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Five things about the Washington Spirit’s last-gasp win over Racing Louisville

Ashley Sanchez, Trinity Rodman, different kinds of wind, and how far Japan is from the DMV? We talked about all that and more

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit picked up their first win in the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup last night, downing Racing Louisville thanks to a stoppage time Ashley Sanchez goal in a game played essentially inside the vortex of a tornado localized entirely within Audi Field.

It was a fascinating game that gave us a lot to talk about, so both B&RU writers who took the game in from the press box are going to share the ball and go over all of it. This is Jason doing the intro, and now I’m passing it off to André to talk about...

Trinity Rodman Y’all

Folks, I know it’s only been two games, and I know the first was only a thirty-five minute appearance off the bench, and I know Richie Burke wants to keep her media availability and expectations manageable, but we need to talk about Trinity Rodman. She’s good y’all, she might be real good. As a pressing forward, she has a rare combination of speed, balance and agility that makes her a handful for defenders. Tonight she won three of her four tackles attempted and made seven (7!) ball recoveries

Offensively, she’s passing multiple tests with flying color as well. She’s good at finding spaces and making quick decisions, and can also attack the goal from either side of the box. In this match, her first start and second ever professional appearance, she collected her first nutmeg and bagged a wonderful assist in stoppage time to give the Spirit the 1-0 win. — André Carlisle

Spirit and Washington Football Team partner up

At halftime, Spirit owner Steve Baldwin and Washington Football Team president Jason Wright spoke to reporters at Audi Field about the growing partnership between the two teams. The two organizations linked up in an obvious manner in February, where the Football Team invited the Spirit to train in their indoor bubble when snow and cold weather made proper training sessions outside difficult.

“I couldn’t be more grateful for the relationship that we’ve developed, and for what they did for us in enabling us to train in the bubble during the month of February,” said Spirit owner Steve Baldwin. “It’s a really important partnership to us, and we’re delighted to to be working together.”

Wright, decked out a Spirit t-shirt, said that the Football Team and Spirit found a lot of common ground very quickly. “It was really clear really quickly that we were like-minded, and how we thought about these not just being sports franchises but being businesses that have an opportunity to shift meaningful things in the community,” explained Wright. “What the Spirit represent at a time where women’s sports are on the ascension, what they’re doing to affirm women and girls in sports and across other things, it’s very much in line with the kind of community impact we want to have on multiple dimensions.”

Baldwin called the prospect of one day selling out the Football Team’s 82,000-seat FedEx Field “a dream” that he’d like to achieve with the Spirit, but in the meantime, he said the club has every intention of selling every one of the 4,500 tickets available for April 27th’s Challenge Cup group stage finale against NJ/NY Gotham FC. — Jason Anderson

Formation change pays off

The Spirit played last week’s game in a 3412, but shifted into more of a 343 when Trinity Rodman came into the game based on defensive needs against North Carolina, with Rodman dropping off the front line as a wide forward to help Ashley Sanchez.

This week, with Rodman starting, they kept that look against Louisville’s 4231. Notably, Louisville also made a small change despite not rotating any new players in: Freja Olofsson, their midfield fulcrum, played right of center after being left of center in their 2-2 draw with Orlando.

This is important because it ended up being the main reason the Spirit switched into a 433. Racing found Olofsson very easily playing out of the back, and as a result had arguably the better of the first half.

“I think we were kind of on our back foot in the first half, not necessarily ready to play,” said Tori Huster post-game. The Spirit original said the team struggled with the job of “defending their 6 (Olofsson) from their build-out was an issue for us, and making that change made it a lot clearer whose responsibility that was.”

By moving to a 433, the Spirit ended up with even numbers in central midfield; in the 343 (which at times plays more like a 3421, with the two holding midfielders and that line of two attackers forming a box) there is potentially numerical superiority, but the box isn’t coordinated, you end up with two sets of two rather than an actual box. Too often on the night, that’s how it played for the Spirit, with Olofsson able to receive the ball frequently while Sanchez didn’t

“Things were not going tactically the way we wanted them to go. It wasn’t necessarily down to the players,” explained Burke. “As a coaching staff, we have to take it on the chin when we set them up that way. They were getting out to their 6, Olofsson, too easy, and we talked about that at halftime. We tried to get Sanchez to switch on and defend that hole in midfield, because Dorian (Bailey) and Nat (Jacobs) were being asked to put in a lot of mileage to close people down.”

