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Five things about the Washington Spirit’s late show against Kansas City NWSL

We think Tori Huster can see the future, plus more on goals from Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez

Jordan Small / Courtesy of Washington Spirit

The Washington Spirit looked to be in deep trouble for much of Saturday’s game against Kansas City NWSL, struggling against KC’s direct play and taking a long time to carve out any real chances. However, the Spirit kept plugging away, slowly gaining more control over the game, and eventually striking late (and then very late) to win 2-1.

André Carlisle and you’re ol’ pal Jason (that’s me!) have got a lot...like, a lot...to say about this one, so without further adieu, here are those things:

On Tori Huster seeing the future

Normally it feels like the right idea to lead off with something about the goals and the goalscorers, but we start today with a player that, at least for me, is currently the Spirit’s team MVP: Tori Huster.

First of all, she did end up playing a crucial role on Trinity Rodman’s game-winner:

Huster sees this play a step ahead of Kansas City’s players, even though they’re the ones with the ball, and it makes all the difference. KC has a throw-in on the far side, which is taken short. Tara McKeown sprints forward, preventing a long ball, and Kate Del Fava returns the ball to Kristen Edmonds. The Spirit keep reducing her options: Mariana Speckmaier moves up the left flank, Ashley Sanchez takes up to cut off another angle, and Gaby Vincent realizes she needs to move to change Edmonds’ angles.

This opens up a window for Edmonds to take a touch inside and find Victoria Pickett...but Huster knows all of this. That whole paragraph above is already in her head. Forgive the blurry screencap, but here’s the moment that I think it all came together, where Huster sees the future:

Edmonds knows there’s a window to pass through, and Pickett is about to make herself available, but the whole thing is a set-up. Edmonds locks in on Pickett, and Huster begins a sprint. Dorian Bailey sees what’s coming too, providing another layer in case Pickett takes her first touch to her left, the only way she can evade Huster.

Instead, Pickett never knows what’s coming. Huster steals away with the ball, and then crucially senses that this is not just a moment to start possession, but rather a chance to push play against an understandably fatigued opponent in search of a winner.

I’m drilling down on this moment because it’s the kind of play successful teams keep making, and that successful players keep being a part of. Normally you don’t make this kind of read and immediately get an assist on a stoppage-time winner on the road, but that’s kind of beside the point. If you can anticipate your opponent’s choices before they’ve even made them, you’re going to make it hard for them to do anything, and you’re also going to make the game easier for your side.

That’s Huster. She’s one of the smartest players in the league, and time and again she makes supposedly small plays — a 10-yard sprint to occupy a passing lane, stepping tight to make sure that a player receiving the ball can’t turn and attack a scrambling defense, or a passing choice that lifts the tempo — that raise the Spirit’s odds of winning. When coaches talk about “the little things” or “doing what it takes to win,” they’re talking about this stuff.

In 2021, Huster has been able to bring this game-shifting ability to games every week. This isn’t even the first time she gave us something special to push play forward with urgency on a Spirit stoppage-time winner this year. I put her on my NWSL Media Association ballot for Team of the Month as a right back last month, and full disclosure: I’m pretty sure she’s going to be on my ballot for June as a midfielder. — Jason Anderson

Concentration and resilience

After giving up an 85th minute equalizer against Orlando, and a stoppage time equalizer versus the Red Stars, the Spirit flipped the script to turn around a poor first half into a 2-1 win. When asked about the team’s penchant for allowing late goals, head coach Richie Burke pointed to concentration, which he said was a point of emphasis in training.

“We worked a little bit on mental toughness, we worked a little bit on our mental processes to get ourselves tougher,” said Burke after the game. “It’s not tactical, it’s certainly not physical. We talked about it being mental, so for them to go and tough it out that way, is a giant stride forward for this young, young group. I just at the end said to some of them, ‘This is what it’s like being a pro. You have to tough out things, you have to become really more resilient. A talented footballer, but resilient mentally as well.’”

I’m not even sure how close you can come to replicating in-game moments such as these in training, but the team appears to have responded to something. Kansas City provided a far more stout challenge than their position on the table would suggest, and after the team conceded in the third minute, it still took huge saves from Aubrey Bledsoe to keep the deficit at one.

In the second half the Spirit looked much more like themselves, except they still weren’t finding routes to goal. In fact, at one point in the second half I checked the live stats and the Spirit still hadn’t recorded a shot on goal. Things were rather bleak. Then the Spirit decided to play the role previous opponents have played against them to snatch points away in the final minutes. Except, the Spirit went further, by not only equalizing, but grabbing a lead in the fifth minute (of NINE!) of stoppage time. Though tactics and fitness weren’t at fault for the Spirit’s dropped points, they certainly needed both, plus plenty of concentration, to pull off this smash and grab. — André Carlisle

Trinity Rodman continues to shine

With her match-winning goal tonight, Trinity Rodman now has two goals in her last two matches. Oh, and she also delivered the assist for Sanchez’s equalizer. The stats themselves are incredible, and if I’m honest it’s about time her relentless play and supreme skill start showing up on the scoreboard — she’s been dominant all season.

