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Five things about the Washington Spirit’s stellar 2-0 win over the North Carolina Courage

Was it the midfield, or Ashley Sanchez, or the defense, or...wait maybe it was the whole thing!

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit showed us a glimpse at their true potential on the weekend, beating the North Carolina Courage 2-0 thanks to two goals from Ashley Hatch. Beating the Courage is always a special thing in NWSL, and doing so by being truly dominant is all the more impressive. It was an ideal way to bounce back from a frustrating home loss, and has the Spirit in a spot where it’s possible for them to be in 1st place as early as this coming Sunday night.

With that in mind, André and your ol’ pal Jason (literally, I feel very old as I put off some needed stretching to finish this piece up) want to break down what is at this point the high point of the Spirit’s season thus far.

Ashley Sanchez woke up feeling violent

Throughout the season, and in fact ever since she joined the Spirit, Ashley Sanchez’s skill on the ball has stood out as special. During the 2020 Fall Series, Burke started tinkering with Sanchez in the 10 role to get her on the ball more in dangerous areas. Recently, Sanchez has nestled into a false 9/9 12 role that has given her even more freedom.

Saturday, Sanchez had her best game in as a professional. Sanchez was decisive, witty, slick, quick, impossible to tackle, and was only kept off the score sheet thanks to multiple superb (though frustrating) saves from Casey Murphy. Though her impact was more than the times she touched the ball, clips of every touch shows how much of a problem she was for North Carolina.

After the match Sanchez said that her last match against North Carolina was probably the worst match of her (still very young) professional career, and that she was not only motivated by a chance to run it back, but also because she knew she was unlikely to have an outing as bad — which was, apparently, devastatingly freeing. — André Carlisle

Midfield masterpiece

When it comes to analyzing a game, I try to be a feet-on-the-ground sort of person. Your bad loss is probably not as bad as you think, and that great win probably required a couple of breaks here and there. In the moment, absolutely feel your emotions, but always make sure you’re taking a look at why a game happened the way it did. There’s almost always shades of gray involved.

But this have to rave about a performance like that. Yes, this is the Courage minus Debinha, Sam Mewis, and Lynn Williams, but the Spirit also have players away for the Olympics, and the Courage have gotten the better of the Spirit even when short-handed in the past. Solving NC’s pressure, denying them the vertical style of game they want, and finding a way through or around their box midfield are among NWSL’s greatest challenges.

The entire Spirit side deserves credit: Ashley Hatch is now joint-top scorer in the league, Aubrey Bledsoe made an absolutely critical save to keep the score 1-0 just before Hatch got her second, and we’ll talk about a lot of those individual moments. However, the foundation of this win came from the midfield, where Andi Sullivan, Tori Huster, and Dorian Bailey were all outstanding.

In particular, the Spirit showed a mastery of the rotations and spatial awareness needed to overcome what is, on paper, a 3v4 mismatch in central midfield. Part of that is the gameplan, which Richie Burke spoke about after the match.

“[Because of] their split strikers, we didn’t need to play a back four. As long as we were plus-one at the back, we just rolled one of the fullbacks out,” said Burke, explaining that Anna Heilferty and Tegan McGrady (who, by the way, is being robbed of an official assist for reasons that are not at all clear) were to push up high depending on the ball’s location, effectively turning the 433 into something else. “So, they rolled out [wide], and one rolled ‘round to show a three [back]. We left Sullivan at the back of midfield, and we looked like we were playing a little 3142, with Sanchez dropping in in little spots, and she did really, really well.”

This is complicated to even draw up, and even moreso to execute against a team that has had so much success disrupting Washington’s possession-oriented approach over the years. There were moments defensively where the Spirit rotated to mirror NC’s box set-up, with Ashley Sanchez dropping off, Bailey stepping up, and Huster moving deeper in line with Sullivan. Other times, the rotations required Huster or Bailey to shift out and cover a flank, which in turn forced the other midfielders to adjust their positioning. Whatever was needed without the ball, the Spirit midfield had it covered, and without having to scramble or catch up to the pace of things. They were always ahead of time.

In possession, we saw much of the same. Sanchez came back deep, and someone (often Bailey) would already be popping up higher in the attack to maintain the balance. Just when NC thought they had everyone sorted out, suddenly Sullivan was peeling off to the right flank in acres of space to create a dangerous situation.

