just before Rodman took her shot. Also, especially in the first half, she was caught by hard challenges multiple times (one of which, on the sequence that Sanchez scored on, arguably merited a red card instead of the yellow) because she wasn’t quite able to get the ball away fast enough to avoid the contact.
Unfortunately the familiar choppiness we see in friendlies with a lot of subs took hold in the late going, reducing the chances for Anna Heilferty, Mariana Speckmaier, and Julia Roddar to impact the game in a substantial way. Roddar played both as a central midfielder and at right back, but with Yokoyama playing at that point on the left side of the midfield triangle, the Spirit were playing towards her and McGrady more than anything else.
Unfortunately, this game may have come at a cost. Feist left around the 35th minute with what appeared to be a rolled ankle. It didn’t seem like a particularly bad injury, and post-game she was walking around without a visible limp or a big ice pack. Hopefully, it was just a precaution.
Sanchez is more of a worry. She and at least one Sky Blue defender were both lunging to meet a near-post corner kick at the very end of the first half, and both landed awkwardly. Sanchez didn’t appear to hit her head on anything, but she remained down, and eventually was lifted on a stretcher and driven off the field in a golf cart (remaining prone throughout).
The positive is that she did emerge from the locker room a few minutes in the second half, though she was moving quite slowly as she joined the team on the touchline. This improved after the game, and she was chatting with other players and owner Steve Baldwin, but it was hard to tell exactly what had happened.