The Washington Spirit didn’t get the result they wanted Tuesday, ending up with a 0-0 draw against Gotham FC despite a stretch of inspired soccer in the second half. They’re out of the NWSL Challenge Cup, but it seems safe to say they at least made some progress, and they’re making advances on getting everyone back healthy too.
With all that in mind, me (Jason) and André have been thinking some things since the game. These are those things!
This is the Andi Sullivan that we all know and love
Though it was a goalless match, it was not without excitement. One player very much on the giving end of that excitement was Andi Sullivan. The Spirit captain has been given slightly more freedom to get forward and have cracks at goal. Against Gotham, Sullivan had two shots inside the box and three outside. Given the power in the shots, Sullivan is going to score some absolute BANGERS this season if she’s allowed to continue to prowl the edge of the attacking third while defenses cope with any combination of Sanchez, Rodman, Yokoyama and Hatch. — André Carlisle
This is Jason. It’s very late, and rather than ask André to incorporate some quotes in here while he is probably asleep, I’m going to bolster his point with what Richie Burke had to say about Sullivan after the game:
She had a great near-post header that she maybe misses by a foot, she dribbles four players in midfield and unselfishly passes the ball when I want her to shoot, and I’ve already told her that. She got herself in such good positions, and that’s a great 90 minute shift from her. Her and Dorian Bailey were great in midfield. I was a little bit after them at halftime, but they responded brilliantly. But look, you know, Andi Sullivan is becoming...she’s already a great player, great leader, fantastic force for us in midfield, one of the best midfielders in this NWSL, one of the best midfielders in the United States of America, one of the best players in the world. If she keeps playing like that for me and adds goals to it, I’ll be very, very happy.
Difficulties with Gotham could mean more down the road
These teams have met five times in all competitions in less than a year, and the Spirit have only managed to score three goals, going 1W-1D-3L. Those goals include a penalty kick and a high degree of difficulty strike from Kumi Yokoyama (both in last year’s Fall Series), and the third came in a preseason loss.
This is despite the Spirit having the better of four of those five games (I’d argue the first Fall Series game at Segra Field last year was more or less even). It’s a contrast where things were between these teams before last year’s Challenge Cup. From July 30, 2016 until that day, the Spirit had gone 8W-2D-0L against their closest geographic rival.
So it’s more than a little frustrating to see the Spirit dictating the terms again, only to come away with something other than a win. Despite playing their best soccer this year in that stretch after the break, the Spirit couldn’t find a goal to win this one: the woodwork intervened, DiDi Haracic had some great saves, Ashley Hatch had a penalty shout ignored, and so on.
g+ GameFlow: NWSL Challenge Cup Group Stage @WashSpirit v @GothamFC on April 27, 2021. #washingtonspirit #GothamFC #WASvNJNY pic.twitter.com/qM9PYM2t3y— GameFlow (@GameFlowxPG) April 28, 2021
Sullivan noted that the Spirit don’t shy away from Gotham being a difficult foe. “We love a challenge. We love the rivalry. But that’s the special thing about this league, it’s that no matter who you play, it’s going to be a challenge,” she said post-game. Later, she added that Gotham has come a long way as a club too: “I think it’s a credit to the work that Gotham has done, and the efforts they’ve had to rebrand themselves completely, on and off the field.”
The Spirit were all over Gotham, forcing a tactical change from Freya Coombe wherein she had to sacrifice keeping Midge Purce and Paige Monaghan in more dangerous roles to help shore up the flanks defensively. That’s a good sign, but you don’t get points in the NWSL standings for it.
Ultimately this is going to be the challenge for Washington’s style of play. While some teams (think Portland and North Carolina) will still play their style and just go toe-to-toe with the Spirit, most of the time that’s not going to be the case. Gotham sets themselves up to make it hard for the Spirit to do what they want to do, and they’re not the only team that’s going to approach Washington’s ability in possession with for a similar mindset. — Jason Anderson
Shots ≠ goals
The Spirit scored three goals in the Challenge Cup, and have now been shut out in two straight games. However, we can’t say that it’s due to a lack of opportunities. The Spirit had more shots than their opponent in each of the four Challenge Cup games, and took at least 17 shots in every game. As I write this, Hatch and Trinity Rodman sit at #1 and #3 on the league-wide list of shots in the Challenge Cup.
