The Washington Spirit’s quest to establish themselves as true contenders takes its first serious step tonight, as they head on the road to take on the Orlando Pride in the NWSL regular season opener for both clubs. Aside from the fact that this game will kick off with a ball that has been to space, it’s a big moment for the Spirit, who were disappointed to lose at this same venue less than a month ago. The league’s top tier teams generally start the season well, and they have a history of coming back from Florida with a good result.
Key player: Ashley Hatch
If the Spirit are going to take that next step, avoiding the kind of game they had in Orlando in April is going to be the most important factor. While a lot plays into goalscoring, right now there is clearly some pressure on Hatch to get into dangerous spots more frequently and to finish when she gets her chances.
Everyone at the Spirit, including Hatch, knows she’s capable, but it’s also enough of an ongoing theme with the team that there is both the talking point around the league about the Spirit converting possession into goals, and internal pressure. Tara McKeown was just signed, and the Spirit have been up front about possibly looking abroad for another attacking piece.
For Hatch, that’s not to say she must score or be dropped. Rather, it’s her place within the entire Spirit attack that’s key: getting open for big chances is great, obviously, but can she drag defenders out of position with her runs? Can she make Orlando pass into the Spirit’s pressing traps? Can she set up the rest of the attack? If the answers to these questions are positive, the Spirit have a great chance to pick up three points tonight.
Location: Exploria Stadium (Orlando, FL)
Kickoff time: 6:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Emily Sonnett, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Kelley O’Hara; Tori Huster, Andi Sullivan, Dorian Bailey; Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez
Bench: Devon Kerr, Tegan McGrady, Saori Takarada, Natalie Jacobs, Julia Roddar, Jordan DiBiasi, Anna Heilferty, Kumi Yokoyama, Tara McKeown
The Spirit are healthier than they’ve been in ages, with just two players (Averie Collins and Bayley Feist) unavailable. With signs pointing to the team starting the year in a 433 after devoting significant thought towards playing with a back three in the preseason, Richie Burke has a difficult job, because he’ll have to exclude several players that could start just about anywhere in the league no matter how he arranges the lineup.
Could we see Sonnett in the midfield, with O’Hara at right back and McGrady on the left? Or maybe Huster is the deep midfielder and Sullivan, who was so dangerous against Gotham FC a couple of weeks ago, is further forward. Takarada impressed during the Challenge Cup, and both she and Roddar are a) pushing for Olympic roster spots and b) capable of playing numerous roles. And this doesn’t even get into the prospect of Sanchez playing in the midfield, which would probably mean Yokoyama starting over...well, someone. Like I said, it’s hard!
Here’s what we do know: Burke will be hoping to give DiBiasi her first minutes since offseason hip surgery, and O’Hara may not be 90 minutes fit due to a knee bruise. Nielsen and Staab are both back from nagging injuries in the preseason, and beyond that, there are probably 20 different ways to set this group up and still have a formidable eleven.
Projected Orlando starting 11: (4231) - Ashlyn Harris; Ali Krieger, Toni Pressley, Phoebe McClernon, Courtney Petersen; Gunnhildur Jonsdottir, Marisa Viggiano; Sydney Leroux, Marta, Taylor Kornieck; Alex Morgan
Marc Skinner will have to do without two starters in Ali Riley (hamstring) and Jade Moore (knee). Krieger’s return from a concussion means she’ll come in at right back, which frees Jonsdottir up to replace Moore in the defensive midfield pairing, though ex-Spirit midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard could easily get the nod instead.
On the left, where Riley has been starting, look for Petersen to step in. She’ll likely get forward more often than Riley, but is giving something away in terms of individual defending, which given Rodman’s Challenge Cup form makes this a spot to pay close attention to.
Elsewhere, the three attacking midfielders could easily swap roles, with all three of them seeing time on the left wing during the Challenge Cup, and Kornieck in particular comfortable in all three spots.
Referee: Karen Callado
Streaming: Paramount+ (USA), Twitch (international)
Radio: NWSL Radio
What are you drinking?: I’m leaving live coverage of this game in the capable hands of André Carlisle, because I’ll be driving to Audi Field for D.C. United’s game as it kicks off. So...probably just water.
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