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Three thoughts on the Washington Spirit’s Challenge Cup opener against the North Carolina Courage

Some insight into what we saw and where the Spirit are going after they opened the 2021 season

Lewis Gettier / ISI Photos / Courtesy of Washington Spirit

The Washington Spirit started 2021 off with a really difficult assignment, going on the road to face the North Carolina Courage without several key players. The 3-2 loss they got in the end wasn’t the best path to going to the Challenge Cup final or the best way to begin the year, but there were some important lessons and new things to consider.

Let’s get into three important points:

Feist’s injury is a big deal

The Spirit announced just hours before kickoff that Bayley Feist’s injury a couple of weeks ago in their preseason finale was actually a torn ACL, a heavy blow given her growing stature within the squad. Here’s Richie Burke from the team press release:

This is the absolute worst part of my job, dealing with players when injuries of this magnitude happen. The emotion felt at this time is hard to contain. I cry a little bit inside every time this happens, especially to players whom you’ve grown very attached to over their careers. Feisty was our Player of the Year last year and was playing at such a high level this preseason. Her training and match data were always in the top 1-3 for our squad. This unfortunate situation has hit the squad hard. The innocuous nature of the injury also makes it hard to take, but I know her character and she’ll be back even stronger than ever. We are all in her corner and will be there to support her through the inevitable highs and lows of the recovery process.

Losing a likely starter for the year is always bad, but Feist appeared to be ready to have a huge season. With the team’s formation change, her spot appeared to be likely to be on the right of the attacking triangle, tucked inside rather than out wide as would have been the case in a 433. Feist’s ability to exchange spots with Andi Sullivan in build-ups were an element of surprise for other teams, and the urgency she can bring off the ball would have been a major factor on a team that is talking about how they get more numbers into the box to create better scoring chances.

The issue here is that, while the Spirit have some very good depth in the attack and in the midfield, they don’t have anyone of a similar profile as Feist. The intensity of her approach, her work rate getting her in the thick of everything, and her underrated skill in the attacking third are a potent combination. Working around her injury is going to require some tactical alterations.

Which leads us to...

Yokoyama and Rodman make their cases

If the Spirit have to adjust to playing either the 3412 (what they played this weekend) or the 3421 (which they used in earlier preseason games, and which suited Feist perfectly), the leading candidates to join that front three right now are Kumi Yokoyama and Trinity Rodman.

Obviously Rodman scored, and showed no signs of being overwhelmed by the occasion even if you discard the goal. We’ll have more on the site about Rodman shortly from André Carlisle, so this segment title is partially just a tease for that piece.

That leaves us with Yokoyama, who got the start in this one. Anyone who watches her play can pick up on how her technique and invention can change a game, but last year she would fade in and out of games on a regular basis. Some of that was the NWSL’s physicality and speed being new, and some of that came from needing a little help in finding the game that wasn’t always there in 2020.

Her goal early in this one was pure Yokoyama: calm, unhurried, and clear-eyed from the moment she got on the ball.

Yokoyama nearly added an assist and had several other moments of game-breaking cleverness, but as the match wore on, her influence waned. Richie Burke explained that she “just didn’t have the wheels today,” especially when it came to a second half adjustment the coaching staff asked of their forwards that required covering even more ground.

“I could see she was just too much of an ask (physically) for her,” explained Burke, which is why he ended up replacing her with Rodman. “There’ll be games when she lights it up, because she’s just suited down to the ground. You know, she came on in the (preseason) game against Sky Blue at Audi, and changed the game a little bit because her footballing craftiness. In a game like today where it was a little bit more athletic, and a little bit more asking her to put in a shift outside of possession, was harder.”

What does this all indicate? Right now, it may become a game-to-game situation between the two. Against attack-minded teams, or teams that can overload the midfield as effectively as North Carolina does (so basically Portland and...that might be it), Rodman may have an edge right now, while teams that tend to stand off and focus on a more rigid team shape like Gotham FC — something that, admittedly, has been a bit difficult for the Spirit going back to last year — may be, at least in the short term, the games where Burke favors Yokoyama.

Issues at the back

For only the third time since Burke took charge, the Spirit gave up more than two goals in a match, so obviously it wasn’t the best day in terms of defending. While the Spirit actually ended up with the edge in terms of expected goals, the lack of familiarity that came with having three crucial players away with the USWNT saw the Courage get to play their kind of direct, transition game for a big portion of the middle third of the game, which is where they nabbed two of their goals.

The Spirit want to play a high line for good reason: it congests the midfield with numbers with & without the ball. But in this game, especially before halftime adjustments designed to allow defensive midfielders Dorian Bailey and Natalie Jacobs to hold their posts rather than have to choose between staying or stepping high, the Spirit had trouble getting pressure to the ball early, which undoes the positives of stepping your line so high.

After the game, Paige Nielsen acknowledged that they had some issues that didn’t include having to ask wide players to be a part of their back three or anything about the absentees. “To be honest, I think our organization was pretty poor compared to how we’ve been training. I think it was kind of everyone’s first game, and I’ll take a little bit of the blame. I’m supposed to be the leader, and I was a little bit in my head.”

It’s admirable of Nielsen to put her hand up, and the truth was that it wasn’t her best match. However, the issues the Spirit had when the Courage were getting to really dictate the terms were collective, allowing too many early balls into space behind the back three or behind the wingbacks. The Courage want a track meet, and while the Spirit were able to run neck-and-neck with them for a while, ultimately NC tends to win games that maintain that kind of pace for too long.

That said, what was changed at halftime — essentially asking the forwards to help Ashley Sanchez go 2v2 against the Courage’s holding midfielders, and for Bailey and Jacobs to stay home more — made the Spirit a better team. The scoreline certainly slowed NC down a bit, but it was also arguably the best 30 minutes the Spirit have ever had against the Courage. We’re so used to this match being about Washington hanging on for dear life and hoping to nab a goal on rare counters, and in this case the Spirit took the game to the Courage.

That probably explains why Burke was not too downtrodden after the game. Burke pointed out that the goals were preventable errors rather than structural or unstoppable good play from North Carolina. “In spells in the game,” said Burke, “I said to the players at the end there, I was ecstatic. Some of the football that we played given, you know, the hand that we were dealt, (I was) really, really pleased.”