However, beyond the goal and assist tallies finally adding up, the thing that’s impressing me most is how much Rodman is improving match to match. Before the match I was reading a newsletter by John Muller titled ‘Oh, Inverted World’ which was about, in part, why inverted wingers are all the rage lately. It’s not some big secret to be fair: playing a left-footed winger on the right allows for narrower play, and if the player can beat their defender, there’s a better chance that they’ll be able to unleash a shot at goal with their dominant foot. Of course there are a number of variations that make this less straightforward, but depending on style of play and shot/chance creation, inverting a winger that’s hard to mark 1v1 can make a difference.

I regurgitated all of this to say that it got me thinking about shifting Rodman to the left, so that when she beats her defender (because she always does) she can shoot with her strong foot. It seemed a tweak worth considering, particularly because the Spirit need goals. To this point in the season Rodman has racked up assists by beating her defender and clipping the ball in from the endline, but hasn’t been able to punctuate successful dribbles in the box with shots that beat the keeper.

WELL UNTIL NOW!

This is what makes Rodman’s match winner against KC so special. Not only did it give the Spirit three points (and on a wacky day of NWSL results), but she curled it in with her weaker foot. I also thought back to preseason, when Rodman was shown statistics of her right-footed and left-footed shots, and she recoiled at the discrepancy.

Now, just seven matches and six starts into the season and her professional career, she won a match with a nasty right-footed cutback to lose her defender in the box before hitting an in-rhythm powerful left-footed shot that looked fluid and natural. Instead of requiring a tactical tweak to avoid a weakness, Rodman decided to improve her left foot in the span of a few months. — AC

We didn’t forget the Sanchez goal

This piece is very long, so I’ll be brief: We’ve seen the Spirit score this way a few times this year, but there are two interesting things here: first, obviously, Sanchez’s first and second touches are both so, so good here, and the finish is authoritative. What more could you ask for out of your number 10? When the chips are down, that’s a player that has to produce something special, and Sanchez produced something special.

But point two is a little more nuanced: how did the Spirit generate yet another opportunity for one of the best long-range passers in the league to size up a long ball, as Andi Sullivan does for Rodman?

I think there’s something to be said here for the importance of how Paige Nielsen approached this sequence. She and Sullivan exchanged several passes here, patiently waiting for KC to step up a bit higher, but never giving them time to actually pressure the ball. This is why the Spirit, a possession team, can so often get goals from balls over the top from Sullivan, or Sam Staab, or Natalie Jacobs: they lure teams forward, or all the way to one side, then open the game up in one moment.

That takes a lot of patience, especially 1-0 down on the road. But patiently changing the geometry is something Nielsen has said she absolutely loves doing, and this is a clear example of the value in what on the surface can seem like routine passes. — JA

Lesson from the past

Remember the 2019 Spirit? They were in first place a third of the way through the season, and finished strong, but missed the playoffs because a) they struggled against some teams that were demonstrably worse than them, and b) a mid-season lull in which they won just once in seven games.

The reason I bring this up is that the Spirit’s wonderful start that year also required winning some games that were very, very even. Just as an example, Washington scored all four of their set piece goals on the season in those early weeks, and all of those goals were either equalizers or game-winners. They were doing well, but they were also getting lucky, and when the luck went away and their form dipped just a little bit, they took three points from a possible 21. NWSL is a brutal league.

Which brings me to this:

This year’s Spirit haven’t matched the 2019 version’s hot start in terms of points, but there are two key differences: they’ve actually been a bit unlucky in a few games, taking 20+ shots and having to settle for 0-0 or 1-1 draws, and they’re also a better, more resourceful team now. Yes, in 2019 they had Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh, but now Washington seems to be able to rely on five or six attacking players to make game-deciding plays. They’ve gained experience as a group, and experience individually.

They’ve lost at least three players (potentially four, if Sweden calls in Julia Roddar) to the Olympics, and yet they’re deep enough where it doesn’t feel like they’re going to be appreciably weaker, particularly once Nielsen and Jordan DiBiasi can go 90.

But most of all, this just seems to be a mentally tougher team that is never out of a given game. Maybe it’s the addition of some more brash, confident attacking players like Rodman and Sanchez, or getting a veteran like Huster some time to rest and repair long-term nagging injuries during last year’s lost season.

Whatever it is, the Spirit have now come back to win while down their irreplaceable captain in a home game that became an away game. They went to the west coast on short rest to beat their eternal bogey team on a baseball field despite having to suffer without the ball for so much of the game. And now, they’ve managed to overcome a really rather poor opening 65 minutes on another claustrophobic baseball field to snatch three points when it felt for a long time like they were going to let KC get their first win of the year.

In the NWSL, teams like Portland have been able to do this kind of thing forever, and guess what? The Thorns are a contender every year. And so, the Spirit had a Portland kind of game: Bledsoe bailed them out twice when KC should have extended their lead, and then their big-time players produced big-time plays late to turn a performance that wasn’t that great into a result that is great.

If the Spirit can be more consistent while still having “played bad but still won” in their bag of tricks...watch out. — JA