The Washington Spirit went on the road for a home game against the Houston Dash. They went behind in the 9th minute. They lost their captain to a dubious red card early in the second half. They were saved, twice, by the offside flag...and yet, despite all of that, came out 2-1 winners in a game that felt like it came with more pressure for both sides than a normal third game of the season.
Me and André (this is Jason, good morning!) have sorted out our thoughts, picked the ones that we felt we should share, and put them together. And so, without further adieu...
Let’s start with the obvious
We’ve been complaining about the bad luck the Spirit have been having. The bounces haven’t been quite right, the calls haven’t worked out, etc.
The Spirit didn’t get all their odds-defying made up for in one night (they’d have won this game by, I don’t know, like seven goals if that were the case), but at an important moment in the season, they got just enough back to take three points right when they needed it.
When we look back on this season, if it’s a good year, we may well be talking about that home game in Houston as something other than just one more bizarre NWSL thing in a league that always seems to throw surprises up. — Jason Anderson
The thing about karma...
Karma is overwhelmingly talked about as the reaping of something bad, but by definition it can also bestow good. If you shoot twenty-nine times in your last match and don’t score, have the venue of your next “home” match relocated from Virginia to Texas, lose one of your best players due to a soft first-half yellow, and still maintain noticeable levels of optimism and positive energy — you deserve good fortune.
Fortunately the Spirit got just that. Houston did not look like Houston, even against ten players for over half an hour, and a couple of goals were waved away via at least one marginal offside call. But this is why the dusty ‘sports are a microcosm of life’ cliché endures: Morsels of hope can be gifted to us through watching a team face uncommon adversities and overcoming them within the span of a couple hours.
Whether any of that is truly applicable to life outside of sports isn’t really important right now. What is important is that the Spirit scored two goals against the 2020 Challenge Cup winners in their own stadium, with their go-ahead goal netted while down to 10 players. Whether that helps any of us is irrelevant, the team itself gets to feast on a hope that they deserved, and which karma very much owed. — André Carlisle
Secret Weapon: Natalie Jacobs?
By now Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman’s dribbling proficiency is well-known, as is Ashley Hatch’s ability to make dangerous runs in behind. What’s lesser known is Natalie Jacobs’ ability to drop dimes from her own half with perfect timing and accuracy. For the second time this year, Jacobs collected an assist while standing about as far away from the forwards as the team shape allows.
Jacobs’ first came against the North Carolina Courage in the Spirit’s opening match of the Challenge Cup. Rodman had just jogged on as a substitute for professional debut and five minutes later she was celebrating a goal thanks to her well-timed run and the right boot of Natalie Jacobs. This is even more impressive when you consider that Jacobs has only made four appearances all year, two starts in the Challenge Cup and two appearances off the bench during the regular season.
After the match she talked about how much she has worked on delivering these sorts of passes from deep, and why she enjoys playing as a holding midfielder:
“I’ve always worked on that, it’s one of my favorite balls to play. I’ve played all over the field so that was my favorite ball as a center back, so I just used it a little bit up the field.”
“I love the holding midfield position. I think what I like most about it is because I played all over the field, midfield is both attacking and defending, and I played both forward and defense, and [in] midfield I can kind of combine all the positions into one.”
During Jacobs’ Spirit career she’s been a versatile player who has filled multiple roles when needed, but appears to be settling into a midfield role — and not a moment too soon. Given Andi Sullivan’s pending suspension from her red card, Jacobs may be in line for more consistent match time and — if Sullivan is named to the Olympic roster — perhaps in abundance. With what she’s already demonstrated, if indeed Jacobs gets a run of starts, Spirit forwards should get their track shoes ready. — AC
Early goals against remain a worry
The Spirit conceded a 9th minute goal, and it wasn’t Houston’s first dangerous service into the area either. It’s also part of a trend this year, and it’s not a good one. Washington has fallen behind in the 6th minute (preseason vs. Gotham), the 9th minute (last night), and the 11th minute (Challenge Cup at Orlando). They’ve also conceded a 10th minute goal, but at least at North Carolina they were already in the lead at the time.
I don’t have to tell you that soccer is a low-scoring sport. Most of the time, if you concede first, it’s going to be very hard to win games. The Spirit did it last night, but it’s not something you can repeat time after time. Even the best teams generally only produce two or three of this kind of win in a season.
It’s not a coincidence that this is their only point in any of the games where they’ve conceded this early. Washington’s style of play already encourages teams to drop off and be hard to break down (just look at Houston’s low-ish block last night, despite being the home team in every sense save for the record books). When teams get a lead, they’re even more likely to drop off and refuse the Spirit’s invitations to come chase the ball, which makes it very difficult to find a way through.
This being one multi-goal game only, manufacturing enough goals remains item #1 on the Spirit’s to-do list. They’ve definitely got to develop a track record that regularly scoring two or more is a fact of life rather than an occasional treat. However, this defensive frailty early in games should be item #2, or maybe even item #1B, because it’s not a sustainable path to being a contender. — JA
Ashley Sanchez scored a banger then casually walked away, and it was marvelous
I’m not sure if this is from the ‘act like you’ve been there’ department, the ‘OMG FINALLY’ department, or the ‘action star strides nonchalantly away from an explosion’ department, but it was great. — AC
Tara McKeown made her first professional start
The good news is that McKeown has impressed enough in training to have earned her first professional start. The bad news is that it was cut short due to Andi Sullivan’s second yellow, as McKeown was the forward sacrificed in the 54th minute. It was rather unfortunate given that Spirit rookies have a tradition of announcing themselves to the NWSL during their first minutes as pros. Hopefully McKeown’s next start isn’t far away. — AC
Major rotation could be coming
On paper, the Spirit have a tough one this weekend against OL Reign. It’s a game on short rest, it’s the longest away trip they have all year, it’s at a venue with a smaller playing surface (about a month ago, Richie Burke told reporters “Smaller field kills us” at training), and on top of all that it’s a game without Andi Sullivan, the player who really defines their style.
But it’s even tougher than all of that indicates, because the Spirit had to really stretch to get this win over the Dash. Burke mentioned that Ashley Hatch (who, by the way, has responded to the need for a goal threat by scoring two goals in three games) and Julia Roddar were both not necessarily supposed to play for as long as they did in Houston. On top of that, the Spirit have been managing minutes for Tori Huster and Kelley O’Hara all year, while Dorian Bailey’s status — she wasn’t on the injury report, but a separated shoulder puts her in doubt anyway — is unclear.
In some cases, there’s a pretty clear-cut answer: Tegan McGrady at left back feels like a given on Sunday, while Natalie Jacobs made a big impact after taking Sullivan’s spot in the midfield on Wednesday, so that also seems like a probable change. If Hatch needs to be kept below 45 minutes, McKeown could end up getting another start, this time at center forward rather than out on the left.
After that though, things get tricky, particularly if Bailey is out again. In that case, if Roddar needs a rest, Huster is needed in the midfield, which means the idea of having her and O’Hara split the game at right back is off the table. Saori Takarada could come in up front, but she could also play right back (where she was effective in a preseason game against Gotham). Kumi Yokoyama might also be the choice on the front line, especially since a) the field dimensions favor technical players and b) the Reign are, compared to other teams, not extraordinarily fast.
None of this is to say the Spirit will be fielding a weakened team; those players are all really good, and we haven’t even mentioned Jordan DiBiasi or Anna Heilferty. But it is going to be a puzzle for Burke, and we’re probably going to see an unfamiliar lineup against a team that is coming off of a huge win of their own, with OL Reign going to Portland, going behind, and still coming away with three points. — JA