The Washington Spirit started 2021 off with a draw against the Orlando Pride that probably left most fans with a mix of positives and negatives. There were some interesting choices to the starting lineup, some debuts, an important goal, but also, when you’re up 1-0 away from home, it’s not a lot of fun to only take one point back home.
With all that in mind, André and I (this is Jason, hope you’re well) have a few particular points we want to go over:
Trinity Rodman’s quest to sauce up members of the Pride one by one
Three-and-a-half weeks ago, the Spirit faced Sunday’s opponents in their third match of the Challenge Cup. It was Trinity Rodman’s third appearance and second start. During the match Rodman pulled off one of the highlights of the tournament by putting a wicked spin move on veteran defender Ali Riley.
In the regular season opener against the Pride, Rodman found a new victim. As Marisa Viggiano started to progress the ball into midfield from a deep position, Rodman pressed from her left, forcing a turnover. Tori Huster collected the loose ball and drove at the Pride’s back line, Rodman followed, keeping her run flat to avoid an offside flag and give Huster plenty of space the play the ball into. When played, Rodman got to the ball with Viggiano trying to recover, as she did, she flashed in front of Rodman who checked to her left, causing Viggiano to tumble to the ground. Rodman had perhaps too much time to line up the shot while staring into the whites of Ashlyn Harris’ eyes, and in the end couldn’t beat the veteran USWNT keeper.
Still, it was a pretty filthy phase of play, and an(other) immediate reminder of why Rodman has been so hyped. — André Carlisle
Sonnett the six
I don’t want to pat myself on the back too much, but one thing I’ve thought for years now is that Emily Sonnett’s overall profile as a player might make her better off as a defensive midfielder than as a center back. Her comfort on the ball, her desire to make game-changing plays as a passer, her aggression stepping to opposing players all have had me wondering for a long time as to whether she might be able to make that transition.
With the vision of a 343 being pushed to the back burner, at least for now, Richie Burke had a (good) issue: too many top defenders to play a 433 without either putting someone on the bench, or asking someone to play a different role. In the end, we saw both: a top defender not starting in Tegan McGrady, and Sonnett playing defensive midfield in a trio with Andi Sullivan and Dorian Bailey.
There are some pretty marked similarities to Sonnett’s job in this set-up when compared to how the team played out of the back three. Aubrey Bledsoe’s first look in the passing game was still to Sonnett, who was often dropping in between Paige Nielsen and Sam Staab to build from the back. However, with a layer behind her and the additional safeguard of Sullivan being very ready to drop in to cover her, Sonnett had freedom to step further forward and use her physicality to win the ball or disrupt play.
There’s an added benefit here, too: if Sonnett holds down the no. 6, Sullivan — who has been up front about expecting to show up on the scoresheet more often this season — can play more of a free no. 8 role further up, which will help the attack (especially while Jordan DiBiasi builds fitness and shakes off whatever rust she picked up after a long recovery from hip surgery).
The results in the early going were mixed. Sonnett was indeed disruptive, and the Spirit pretty clearly dominated possession, throughout the match, but a 20th minute breakdown in terms of shape and communication saw Sullivan lose the ball to Morgan, resulting in a dangerous shot from Sydney Leroux. That’s the sort of thing the Spirit generally don’t do, but in the moment they were collectively not in a good shape to play their customary short pass into that zone, and Morgan knew it before Washington did. It’s a high-wire act, and the lack of familiarity will be punished if it carries on.
But big picture, there are some huge positives from this choice. Marta, who somehow manages to take her brilliance to unusually high levels against the Spirit more than anyone else, had what I’d argue was her quietest game against Washington ever, and Sonnett’s only misplaced passes were all attacking, vertical passes rather than anything that posed a defensive risk.
There were also some really nice moments between her and Sullivan in the team’s shape, swapping roles fluidly to add new wrinkles and speed play up for the Spirit. Perhaps most notably, it’s Sonnett’s vertical pass up the middle to Sanchez that starts the attacking move that became Washington’s goal on the night. For the style Richie Burke wants this team to play, that kind of pass is a must from any deep-lying midfielder.
Yes, I’m invested in this working because it will make me feel like a Smart Soccer Person after years of shoe-horning it into group chats or quick asides on stories like this one. However, I think this is one of those times where what I want and what I saw are not far from lining up. — Jason Anderson
Saori Takarada in attack!
