The Washington Spirit concluded their first week of warm-weather training with their first preseason match of 2021. USWNT players Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett, after concluding national team camp and being granted a few days off by the Spirit, re-joined the club in Florida, where the team’s work on the tactical side of their approach this year has become a theme.
Here are the key topics from what Spirit head coach Richie Burke, speaking to reporters on Friday afternoon via conference call, referred to as “a really productive week so far.”
Back at Audi Field, and sooner than expected
The big news from Burke was a surprise addition to the preseason schedule, and in an unexpected venue. Washington is set to host Sky Blue FC on March 28 at Audi Field, which would mark their first match on Buzzard Point since September 14, 2019.
Burke said his understanding was that the teams and the District of Columbia government had agreed to the match, which involved applying for a waiver from the city due to Covid-19 regulations. A kickoff time has not yet been set, but a source with knowledge of the situation has confirmed to Black and Red United that the game is set for Audi Field.
There is no word on whether any fans will be allowed, though given that the city has denied a similar request from the Washington Nationals, the chances are that the game will be played without supporters in the stands.
Washington had planned on playing four matches at Audi Field in 2020, including a nationally-televised NWSL season opener, only for Covid-19 to scupper those plans. The club plans to split this season’s schedule between the District and Leesburg’s Segra Field, though how that split breaks down remains unclear. Steve Goff of the Washington Post has previously reported that the Spirit’s Challenge Cup home games are likely to be played at Segra Field.
Palm Beach Atlantic 0:6 Washington Spirit
The Spirit’s first preseason game of 2021, against NCAA Division II side Palm Beach Atlantic (whose facilities Washington is using throughout this portion of the preseason), saw them win in a 6-0 rout yesterday afternoon. With the Spirit still building towards competitive play and the Sailfish having not played since 2019 due to Covid-19 cancellations last year, the sides agreed to a shortened 75-minute match.
Ashley Hatch scored a hat trick during the first 45-minute half, while Trinity Rodman scored twice after coming in for the 30-minute second half. Bayley Feist was also on the scoresheet in a game that was mostly played in a Florida downpour.
“It was great to see Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara in a Spirit jersey, playing as well as they did. I thought Ashley Sanchez was fantastic, Bayley Feist, a lot of very, very positive performances today. It’s great for Trinity Rodman to get her first two goals as a rookie,” said Burke in post-game comments provided by the team.
With Burke telling reporters on Friday that he’s “not locked in” with any specific formation this early in the Spirit’s process of building a changed tactical approach, Washington set up in a very familiar 433 formation yesterday. Rookie Anna Heilferty got a start on the left wing, while offseason signing Saori Takarada — a versatile player, but nominally more of a wide forward/attacker — started at left back.
Burke made five changes at halftime, with projected starters like Paige Nielsen and Kelley O’Hara coming in on the back line. Tori Huster played right back, with Natalie Jacobs moving into the midfield, while Ashley Sanchez remained the team’s number ten. Feist moved up front, with Trinity Rodman playing center forward and Mariana Speckmaier on the left.
As the half wore on, Devon Kerr replaced Bledsoe in goal, while trialist Morgan Andrews came on in a defensive midfield role in the final 17 minutes. Given that other defensive midfield options on the roster (Bailey, Huster, Jacobs, and even Sonnett as we’ll get into momentarily) may be more comfortable in other positions, it stands to reason that Andrews — a natural deep-lying distributor who can get stuck in — has a solid path towards earning a contract.
Other than Averie Collins (torn ACL), the issues for Washington’s training staff concern minor knocks more than anything else. Burke said that team captain Andi Sullivan, who did not play against Palm Beach Atlantic, might have to train in a face mask after a nose injury following a collision in training.
O’Hara (knee), Nielsen (adductor), and Tegan McGrady (ankle) joined Sullivan on the list, but in each case Burke downplayed the severity of the injury. O’Hara and Nielsen were well enough to play 30 minutes yesterday, while both Sullivan and McGrady were able to join training in a limited capacity on Friday.
The two absentees from camp at this point are Jordan DiBiasi and Julia Roddar. Burke said that DiBiasi has continued to rehab a hip injury in Colorado, and will fly into Virginia about a week and a half from now, just before the team flies back north from Florida.
Burke noted that the third-year midfielder is raring to get to work as soon as she can. “The players have got Monday and Tuesday off, I was hoping the staff were gonna have Monday and Tuesday off but Jordan called me and said ‘Can you come in and work with me on Monday and Tuesday? I want to get ready to go!’”
The club’s plan with DiBiasi at the moment is to “ease her in, probably through the Challenge Cup and into the start of the regular season.”
As for Roddar, Burke said that new Spirit investor Tom Daschle (a former U.S. senator) may be getting involved to help move the immigration process along. According to Burke, Roddar signed her deal back in January, and all parties assumed she would have been clear to join her new club right after the February international window, which she spent with Sweden’s national team.
“It’s massively frustrating for me, because now it alters some of our training plans down here,” said Burke. “[But] you have to be professional about it. We’ll take that one on the chin. If she can get here by the time we play the Orlando game the last weekend of camp, that would be fantastic. If not, then we’ll try and integrate her before we play Sky Blue on the 28th.”
Objectives for starters: Goals, more USWNT time, and a central role for Sonnett
Burke gave a preview of some of the expectations he’s placing on some of the club’s biggest names. For both Sullivan and Sanchez, there’s a simple objective near the top of the list: goals.
On Sanchez, who he name-checked after yesterday’s game as a standout performer on the day, Burke said “She knows she needs to be challenged. She knows she needs to get greater [scoring] numbers, she knows she needs to turn Vlatko Andonovski’s head in her direction... She’s got the bit between her teeth and looks very, very hungry.”
Burke alluded to Sullivan’s pursuit of a more regular place within the USWNT set-up, and again came back to raw stats like goals and assists being part of the equation. “[Andi] and I are on the same page: We want [her] to get goals, we want her to get in amongst the numbers,” said Burke of Sullivan, who has two career NWSL goals (both in 2019). “She strikes the ball incredibly well so, you know, whether she’s sticking it in from 25 yards out or driving past people, I don’t really care, but we’re tasking her to be a little bit more numbers-orientated this year and hopefully she’ll do that.”
Sullivan may get a chance to play further up the field in part because Emily Sonnett could potentially see some time at the base of the Spirit midfield. While Burke didn’t explicitly connect those dots, he did say that Sullivan could play as “a 6, an 8, or a 10, or anywhere in that midfield, depending on form and depending on the players that we’ve got.”
While Burke is sure that he plans to use Sonnett in a central position rather than the fullback role she often plays for the USWNT, the specifics of where in the middle are still being sorted out in training. “Emily’s gonna play as a center back, or in a back three, or she may even adopt a 6 role. She’s gonna play more central for us than she does for the national team,” said Burke.
Burke repeatedly emphasized that the team isn’t set on a formation at this point, and most likely won’t just play the same formation every week throughout the season. And of course, the only data point we have at the moment is a preseason game in which Sonnett played as a center back. The possibility of her playing in the midfield is simply on the table as an option, rather than something to bet this month’s rent check on.
That said, the most likely path for her ending up playing in a midfield role appears to be the adoption of a 433, which has been Burke’s preferred set-up in the last two seasons. In that case, with Nielsen and Sam Staab forming what has proven to be an elite center back partnership in the NWSL, the central position for Sonnett that makes the most sense would be just ahead of them. That in turn would see Sullivan play further up the field, a role Burke has deployed her at in the past in both the 433 and when using a diamond 442.