They finished the Challenge Cup with more shots than anyone else in the tournament, and though they do have the advantage at the moment of having played one more game than everyone save Chicago, it looks likely that they’ll finish atop the list in this particular stat category. Washington’s 57 shots are well ahead of Chicago’s 41, and while it’s not impossible for Portland or North Carolina to surpass the Spirit, both would need to put their last opponent under siege for 90 minutes to do it.
That’s a big improvement over 2020, where the Spirit only managed 17 or more shots once, and averaged 12.33 shots per game in the Challenge Cup and Fall Series. Their opponents had more shots in three of those games, and even when the Spirit managed to take more shots, the advantage was generally more narrow than it has been so far this year.
“I think their keeper made a couple great saves, Andi had a couple great chances that I swear were going in,” said Ashley Hatch post-game. “We just gotta keep pestering. Maybe next time we’ll have a little bit more luck our way. I just think the more chances we can create, we’re bound to get one eventually.”
Hatch is right, especially if you take in the whole purpose of expected goals, which is to measure probability rather than to guarantee a goal. For the Spirit, it’s a very positive sign that they’re creating more shots, especially when you consider that those shots are not just wasteful 35-yard efforts. As long as they don’t get discouraged, nights like Tuesday are going to end in multiple goals more often than not. — JA
Saori Takarada is a baller
Takarada had a second consecutive impressive match versus one of the league’s best up-and-coming teams in Gotham FC. Marshalling Midge Purce and Carli Lloyd is not easy task for any defender, but Takarada played a composed match that saw her step up to intercept and muck up attacking play or drop off and defend positionally.
We also know that Takarada is a versatile player who has played just as well in positions along all three lines of defense, midfield and attack. With her skillset, and Sam Staab recovering well enough to get a substitute appearance, and Paige Nielsen looking likely to be ready to go for the regular season, it will be interesting to see if we get to witness this versatility in a Spirit shirt. We should hope! — AC
The cherry blossom campaign continues
If you’ve been reading this site for any amount of time, you know by now that we are fully committed to pressuring all of the teams we cover into doing a cherry blossom kit. That also means that whenever we see anything pointing to someone in the clubs thinking about cherry blossoms, we are going to reinforce those thoughts with more cherry blossom kit talk.
And so, we are absolutely duty-bound to bring up the fact that Sullivan took the field in a customized captain’s armband with cherry blossoms,. I think I can say that the site’s editorial policy is that we think this is Great.
Obviously this did not get the Spirit into the good graces of the Soccer Fates, and it’s a long way from an armband to a kit, but as with D.C. United’s cherry blossom scarves and player photos earlier this year, it means that we’re getting close to collectively willing a cherry blossom kit into being.
Keep going, and I think we’ll eventually get what just about every fan seems to be asking for. — JA
Fans on Buzzard Point
All this talk about the game, and we might be burying the lede: there were fans in the building to see the Spirit play at home. It’s been too long, and even though it wasn’t a sold-out Audi Field, it still made a huge difference from the uncanny valley of seeing a serious game played in an empty stadium.
For me at least, it’s not so much the big idea of fans in the stands as the granular details. Coming down 2nd St. and seeing someone in a Franny Ordega Nigeria kit heading towards the stadium. The familiar flags and banners in the supporters section. The spontaneous roar that went up when Sullivan followed up a smart interception by dribbling away from three Gotham players at once. Hearing a specific fan’s voice you’ve come to recognize from the sections in front of the press box.
So it was very cool for me personally, as I’m sure it was to folks in attendance, but some people had an even better experience. I’ll yield the rest of my time to Andi Sullivan: — JA
I was so looking forward to tonight. First of all, my grandfather is 93 years old, and he came to the game tonight. So did some of my other extended family from the area, and that means so much to me. Because they were so influential in getting me here, so for them to be able to see me at Audi Field is so special. So I really wanted to put on a good show for them tonight, so I was super happy about that. You know, my two best friends from high school, my brother, my husband, which is so special, but then again as I walk around the stadium, I see players in Lee-Mount Vernon jerseys and Bethesda jerseys, and teams in matching jerseys saying ‘we play for this club.’ It’s also cool when it’s the 75th minute and you’re dog tired and you hear someone starting a ‘Let’s go Spirit’ chant. Stuff like that, it makes my voice quaver a little, I love it so much. So it’s really special to get to play in front of fans, and you hope that soon more and more can come safely.