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Three things about the Washington Spirit not enjoying a Chicago Red Stars block party

The Spirit had almost all of the ball, but couldn’t get past a wall of white and light blue shirts in a 1-0 loss

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars played a version of the game we’ve seen them play a few times now over the last two-plus years. The Spirit had most of the ball, Chicago were organized and fought hard to protect the middle of the field, and the game turned on a combination of a small detail and some bad luck. Chicago won 1-0 on a set piece goal that was officially listed (cruelly, and arguably incorrectly) as a Julia Roddar own goal.

It’s a bit of a comedown after the Spirit had been so resourceful in starting a five-game unbeaten run, but life in the NWSL is tough. With that toughness in mind, here’s what André and yours truly (Jason) thought of this one:

Oh no, not again

Hello again, dragon that refuses to be slayed. Washington had thirteen shots on goal, just one on target, and no goals. As much as slick combinations and saucy young talent draw our eyes, this kind of outcome has also become synonymous with many Spirit matches.

Of course, after pulling off some hocus pocus to snatch a win in Kansas City after trailing for seventy-five minutes, there was hope that the demon had been shaken. In fact, if we’re honest, the Spirit came into the match with eight goals on the season, tied with Houston Dash for the fourth-most in the NWSL. Still, for an attack that is young, and a midfield and defense that has had to be shuffled, it’s impressive.

Except sometimes this still happens.

Credit must be given to the Red Stars. Desperate teams play desperately, we saw that last week in the Kansas City match. But desperate and deeply experienced teams have a way of adding a hefty dose of ornery to their desperation. The NWSL statistics page credits Chicago with seven blocks, and four in the penalty area. If you watched the match with Spirit allegiances or as a neutral, I’m certain that number seems low.

Add clearances, tackles won, interceptions and recoveries, and well, there’s that trademark orneriness that’s hard to overcome.

— André Carlisle

Sometimes you need to look twice

Watching this game from the stands (Segra Field needs a genuine press box, not a field-level table with obstructed views of one goal), I felt like the Spirit struggled to really get going. They felt imprecise to me, like a team that was not really overcoming a turf surface that consistently plays slowly, and troubled by a Chicago team that always seems to get up for the Spirit.

However, after the game Richie Burke and Paige Nielsen both were pretty clear that they felt like the Spirit’s build-up play and use of possession were positives on the night. “Today I thought some of the football we played was excellent. The first half, very, very good,” said Burke. “The result was a little bit disappointing, but I think the performance was very pleasing.” Nielsen agreed, adding “Overall, in the defensive half and middle half, I’m really impressed... Our build-up play was better than it has been all season, I think.”

Burke’s got his UEFA A License. Nielsen’s ability to read games and understand how to use build-up play to disorganize the other team is up there with anyone in the league. They know what they’re talking about.

So, faced with that, I decided to re-watch this game (which is why this piece is coming out today instead of over the weekend) and evaluate that initial impression. It turns out that the Spirit did do what Burke and Nielsen are saying: playing out of the back went smoothly, with Washington progressing up the field consistently. The Spirit ended up attempting 595 passes (a season high), piling up 63% of possession and connecting on 87.4% of their passes.

So, they were not imprecise. And they got the ball to the right players in the build-up: Andi Sullivan had 117 touches and 103 passes, while Nielsen and Sam Staab both had over 100 touches and over 90 passes. Tori Huster and Dorian Bailey both completed over 90% of their passes, with Bailey only misplacing two all night.

What went wrong in this game was a mix of things happening between 18-40 yards from Chicago’s goal. The Red Stars, stung by a miserable performance in their previous game, showed a renewed commitment to defensive focus and effort, and came up with lots of blocks (as André said) and less measurable but still important defensive plays. They stepped into passing lanes at the right moment, forcing Washington to look elsewhere, or got tight enough to prevent the Spirit player on the ball from turning to get a more dangerous angle.

Another issue, though, was a lack of good movement from the Spirit. Washington couldn’t get their attacking trio of Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, and Ashley Hatch on the ball or facing space often enough, and that’s why all of this possession amounted to just 13 shots.

My read on why that happened is different for each player: Rodman, who left the game with what Burke said were back spasms (which, at least post-game, sounded more like a day-to-day situation, but one that Washington will be monitoring very closely this week), was holding her back earlier in the game. She also on occasion got distance from Casey Krueger, only for the player on the ball to either not have an angle to feed the ball over to her, or for the run to not be rewarded.

Sanchez mostly just had to deal with the Red Stars having two very experienced defensive midfielders taking up all the space in the middle of the field. Morgan Gautrat continued her outstanding 2021, and Sarah Woldmoe was very solid as well. This may have been a situation to try to move Sanchez out to the wing temporarily, just to change the dynamic, but in the end this will be part of the learning process for her as a central player. There are games where she’s solved this (think the Orlando game at Audi Field, where she was quiet until the hydration break, then suddenly started getting on the ball in dangerous spots), but this was a trickier situation thanks to Chicago’s lower block.

Hatch ended up with the fewest touches of any starter (28), but I think some of this is that the Spirit were leaning right in a lot of their approach play, and Hatch was coming in from the left. The idea here would be to create chances that she’s running onto from the far side, slashing across Kayla Sharples or Arin Wright, but the Spirit just weren’t able to create enough of those looks.

But the thing that jumped out to me enough to make me dig deeper was that the Spirit, a team that have been fairly devastating on the dribble this year, really struggled to beat Chicago players on the ball. The data hammered the point home: Washington attempted 35 dribbles, but only succeeded in getting past a Red Stars defender ten times on the night. Two of those came deep in Washington’s half, indicating a move to break initial pressure from Chicago rather than something more attack-minded, and only two happened within 30 yards of Cassie Miller’s goal.

So, imprecise? No, definitely not. But, unable to effectively find their scheme-breaking players in spots where they can do some damage? Yes, and that will lead to a frustrating viewing experience (not to mention making it a lot harder to break through an experienced team that has very clearly set up in a low block for the night). — Jason Anderson

A thing you need to see...

It wasn’t a terrific evening; in fact it was a downright frustrating one. It’s probably worth trying to forget about it and moving on. But before we do let’s enjoy that this moment was captured, and very swiftly memed. — AC