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Five things about the Washington Spirit’s 1-0 loss to the Orlando Pride

It was a frustrating game for the Spirit, but also an avoidable outcome

Jeremy Reper / ISI Photos / Courtesy of Washington Spirit

The Washington Spirit had a pretty frustrating night at the office on Wednesday, suffering a 1-0 loss against the Orlando Pride despite pelting the home team’s goal with shots. On top of that, they had a potentially good goal called back, and later lost Kelley O’Hara to a second yellow card.

From a process side, there were positives, but a loss is a loss. Here’s what’s on our (Jason and André) minds now that we’ve digested the game:

New central defense who dis

So, there wasn’t a lot of good in that match from a Spirit perspective, but the back line — particularly central defense — is a positive worth noting. With Paige Nielsen out with a thigh injury and Sam Staab continuing to work back to full fitness, the Spirit started a central defense without either for the first time since, I think, the pyramids were built.

Instead, Emily Sonnett and Saori Takarada partnered in the center of a back four. While the Pride are no one’s idea of the NWSL’s elite, their attacking line — Marta, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux — is more than a handful to contend with. The lone goal was the result of the midfield losing the ball high up after an intense press from Morgan, and when Sydney Leroux gets a couple steps head start to run off your shoulder, well there aren’t many defenders in the world who are going to be able to do anything about that.

For the most part though, Sonnett-Takarada did well to repel their attacks and keep the Spirit within striking distance. Unfortunately the equalizer never came, but it was impressive to see this new pairing work well. After the match Sonnett noted that she was impressed by Takarada’s comfort and calm on the ball. Both players are also skilled at passing from the back, and combined for a fairly impressive pass chart given that they’ve never played with one another before. — André Carlisle

Do we have to talk about referees?

Well, yes. The Spirit had a few complaints during the game, most notably Kelley O’Hara’s goal being called back after a quickly-taken free kick. There was also a bit of a persistent infringement issue, as Trinity Rodman was fouled a few times by Ali Riley (who did get one yellow, and possibly could have gotten a second just before halftime).

Here’s what referee Alex Billeter said happened following the game when contacted via the league’s pool reporter:

Now, unless you’re a referee, you might be wondering what a “ceremonial” free kick is. Here’s a good piece from Soccer America giving some explanation, and I’ll quote the key line here:

More challenging is restarting play when a free kick is in or near the defensive team’s penalty area. Opponents stand near or right by the ball and prepare to set up a wall. The referee should ask the offensive player(s) by the ball if they want 10 yards. Should they say yes, the referee points to the whistle and says so everyone can hear, “Wait for my whistle.” A ceremonial free kick is about to take place. I’ve seen refs then incorrectly allow the ceremonial free kick to be played without the whistle being blown.

According to Richie Burke, Billeter was halfway there, pointing to the whistle but not verbally ordering the Spirit to wait for the whistle:

After watching the game again and paying close attention to what replays there were of the incident, it’s impossible to say whether Billeter actually said aloud that the players needed to wait. As such, it’s hard to really be too mad at the officiating crew.

It’s a tough break for the Spirit, who showed some real cleverness and speed of thought to manufacture a goal, but ultimately it’s a play that sometimes doesn’t pan out. And to give full credit to the team, no one came close to saying “the referee cost us a point” or anything like that. It’s a marginal call, and sometimes in this sport the marginal call doesn’t go your way. Ultimately, the Spirit probably should have found a different way past Ashlyn Harris. — Jason Anderson

The attacking line, bar Rodman, is continuing to struggle

The Spirit ditched the back three they’ve started the previous two matches with in favor of a 433. The attacking trio lined up with Ashley Sanchez on the left, Ashley Hatch central and Trinity Rodman on the right. In the first half the story was all Rodman, who had multiple 1v1 opportunities with Ali Riley, and won them all. For the majority of the first half the Spirit’s best chances came through Rodman. A few minutes before halftime, Riley chopped the teenager down as she attempted to spin from pressure and it took her a while to get up. Riley got a well-earned yellow, and after halftime the Pride shaded coverage to her side to quiet Rodman down.

Sanchez, however, had far less of an impact. The second-year player has been handed the #10 shirt, and seemed to be turning into the Spirit’s primary playmaker. However, she has yet to replicate the performances that led to her earning the Future Legend Award after last year’s Challenge Cup. On Wednesday, Sanchez finished with one shot (off target) and one successful dribble, which was completed in the Spirit’s defensive half. With opponents aware of Sanchez, Rodman has been able to get the 1v1 matchups Sanchez was getting last season (before clubs started double-teaming her). With Rodman now making an impression, it’s possible that teams will soon have to pick their poisons, which will give Sanchez more space and opportunities to be the player we saw in 2020. If that doesn’t happen, Burke and Sanchez will have to continue to move her around to find ways to get her involved, even if it means overloading on Rodman’s side.

However, the player with the most pressure on them among the front line might be Ashley Hatch. The Spirit’s center forward hasn’t scored in an official match since the first game of last year’s Challenge Cup. Against the Pried, she had one shot on target (at a wide angle and from just inside the box), one penalty saved, and two shots outside the box, both off target.

Hatch either has to find ways to create space for teammates to get better looks, or find ways to get herself into better shooting positions. So far neither are happening, and the result is that Hatch isn’t scoring, and the Spirit are finding it hard to turn possession in the attacking third into quality chances at goal. This is potentially a big problem for the Spirit, as the squad doesn’t have another natural center forward to turn to. — AC

Shots! Shots! Shots! Sh-Sh-Shots!

The Washington Spirit took 20 shots against the Orlando Pride. In case you’re a visual learner, here’s what that looks like.

Two things stand out here: Only three shot attempts were blocked, and 11 were taken from outside of the box. While the national story of the match was USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris going supernova, the more accurate story from the Spirit perspective is that they failed to truly test her as often as the shot volume would suggest. The clearest illustration of this was Hatch’s penalty, a telegraphed roller that Harris read and pounced on easily.

It is, however, only the Spirit’s third match, and their first with all international players — Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, and Andi Sullivan — in the starting XI. The lament for Spirit supporters will be that this all feels too familiar, and that the club is still missing that spark between the second and final thirds that creates better chances on goal. — AC

Sometimes it’s not your night...but!

Sometimes soccer, for all its complexity and depth, can boil down to something as simple as a goalkeeper being unbeatable for 90 minutes, or a ball that won’t go into the friggin’ goal. The bad news for the Spirit is that Harris was brilliant, they had two corner kicks hit the woodwork, they had the goal called back as we already discussed...the ball, or maybe the fates, just weren’t into Washington on the night.

The Spirit made it clear that the Challenge Cup held more value to them as a warm-up for the regular season than as a competition, but it’s still a competition, and they still wanted to win it. Despite playing some excellent soccer in portions of each game, they’re not going to advance to the final because of some bad timing (facing Harris on a night where she was on some higher plane of existence from the rest of us). But, one thing they will have to note is that they’ve paid a price for being underwhelming for a big portion of the first half in each of their games.

So it’s completely reasonable to pay tribute to Harris; she deserves it. However, the Spirit will also be talking about how they have it in them to overcome that combination of goalkeeper performance and bad luck — but only if they bring their best stuff from the start. — JA

One last thing

The result wasn’t good but this? This is good.