With usual starting forward Ashley Hatch recovering from a slight back injury that the Spirit want to be careful with, Burke called on Saori Takarada to scoot up two lines from the center back position she had been playing. It was finally a chance to see some of Takarada’s versatility for ourselves.
Takarada did a decent job of keeping the ball moving, though the pace of the match, particularly in those midfield and attacking third zones, will take some getting used to. Having never played together before, the forward line was a bit disjointed until Hatch came on for the second half. Still, in forty-five minutes Takarada completed twenty-eight of thirty-nine passes, completed one dribble out of three attempted and had a shot blocked in the box.
All in all it was a decent performance in a role we haven’t seen her in before for the Spirit. — AC
A big goal
Alright, so the Spirit didn’t win despite being the more talented team, and despite holding a late lead. That’s not great, but it’s week 1, they were on the road, and they’re still figuring out how these pieces all fit together. I’m not too rattled by a 1-1, even if I do think the Spirit should be able to go to Orlando and win more often than not.
But long-term, the Spirit got something that could be very important, as Ashley Hatch buried this emphatic header:
There’s a lot to like about this goal, but let’s focus on Hatch. Since coming to Washington, she’s played in 52 of a possible 57 games, including every game in 2019. Almost all of those games are starts, but this offseason has seen the pressure on her role in the starting lineup grow.
There’s the talk from the team, media, and fans: can this team score enough? There are transfer rumors, up to and including Burke saying the team was trying to sign a striker from abroad days before being linked to Bordeaux/Jamaica striker Bunny Shaw. There are concrete moves, like trading up in the draft in order to pick Tara McKeown, to add competition. Add to that a couple of nagging injuries and a little bad luck in the form of the crossbar and DiDi Haracic during the Challenge Cup, and it’d be understandable if Hatch were starting to get inside her own head. That’s a lot of pressure from a lot of angles, especially for a position where players thrive on confidence.
So it was obviously important to score, but let’s look at how Hatch scores. She’s beating a longtime USWNT defender in Ali Krieger to Huster’s service, and it’s not one of those headers that just barely gets over the line. Hatch headed the ball past Ashlyn Harris with about as much power as you can manage without trying a diving header.
That’s just what the doctor ordered for Hatch, and hopefully it’s the platform for Hatch to get on a real run of form. — JA
Wherefore art thou transition defense?
The Pride’s attacking system is fairly simple: get ball, kick ball vertically, run to get ball. It’s not exactly The Louvre-ready aesthetic Marc Skinner was talked about creating in 2019. And to be honest, that wasn’t a good thing for the Spirit. With a forward line of Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Taylor Kornieck, with Marta sitting beneath all three, the Pride have a few methods to frustrate a defense once they get the ball to stick high.
Of course Leroux and Morgan both have solid pace, with Leroux the quicker of the two, but the 6’1” Kornieck is good at bringing the ball out of the air and moving it onto either of the two, or controlling to lay off to Marta to attempt a dribble or pass forward herself. In case you were wondering what that all looked like, here it is on the right (due to the weird way NWSL displays their stats, the top is the Pride’s defensive third).
Highlighting the point was the Pride’s equalizer coming from an 84th minute boot from center back Phoebe McClernon that found Morgan behind Washington’s defense. It was Staab and Nielsen’s first match back together in central defense since the Fall Series, but that will need to be shored up. It’s a bit deflating to lose a lead that late, even more so when it’s the product of some basic route 1 stuff. — AC
McKeown gets her NWSL debut
It wasn’t a lengthy debut, as McKeown replaced Sanchez in the 87th minute, but it was a debut nonetheless! In Friday’s presser ahead of the match Burke noted that he was pleasantly surprised with how well McKeown was already performing in training. It is probably unfair to expect McKeown to have an identical impact as Sanchez and Rodman in their first handful of minutes as professionals, but the Spirit could really benefit from the variety in attack her skillset could provide. For now, it was good to get her an early debut and we’re looking forward to her getting more minutes. — AC
A thing you need to see...
If you’ve ever wanted to see Emily Sonnett perform a TikTok dance with her typical amount of (and hilariously contrasting) stoicism, then you can thank Trinity Rodman, because this video now exists. — AC