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Four things about the Washington Spirit passing a mentality test at OL Reign

The Spirit showed their mettle in the other Washington

Nikita Taparia

We’ve had a few days to ponder the Washington Spirit’s mature 1-0 win at OL Reign, and it still feels like a bigger win than simply three road points. The Spirit, drained from a rough schedule and 40 minutes with just 10 players a few days prior, won over a well-rested team. The NWSL team most known for focusing on possession went to the league’s narrowest playing surface, without their centerpiece and captain, to beat a team whose last match was a confidence-boosting 2-1 win at Portland. That’s a big deal!

With that in mind, me (it’s Jason, the person who got busy and had to delay this piece for a couple of days) and André have a few things to say about What It All Means, plus a bonus photo gallery from friend of the site Nikita Taparia, who has been so kind to shoot west coast games for us in the past and did so again last weekend.

Welcome to the Grindhouse

A week after having to make a surprise trip to Houston to play a “home” game in Texas and pulling out a 2-1 win after going down to ten in the 55th minute, the Spirit had to make the pilgrimage to Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Washington. As if the travel wasn’t enough, the Reign were flush with enthusiasm after securing the services of ex-Spirit midfielder Rose Lavelle, and immediately inserted her into the XI, along with Megan Rapinoe, Sofia Huerta, Tziarra King and Jess Fishlock.

It didn’t matter. The Spirit squeezed an already narrow pitch even tighter and grinded out a stout defensive that held that collection of attacking talent to a combined xG of 0.59.

For their efforts the Spirit were rewarded the only goal of the match, a weird deflected own goal that the Spirit celebrated by inquiring, through laughter, who among them might have gotten the goalward touch (officially it was Megan Rapinoe). The win was another important three points picked up in a less than favorable game scenario, and completed with the sort of football that is the antithesis of the Spirit’s ethos under Burke. Remember the target of 600 passes? The Spirit completed just 332. Remember the idea to control the match with possession? The Spirit only saw the ball for 42.7% of the match.

None of this is said with malice; in soccer you need to be able to manage a game in the best way to get a result. With the hullabaloo of the last match, missing your star midfielder in Andi Sullivan, needing to rest one of your best playmakers in Trinity Rodman and travelling across the length of the country for a third match in ten days, this was necessary. It’s a promising sign that a team as young as the Spirit has the maturity and resolve to downshift and grind out a win. — André Carlisle

The promised photos

Like I said before, Nikita Taparia was so kind to shoot photos of this game for us, and when I saw the 1.3 GB folder of photos this resulted in, I figured sporadically doling them out all season would mostly result in you folks not seeing many of them (especially since we also have a talented photographer shooting home Spirit games already in Kelley Piper), so here are a bunch in sequential order to tell the story in images.

If you’re so inclined, you can follow Nikita on Instagram! — JA

Grown-up win

It’s obviously very early to start talking or contending, particularly in after a game that the Spirit effectively turned into a coin toss. We’re four games into the season, and I doubt there are many people expecting the NWSL standings to look exactly like this around Halloween.

However, it’s hard not to take the circumstances André just laid out and compare them to Spirit history. Frankly, this team doesn’t have a lot of wins like this one, or like the victory in Houston in the middle of last week. In this “new” era of the Spirit starting in 2019, maybe the only game that bears any comparison is that 2-1 home win over North Carolina at the Plex.

So what sets these games apart? It’s the combination of savvy and toughness. The Spirit showed the collective commitment to playing things very intelligently in this game, and it paid off. They were selective in their risk-taking, and they were also tough enough mentally to deal without the ball, something that in the past has made this team uncomfortable.

The reason I’m focusing on this side of the game is pretty simple. When you think about the teams that are or have been the “tough” teams in NWSL, you’re probably going to settle on a list of recent finalists: North Carolina and Portland, and (at least, when they’re focused) Houston. Chicago made the playoffs five years running mostly based on this side of the game.

The Spirit are by no means lacking in resilience, but it hasn’t been something that observers around the league have brought up as quickly with them as with those other teams. Washington wins with possession, with the ball; their reputation around the league hinges on that side of the game. However, this win (and the “home” win in Houston too) are proof that the Spirit can win with a completely different skillset, and it’s one that this league seems to require its champions to have.

In thinking about how this contrasts with past Spirit teams, my mind is going to a couple of difficult games against the Red Stars in the back half of the 2019 season. Washington won the first meeting in Chicago by making it a Spirit kind of game, but the Red Stars made sure that wasn’t going to happen in the games under discussion. They made it a referendum on which team could show more grit, and more of the underappreciated aspects of the game that come with experience.

In 2019, Chicago had more of those things, and even though the Spirit were better at the soccer side of soccer, the Red Stars used those two games in particular to mark themselves out as something different from the rest of the pack. They could confidently face down teams with more technical ability, or better form, or fresher legs, or whatever the advantage was, and say “That’s fine, we’re not going to let you make use of any of that,” and really mean it.

Washington just did that to a well-rested Reign team who had most of the advantages in terms of venue, energy levels, and the obvious boost of having Rose Lavelle on their side. The Spirit still made this game about organization and small choices, and did so in a way they’ve previously disliked.

One of those aforementioned Chicago losses came on a night where Richie Burke set up a gameplan involving a direct approach, which a week later he said that the players hated and that he’d be scrapping as a result. While the Spirit weren’t direct against the Reign, they did often set up deeper than normal, and ended the game with what will very likely be their lowest share of possession on the year.

These are all signs pointing towards this particular version of the Spirit being capable of taking that next step. It’s no guarantee, of course, but the fact that this team can now win games against good teams, even when the circumstances dictate doing something other than being the league’s masters of possession, is a sign that they’re growing up. — Jason Anderson

Ashley Sanchez’s Rose Lavelle impression

The headline may be a bit cheeky, but shouldn’t detract for Sanchez’s performance. She played the #10 role in a match where counterattacking was important to maintain a scoring threat, and provide under pressure defenders a moment to catch their breath. Sanchez did the job well.

The second-year UCLA star is improving at ghosting into spaces and positions that allow her to be an outlet to receive the ball then turn and run at the defense. It’s a tricky but necessary skill for any dangerous attacking midfielder. In addition to finding opportunities to break through the center of the pitch, Sanchez also manufactured two of the Spirit’s biggest chances. One was a header that Sanchez unfortunately powered straight at the keeper, the other a layoff to Dorian Bailey whose shot smashed the underside of the crossbar and bounced back into play.

When the Spirit drafted Sanchez the idea wasn’t for her to replace Rose Lavelle, and to be fair, no one expects that now. But as Sanchez continues to add to and improve her game, the Spirit can feel comfortable asking her to shoulder more of the attacking load, knowing that she’ll deliver. — AC