“Credit to [the Spirit], they were brilliant. Sanchez was outrageous tonight, Sullivan was very, very good, their backline was good. They played some great football tonight, and they played us out of the park. It could have been six or seven if it wasn’t for Casey (Murphy),” said Paul Riley post-game.

This isn’t the full-strength version of the Spirit, perhaps, but in terms of manipulating space, pulling a team out of its shape, being dangerous, and controlling the tempo, this was not just the best we’ve seen of the Spirit in 2021, but honestly right up there with any showing a team has had in the league this season. — Jason Anderson

Sweet xG justice!

This might seem like a bit of piling on, but with the pattern the Spirit set earlier in the season of hitting shot after shot yet drastically underperforming their expected goals, this is nice.

The other nugget here is how well the Spirit defended the Courage. Though they had some chances, and Bledsoe had a terrific game — including a save from point blank range that was up for Save of the Week — North Carolina managed to only put two of their nine shots on target. A secondary shoutout must go to Paige Nielsen, who did well to read the Courage’s buildup and steam out to intercept or deflect passes before they could become problems. — AC

Anna Heilferty’s new gig

With Huster moving into the midfield (and playing at a potential Best 11 level) over the past few weeks, right at the same time the Spirit have seen no fewer than four possible right backs go to the Olympics, there’s been an opening on the right side of the back four. Coming into this game, which marked Anna Heilferty’s first start at right back as a pro, the Spirit had split the ten games in which right back was a position in the formation among four players.

However, Heilferty has in short order adapted quite well to what is a demanding job. Consider what we’ve already talked about concerning the midfield: she and Tegan McGrady both had to constantly judge whether to drop in and be a true back four, step up to add a fifth midfielder in the temporary 3142 Burke talked about, or be that third member of the three-back. That meant constantly adjusting to the unorthodox Courage forward play, in which one forward is always peeling out wide, and the dual no. 10s are both looking to make runs from deeper positions as well. We should also probably acknowledge that one of those forwards, Jess McDonald, is the fourth-highest scorer in NWSL history (as well as tied atop the league’s all-time assist chart), and she eventually spent most of the game playing out to the left in an attempt to leverage the experience gap.

So, how’d Heilferty do? NC didn’t win a single foul or complete a single successful dribble within 50 yards of goal on her side of the field, for one. She ended up with the second-most touches in the game (80), completed 80% of her passes (which is in line with the Spirit’s team-wide rate of 81.2%), and generally looked comfortable inviting the NC press before moving the ball on.

Speaking of which, look how diverse her passing connections were:

If you look closely at that passing network from Arielle Dror (who you should absolutely follow for NWSL data analysis), there were eight other Spirit players Heilferty either passed to or received the ball from five times or more. She might not have caught the eye with key passes, but she was heavily involved in the Spirit’s play throughout this game. “I thought Heilferty was brilliant tonight, a rookie player doing a job like that, she was very, very good, especially with the tactics that we set up for them,” said Burke after the match.

So while I opened this segment talking about absences opening this spot up, this is the kind of performance that can keep Heilferty in the picture as a serious option even when the Olympics end. — JA

The mysteries of confidence

After the match we spoke to Burke, Sanchez, and Hatch. One of the things we tried to get to the bottom of was how it was that the entire team was injected with a lethal amount of sauce. Of course we got a couple standard Rodman nutmegs and, as mentioned above, Ashley Sanchez was a menace, but also Paige Nielsen was deftly wriggling out of pressure at the top of the box, and Heilferty was pulling slick turns away from pressure while at right back. Usually North Carolina’s press is notorious for even getting the basics right, much less the fun stuff.

Instead, the whole Spirit squad was delightfully free and unafraid, and we tried to get to the bottom of it. Burke mostly cited the recovery plan from the team’s high performance coach Michael Minthorne, while Sanchez remarked that she had played such a poor match against them last time that she figured she had to be better this time.

Unfortunately, we are still not satisfied with these answers. There was certainly something more, and now we’re left to theorize. As for me (André), I’m settling on whatever the team listened to on the ride to the stadium. Music can alter my mood in an instant, so I hope someone was taking detailed notes of the playlist, it must become ritual. — AC

I think I’ve gotten to the bottom of this, and the answer of course comes from the films of John Carpenter.

Egg Shen’s magical concoction was good enough to take on Lo-Pan’s army, and it’s good enough to win soccer games. — JA