Ahead of tonight’s game against Racing Louisville, Washington Spirit head coach sounded a positive note in talking about his team’s prospects. Coming off of a 1-1 draw with Orlando in which the Spirit had the better of play, the club is looking to build on the positives after fielding a starting eleven that had never played together during preseason.
While not tipping his hand in terms of formation, Burke said last week’s 433 was narrow, with Saori Takarada and Ashley Sanchez setting up as dual no. 10s underneath Trinity Rodman rather than as wide forwards, with Andi Sullivan and Dorian Bailey playing as box-to-box midfielders and Emily Sonnett the anchor at the base of the midfield.
“I was happy!,” said Burke, adding that Sonnett and Rodman’s play allowed more freedom for the quartet setting up between them. “Because we have a really solid (defensive midfielder) who sat in there and just marshals that space behind our midfield, it...gives us that freedom. And then when you’ve got a free runner, who works tirelessly, 18-year-old kid just never stops running in Rodman, it’s great for those players in between the (striker) and the (defensive midfielder) to get that flexibility.”
There were aspects of last week’s approach that Burke wants to improve, though, citing an “emphasis on turning the moments of magic into an end product” with Sanchez. “Our issue is getting (her) on the football more, and when she gets on the football, can we get some end product out of it? She knows it, and she agrees. She’s like, ‘look, I want to get goals, I want to get double-digit goals, want to get assists, want to do everything I can to be a big factor.’”
Burke also noted that Takarada, who was recruited to play this sort of attacking midfield or wide forward role but has mostly played as a defender this year, is still an attacker first in his mind. “We’re gonna play her in an attacking role,” said Burke. “I really don’t have to ask permission, but I like to have conversations with the players... she’s basically said through our Google Translate method, she doesn’t really care (about her position), as long as she’s in the team. She wants to play.”
That said, there are absences at both ends that have complicated how Burke uses Takarada, Sonnett, and several others tonight. Paige Nielsen did not travel after getting a platelet-rich plasma injection Wednesday, seemingly related to a nagging thigh injury that dogged her during the preseason.
While that opens a hole at center back, there are also questions up front. Tara McKeown, who Burke said may well have started tonight were she available, was allowed by the club to return to the University of Southern California for her graduation ceremony, honoring an agreement both sides reached before the first round pick signed her pro contract.
Despite scoring last week, Ashley Hatch has what Burke described as “a first-degree” ankle sprain, and will undergo a fitness test in the hours before the game. “The hope is that she’ll participate in the game. To what extent we don’t quite know, depends on how she goes tomorrow.”
Burke could move Takarada to center back to keep Sonnett in the midfield, with rookie Anna Heilferty probably the most likely player to step in on the front three, but the third-year head coach seemed to be leaning towards keeping Takarada further forward, at least if the 433 from last week is the template. “She trained in a little mixed role: forward up front, and at the back a little bit when we change our tactical setup.”
Another option would be to move Kelley O’Hara — who, despite nursing a knee injury, is set to play — over to right back, bringing Tegan McGrady in on the left, dropping Sonnett to the center back role she’s largely played throughout her NWSL career, and using Tori Huster as a central midfielder.
One player who Burke confirmed isn’t ready to start yet is Jordan DiBiasi, who made her return from hip surgery last weekend in a 19-minute appearance as a substitute. “She was just so happy and so emotional to be back and, you know, it was emotional watching her as well because she was just so pleased to come back after a surgery she’d really toiled with,” said Burke. “She’s been brilliant in training, she’s hit a couple of bangers.”
Still, despite those positives, patience will be required. DiBiasi’s recovery plan is still ongoing, with extra work required to make sure the surgery process is successful long-term. “She has to do an ongoing process...the repair surgery is great, but it’s all the other things that have come with it now, with the lower back, the hamstring, the glute, all these activation points that we need to make sure are in the right place,” said Burke, who added that having a player who can change Washington’s approach so dramatically off the bench is a silver lining.
Looking specifically at Louisville, Burke said that the Spirit will have to pay close attention to Savannah McCaskill, who he praised as “unconventional in positions she takes up, from where she plays and how she plays, finds the game very well, and impacts the game. And her vision and her passing ability are a feature for that team.”
The Spirit are also preparing for a Racing side that have often attacked with early balls in behind. After giving up a goal via that method in Orlando, Burke emphasized preventing that kind of service entirely. “They can create problems, obviously (Cece) Kizer, the ball over the top, similar to the runs Alex Morgan makes in beyond our back line, is something we need to be mindful of. But if we can stop it at source, and really flood those areas where they like to get on the football and build from, then I think we’ve done our job.”
While most of his energy was focused on tonight’s match, Burke did also consider the implications of both McKeown signing with the club and the additional $100,000 in allocation money the Spirit have to use after Rose Lavelle returned to the NWSL with OL Reign.
“We’ve closed the door with one player that we thought we were going to try and lure to the NWSL. She’s agreed a contract with a European team. So that one is sort of, we’ve run that thread dry,” said Burke. While he did not indicate what player or club that is, credible reports stateside indicated that this may have been Bordeaux striker Bunny Shaw, who seems set to play for Manchester City instead.
Whatever the case, Burke did say that the Spirit are in talks with a different player, but also noted that McKeown has changed the dynamic at play. “I don’t really want to jump into the transfer market right away when we don’t really have to. We’ve got another four or five weeks before that June window closes,” explained Burke. “I’d like to see how Tara does with a little bit more time at our football club, a bit more time on the field. And if we don’t have to go into the transfer market because we’ve got a player of that caliber home-grown, then I’ll be ecstatic.”