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Four things about the Washington Spirit’s tough draw with the Chicago Red Stars

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Trinity Rodman’s first goal, and the NWSL being a battlefield are among the takeaways from the weekend

SOCCER: JUN 19 NWSL - Washington Spirit at Chicago Red Stars Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars had a battle in Bridgeview Saturday night, with both teams cancelling each other out for large spells before late goals from Trinity Rodman and Morgan Gautrat resulted in a 1-1 scoreline. It wasn’t a thriller, as most of the good work from both sides was defensive and tactical, but that is so often how things are when you play Chicago, and given the Spirit’s history with this fixture, a road point is really not too bad of a result.

Still, there’s plenty to sort through, so André and I (it’s Jason, good afternoon, thanks for dropping by!) have our various takes to share:

Life in the NWSL Thunderdome

I had to come to this game yesterday due to the overlapping D.C. soccer bonanza that was Saturday (mercifully, the last time this year we have that situation). One thing I do when watching a game, especially when not also trying to do a recap, is to take notes on the circumstances, including formation changes. Sometimes this even extends to moments when a team is playing 10v11 temporarily, while a player is off receiving treatment.

I don’t have the exact numbers down to the second, but the Spirit played about 10 full minutes of this game 10v11 with various players receiving treatment. Ashley Hatch had to leave the game after an early clash of heads, Emily Sonnett was being looked at for what appeared to be knocks to her calf and ribcage, Ashley Sanchez and Natalie Jacobs both took some hard hits...it went on and on. This doesn’t even get into moments like Andi Sullivan needing a few seconds after a Sarah Woldmoe challenge caught her late, or a handful of other hard collisions where the Spirit soldiered on without a stoppage.

I don’t think Chicago was playing particularly dirty or recklessly, and that’s kind of the point here. This wasn’t an excessively brutal game, or a game where one team was trying to be overtly physical as a tactic. That’s life in the NWSL Thunderdome though: everyone’s ferocious, everyone’s fit, strong, and brave, and that means everyone’s throwing themselves into every challenge. Throw in a long-documented tendency from NWSL referees to let a lot go — just as an example, Jacobs got hit in the mouth by Ella Stevens, and though it appeared to be an accident, it’s a textbook yellow card...and I don’t think any veteran NWSL fans were particularly surprised to see it just shrugged off as if nothing had happened — and you have a recipe for a team to go through a game like this a few times in any given season.

After the game, Richie Burke said Sonnett had a “minor strain” and seemed optimistic about it being a short-term issue. With Hatch, while he did note that there was no formal concussion diagnosis yet, keeping the door open for her to play against Kansas City next weekend, he did say “we’ll be following concussion protocols.”

Long-term, hopefully the tough collisions in this game didn’t amount to anything that will keep players out, or that will be the kind of thing that someone can play through, but they’re not at their best. This league is hard enough to get through with the heat, the travel, and the fact that you’re playing legit teams every single week. — Jason Anderson

Rodman scores her first NWSL regular season goal

To be honest, given the way she’s taken to the league and has had streaks of dominating defenders in every match she’s played so far, it’s shocking it took this long. The goal had always been coming, but the execution of this particular route to goal displays many of the top tier attributes that makes Rodman such an exciting player.

At just 19 years old, she has a veteran’s ability to angle and time her runs, which she does here. She also controls the ball into her path from over her right shoulder, while in a full sprint. The touch allowed her to use her pace without dribbling to create separation from the defenders chasing her, then she sized up — and setup — one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Alyssa Naeher. Rodman caught up to the ball, shortened her strides, kept Naeher guessing until the last moment, then snuck the ball underneath her.

In fact, the only thing about the play that reveals Rodman’s age and inexperience, it was the celebration. — André Carlisle

Andi Sullivan does her Natalie Jacobs impression

When Andi Sullivan picked up her second yellow and subsequent red versus the Houston Dash, Burke sacrificed an attacker to bring on Natalie Jacobs to fill the hole in midfield. Jacobs helped the Spirit survive going down to ten with a lofted ball over the top that sprung Ashley Hatch behind the defense for the go-ahead goal. In the Challenge Cup, Jacobs clipped an identical pass for Trinity Rodman’s first professional goal. Sullivan had apparently seen enough.

With the Red Stars being their typical pesky selves mucking up passes into and around the final third, the direct route would have to do. Sullivan, who dropped back to center back after Emily Sonnett was substituted for — poetically — Natalie Jacobs, lofted a perfect ball over the top of the Red Stars’ defense and onto the chest of Trinity Rodman. The rookie’s control was solid and in stride, allowing her to separate from the back line and begin sizing up Alyssa Naeher. The USWNT’s #1 goalkeeper ran out and made herself big, but Rodman cleverly snuck the ball through her legs to roll into goal.

It was Rodman’s first professional regular season goal, and relief after a 85 minutes of trying to find a way through Chicago. However, it was Sullivan’s expert note-taking and execution that made it all possible. — AC

Washington should have won on the road again

The Red Stars won the xG battle, took 17 shots, and hit the crossbar at 0-0, so this might on the surface seem like a silly claim, but this was a game the Spirit should have won. While the game was still 0-0, they had an even bigger chance than Mal Pugh’s low-angle shot that clanked off the woodwork, as Sanchez was in alone only to be denied by a wonder save from Alyssa Naeher.

Then, after taking the 1-0 lead, Sanchez had another look. Washington caught Chicago with numbers forward, and Rodman very astutely drew three of the five Red Stars that were anywhere in the frame before passing to Sanchez centrally. Sanchez put in a great fake on Tierna Davidson to open up a great shooting chance, but critically pushed the ball just a bit too far to her left, and took just a bit too much time to fire. Davidson made a heroic recovery, the score remained 1-0, and within about 4 minutes Morgan Gautrat was firing her penalty kick past Aubrey Bledsoe.

Those aren’t real worries, though; you don’t convert every chance you create, after all. The issue here is a recurring pattern where the Spirit have not protected leads, particularly in the minutes after scoring:

  • 4/10: scored in the 4th minute at NC, conceded in the 10th minute
  • 5/16: took a 76th minute lead at Orlando, only to give up the equalizer eight minutes later
  • 6/6: opened scoring in the 64th minute, then conceded in the 67th at home against the Pride

Saturday’s late goal against means Washington have dropped six points from winning positions in the regular season; they’d be in first place and clear of everyone in the league by three points if those leads had been protected.

Washington has given up six goals in the regular season, and five of them have come after the 67th minute. “What we have to do is learn how to deal with leads, and not give them away, especially five minutes after we just scored,” said Burke after the game. “I have to take that one on the chin as the head coach, and say that maybe we need to do a better job training and working on that.”

It’s a positive that we’re talking about this as the difference between 1st and 3rd, and not in the playoffs vs. out of the playoffs. However, if you cast your mind back to the distant days of 2019, the Spirit left points on the table a few times against teams they were better than, and they ended up missing the playoffs by just four points. This league is unforgiving, as we talked about already, and we don’t know how things are going to go during the chaos of the Olympics.

Matching the mental toughness we saw in Houston and Tacoma, where the Spirit did very well with second half leads under difficult circumstances, is part of the next step to make the leap from “good team” to “contender.” — JA