The Washington Spirit head south to take on the Orlando Pride, with both teams almost certainly needing to win to maintain a shot at winning the East group in the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup. Coming off of a last-gasp win at home, the Spirit started to find a groove after halftime against Louisville last week, while the Pride have had a week to prepare after conceding a stoppage-time equalizer in Kentucky and then falling to Gotham FC on another late goal.
With both teams getting USWNT players back, this game may have a different complexion than the first two Challenge Cup matches. For the Spirit, that includes being the first team this year to have to cope with both Marta and Alex Morgan in the same game.
Key player: Ashley Sanchez
The Spirit really turned things around against Louisville last week once they began getting Sanchez more engaged, and she eventually gave them the three points with a 93rd minute goal. A halftime formation switched helped, but so too did Sanchez taking it on herself to find better spaces and be more decisive on the ball.
For the Spirit, it’s a pretty clear lesson on who they are right now. Their prospects are, despite a formation switch and some new players, the same in a lot of ways as last year. We know the defense is full of top-notch players who work well together, and we know the midfield tends to exert its will on opponents in possession. Those qualities set the floor for the Spirit at a pretty high level, but this year especially, Washington is focused on its ceiling.
That’s going to be a situation to monitor all season long. Today, it manifests in a pretty simple manner: facing an Orlando team that has had its issues in the back for some time now, finding Sanchez with room to face goal and run at defenders is the smoothest path to making this game about Washington’s attack, and not about the Pride’s star-studded offense.
Location: Exploria Stadium (Orlando, FL)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (343) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Emily Sonnett, Saori Takarada; Kelley O’Hara, Andi Sullivan, Dorian Bailey, Tegan McGrady; Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez
Bench: Devon Kerr, Sam Staab, Camryn Biegalski, Julia Roddar, Natalie Jacobs, Chinyelu Asher, Anna Heilferty, Mariana Speckmaier, Kumi Yokoyama
On the positive side, the Spirit have their USWNT trio back. However, the injury report has gotten longer by one name, with Paige Nielsen (thigh) out for tonight. B&RU is told that it’s more of a precautionary thing to make sure a lingering injury goes away in time for the regular season, but nonetheless: not ideal news.
Sam Staab is in a similar spot, but will probably continue to be in uniform on the bench, while Jordan DiBiasi’s build-up after hip rehab is ongoing (making her “questionable” status more like doubtful for at least this one more game).
As such, we expect Richie Burke to bring Sonnett in for Nielsen, Sullivan in for Jacobs, and O’Hara in as a wingback. That last one involves a guess: it seems right now that moving Huster to the back three is the best option, but there are a lot of possibilities here.
Projected Orlando starting 11: (433) - Ashlyn Harris; Ali Krieger, Konya Plummer, Phoebe McClernon, Ali Riley; Gunny Jonsdottir, Jade Moore, Marisa Viggiano; Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Marta
Marc Skinner is probably going to make two changes, with Alex Morgan set to start up front. That probably moves Leroux out to the right wing, with the 6’1” Taylor Kornieck probably coming in off the bench as a serious game-changing option after two games as a starter.
Jonsdottir is the other player that seems likely to step in, especially with former Spirit midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard listed as questionable with a quad injury. Orlando has another former Spirit player (Crystal Thomas) listed as questionable, while winger Erika Tymrak is out for tonight’s game.
We could also see a 4231 with Kornieck as part of the attacking trio, with either Jonsdottir or Viggiano making way. Given the Pride’s defensive issues, they could also make a change at center back, though it sounds like Skinner is committed to letting Plummer and McClernon use the Challenge Cup as a learning experience.
Referee: Alex Billeter
Available TV: None
Available streaming: Paramount+ (USA), Twitch (international)
What are you drinking?: I’ll be doing the post-game conference call so I’ll have to hold off on the (birthday, I’m even older than ever before) beer until afterward. Most likely, a can of grapefruit Lacroix is my in-game drink.
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