Much can be made about the familiarity of a 433 — Huster chuckled about how familiar it is to every American player at this point — but it is interesting to note that the Spirit also ran into this problem facing a 4231 deployed by Freya Coombe and Gotham FC in their preseason finale. However, it’s also fair to point out that the Spirit seem to have based the 343 on having Andi Sullivan in the midfield, Kelley O’Hara patrolling one flank, and Emily Sonnett as part of the back three.

While the formation clearly still needs work without those players, it’s a big plus that they have somewhere to go if that problem carries on (or, as will almost certainly be the case during the Olympics, they’re missing USWNT players for a chunk of the season). — JA

Ashley Sanchez’s New Role

One of the big questions of this Spirit season is how big of a step up will Sanchez make. Richie Burke bestowed her with the responsibility of the #10 shirt, but so far Sanchez has struggled to be the dynamo we saw during last year’s Challenge Cup and Fall Series. There are many reasons for this — a patchwork midfield, new formation, clubs targeting her — but it was hoped that the new formation would stretch teams out. The idea is give Sanchez the space to be dangerous in central areas, but that has yet to materialize.

However, Sanchez looked a lot more like herself when the Spirit ditched their three at the back formation and shifted into a more comfortable 433. Sanchez immediately had more space to breathe and dance with the ball the way we’re used to seeing. And, of course, she managed to get on the end of Rodman’s cross for a solid first-time finish to sneak the ball past veteran keeper Michelle Betos.

It’s possible Sanchez’s task in the Spirit’s back three formations will get easier when Andi Sullivan, Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara are on the pitch and demanding the opposition’s attention. And if I’m honest, with Feist out for the season with a torn ACL, we should light prayer candles and pray that the football gods are kind, because there really isn’t a plan B. — AC

Takarada digs deep

Saori Takarada played the full 90 minutes, both times at center back, in two friendlies for Japan on April 8 and April 11. Those games may have been demolition jobs on Paraguay and Panama (both finished 7-0), but Takarada is a recent convert to a defensive role, playing some games there last year for Cerezo Osaka and now a couple of appearances for Asako Takakura at the national team level.

On top of that new position (which might not even be her best position, at least when it comes to playing in the NWSL), it has to be said: she flew to Japan, was there for maybe just long enough to adjust to the time difference, and then flew back here, getting in on Tuesday night.

You know, from Japan.

I’m not even going to get into the time difference, which even thinking about sorting out makes me want to go to bed for a week.

Nonetheless, she came in tonight and played 90 minutes in the wind (we’ll talk about this friggin’ wind in a minute), playing center back and looking exceedingly comfortable.

“Absolutely brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. What a great commitment from the kid to step in and play for us in that situation,” raved Burke after the game. “I was joking with her before the game. I said ‘You gonna fall asleep during this game? You gonna be OK?’ and she said ‘No, I’m gonna be fine.’ She was really, at the end, out on her feet, absolutely flat out.”

Takarada’s technical ability is clear to anyone who’s seen a few soccer games, but what will allow her to become a big deal in this league and for Japan is this kind of mental toughness. It’s one thing to be willing to sacrifice for the team, but another to do it and actually deliver a strong showing while doing so. — JA

Y’all want some bonus things? Because we have more things!

Let’s Celebrate

Here’s a piece of the goal celebration that you absolutely must see. — AC

There’s something going on here that makes me think of late 80s wrestling, maybe? The potential for a tag-team duo of Sanchez and Rodman is off the charts, so we might need to start thinking of a name for them. — JA

Chaos wind

We need to talk about this wind. I think Audi Field was beset by every type of wind humans have ever encountered. Föhn? Katabatic? Piteraq? Scirocco? All of them happened, all the time, at all angles during this game.

“We were anticipating (balls going out of play), then walking, and then ‘oh crap, it’s still in!,’” said Sanchez after the game. “The wind definitely played a factor. We were trying to go with the wind [in the] first half, and honestly I couldn’t tell which direction it was going, it was just like (gesturing).”

I’m including the gesturing because waving your hands back and forth across each other is a better description of what was going on than I can really put into words. Honestly, I’m glad we didn’t have any players carried off by some kind of gale that flung them from the pitch and into the Anacostia. — JA