The Washington Spirit face a tricky game tonight, hosting NJ/NY Gotham FC in an NWSL Challenge Cup that comes with a mix of things to consider. On one hand, the Spirit will have fans at a home game for the first time since late September 2019, with up to 4,500 people permitted at Audi Field tonight. On the other hand, the Spirit cannot advance in the Challenge Cup, as the lowest point total possible for the East Division winner will be one higher than the maximum Washington can put together (six points if they win tonight).
At a weekend training session in the shadow of RFK Stadium, head coach Richie Burke said there were still positives to draw from tonight’s game in terms of preparing for the regular season, which begins in just under three weeks. “Match accumulation and minutes, relationship building, making sure our sub-groups, understand what we want,” said Burke, who added that there was no shortage of motivation to win regardless of the Challenge Cup standings. “It’s a very competitive group. They’re pissed they lost to Orlando, they’re really pissed, which I think is fantastic.”
Spirit youngsters Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman, who linked up for a stoppage-time game-winning goal the last time Washington was at home, both acknowledged that having the backing of Spirit fans was a big plus. “I think it’s gonna be good for us to get some fans in there cheering for us,” said Sanchez. “We’re all excited to get some fans and hopefully bring up the energy, and hopefully we’ll get that win for them.”
“Obviously, coming off the loss it’ll help to have that extra energy to get us going for the game, it’ll help with all the positivity and stuff like that, so we’re excited,” added Rodman.
For his part, Burke had some fine-tuning in mind after his side needed to wait for that last-second goal to beat expansion side Racing Louisville and then — despite taking 20 shots and dominating large portions of the game — ended up being the first team to lose to the Orlando Pride since August 2019.
Burke said the team collectively didn’t stick to some of the fundamentals of their style of play against Orlando, and are looking to re-establish those elements tonight. “Those type of little things that used to be a part of our identity...we need to grow into them,” explained Burke. “So when we play on Tuesday, that’s what we’re looking for more of, so that when we get into the season that actually looks like the product and the identity that we’ve had.”
Gotham FC, currently in control of their own destiny in terms of a path to the Challenge Cup final, have been a difficult opponent for the Spirit in recent meetings. After going unbeaten against the New Jersey-based side for years, Washington has lost two of the last four meetings, and were also eliminated via penalty kicks by what was then known as Sky Blue FC in last year’s Challenge Cup. Freya Coombe’s club most recently came to Audi Field and won a preseason match 2-1 thanks to a staunch commitment to staying organized and pouncing on counter-attacking opportunities.
“I think she’s done a great job and they’ve gotten buy-in into what she’s doing for them,” said Burke of Coombe. “She’s really, really good tactically... she designed their set-up to stop (North Carolina), which is exactly what she did when she came here, and you have to give credit to that.”
“The last three times we played against them, they’ve sort of [used] a low block against us, they’ve bunkered in to try to deny space in between the lines, which is where we get an awful lot of our joy,” added Burke. “They did that up at Segra (Field) and sort of stole that one from us. And then, you know, they did the same here (in preseason). They had two shots on goal, and beat us 2-1.”
Burke said that to get back to winning ways tonight, the Spirit have to use the full width of the field to pull Gotham out of their defensive shape, and to execute when it comes to creating overloads on the flanks to isolate players like Sanchez and Rodman.
For her part, Rodman cited a need to switch fields in a less predictable manner to create more space in the final third. “I think what we’ll have to do a better job of, is being able to swing the ball quickly and open them up, so we can find those gaps to either dribble or shoot or pass.”
Sanchez added that because Gotham’s transition play has proven so dangerous of late, the Spirit can’t just be thinking of the attacking side of the game. “We just have to be ready (for their counters), and have our counter-measures, and be able to stop them before they get going.”
Burke also had some thoughts on the Challenge Cup itself, preferring a different structure for future versions in part to allow for more squad rotation. “I would prefer the Challenge Cup to be like the League Cup in the UK, where it’s infiltrated through the season. So you designate the weekends, ‘this is a League Cup (week).’”
Having to play “uber-competitive” matches in what is still the preseason is something Burke, who emphasized that he does see value in the Challenge Cup, would like to get away from. His suggestion? “Bump the season maybe forward, ahead of the [April] FIFA window...and then put cup games during the season. That would have been much better, and treated (players) more professionally, so we wouldn’t have the problems we have to resolve now. And it’s not just me, I’m not complaining because I speak to the coaches around the league, and they’re in the same boat.”
The Spirit will be at Audi Field for the second official NWSL game of the year, and Burke said it has an advantage over Segra Field that goes beyond the grass playing surface or, once Covid-19 protocols allow for it, the larger capacity. Despite the pitch dimensions being slightly shorter this year, a change designed to benefit D.C. United’s change of playing style, Burke said that the field at Buzzard Point suited Washington’s approach due to its width.
“The bigger space, for a team like ours, the better,” said Burke, who alluded to last year’s Fall Series loss at Segra Field. “When we played against Sky Blue up at Segra, because it’s a smaller field, they were able to sit in, and you know their midfield were [in] cigars and slippers. I could go play that midfield, just shift and shift and shift, but when you’re asked to (cover more ground)? That’s hard. And so the bigger space for us is better.”
The Spirit, who after a recovery session Wednesday plan to let players take a few days off from training, are getting healthier. Kelley O’Hara’s suspension may be a blessing in disguise, as she spent the training session in a compression bandage due to what Burke described as a “massive” knee bruise. Burke wasn’t too worried about it as a long-term problem, and noted that O’Hara had rode her bike over to the training session.
Midfielder Jordan DiBiasi participated in most of the session, albeit in a sometimes limited capacity, with Burke saying the team is close to being able to remove those limitations. Center backs Paige Nielsen and Sam Staab “look like they’re ready for selection this week,” though Burke admitted he was on the fence about whether to deploy them tonight or give them the additional benefit of the break from training coming up.
Washington apparently has some more moves in the works, with Burke saying that the club wants to sign more key players to longer-term contracts similar to the ones Aubrey Bledsoe, Emily Sonnett, and Andi Sullivan recently agreed to.
Burke noted that he also has a strong interest in signing first round pick Tara McKeown as soon as he can. McKeown is currently playing for USC in the NCAA tournament, with the 8th-seeded Trojans playing their second round game this Friday. “That’s an area of need,” said Burke, alluding to the fact that in terms of out-and-out strikers, the Spirit have had to use Rodman and Kumi Yokoyama (both more comfortable as wide forwards) there when Ashley Hatch has needed a rest.
Burke also said that National Team Replacement Player Camryn Biegalski has impressed him since joining the team’s training sessions, and the club may be looking to offer her a permanent deal.
Finally, Burke said the Spirit have one more move in mind, with the player in question currently playing in Europe. “We’ve got one international on the hook that we’re looking to try and bring in...if we can get that one done at the finish of the European season, that will be like a major coup for us.”