The Washington Spirit lost a tough one at home on the weekend, falling 1-0 to the Portland Thorns in a game that ultimately played out with few chances. Obviously that news has been dwarfed by the Richie Burke’s time in charge of the club coming to an end amid conflicting versions of why that change came to pass.
We’ll be going over the coaching change separately in the coming days, but we (André and Jason) still have this game to look back on. So, here are our thoughts on a game that ultimately saw the Spirit unable to solve the puzzle that Mark Parsons and the Thorns put together for them.
Another game at Segra Field so you know what that means...
It’s time once again to talk about how this isn’t a suitable venue for the Washington Spirit. For fans who don’t already live in Ashburn or Leesburg, it is a hike to get to and from. I live in Silver Spring and left for the game at 4:45pm just in case traffic suddenly got bad. I was lucky, it wasn’t bad, but the drive was still well over an hour. This means that after the postgame pressers were completed — and without yet writing a word about the match I’d just seen — I had to begin the trek back, walking through my front door at 11:38pm. It cannot be overstated how Not Near Anything At All this stadium is, so here’s a screenshot.
omw to a “washington” spirit game pic.twitter.com/HV8mZ9HCMp— toni vaxton (@not_carlisle) August 7, 2021
Up until now this has been a personal gripe. And while the DMV area is expansive, it’s still a hike for the majority of the team’s fanbase. However the other problem, and the one that is much more important, is that it is not a professional playing surface. The turf is unbearably slow and has a massive effect on quality of play.
The pitch isn’t a pitch, it’s a graveyard for through balls. Passes must either be hoofed long or played hard into feet. There’s one way to play on this pitch, which is a style totally divergent from everything the Spirit have been building over the years. It’s one thing if your opponent forces you to make changes, it’s another thing entirely if your greatest advantages are neutralized by a sporadically-used home venue.
Portland has really managed this game at an impressive level. Spirit have simply not been able to find a way through outside of a couple of unlikely moments. Thorns win 1-0, 4th loss in 5 games at Segra all-time for the Spirit #RiseUpDC #NWSL #WASvPOR— Jason Anderson (@JasonDCsoccer) August 8, 2021
Burke and players like Andi Sullivan, Paige Nielsen and others have spoke pointedly about how frustrating it is to play on the surface. Unless there’s a fortuitous rain shower just prior to kickoff, the pitch is a bone dry ocean of turf pellets. The players deserve a better surface and a more accessible venue.
It’s unclear where negotiations stand with D.C. United on sharing Audi Field on a full-time basis, but if that deal can’t be completed, the Spirit should do whatever necessary to make September 26th versus Kansas City their last at Segra Field. — André Carlisle
お帰りなさい, 宝田 沙織!
That’s “Welcome back, Saori Takarada!” (or at least, I think it is based on about 20 minutes of learning the difference in Japanese phrases), which I think is something we’re all feeling after seeing her return and go the full 90 — at a position she’s barely played for the Spirit — just a few days after returning from the Olympics.
Takarada was the Spirit’s right back on Saturday, and as with virtually every other appearance she’s made in this new league, at a wide range of positions (I believe she’s now played six different spots since the preseason games began), she adapted with no real issues at all. Portland created more of their danger from runs coming off the left wing, and Takarada was quietly very active for the Spirit (3 interceptions, 9 recoveries) defensively, and didn’t concede any fouls on the night.
On the ball, while she wasn’t a constant threat going forward, Takarada had more touches than any other Spirit player, added one successful dribble (which let the Spirit break into the attacking third), and of course had that thunderbolt that probably took paint off the crossbar at Segra Field:
What an effort from Saori Takarada, only the crossbar in the way pic.twitter.com/z8koo9uiyB— CBS Sports Soccer (@CBSSportsSoccer) August 8, 2021
In what turned out to be his last remarks to media as the team’s head coach, Burke was very pleased with what he saw from Takarada. “If that shot that hits the crossbar does go in, it’s a man-of-the-match performance by her,” said Burke adding that the team did have her spend some time at right back in the preseason in part out of recognition that Japan’s coaching staff saw her as a defender. “She trained like a champion this week and looked really, really good, and I think it followed into the game.”
Paige Nielsen, playing center back just a few yards away from Takarada, had the best seat in the house to analyze her performance. “She did awesome... She was consistent building out, super calm. Knew when to go forward, when to come back, and pretty solid defensively, so she fit right in,” said Nielsen after the game.
The Spirit, on one hand, don’t particularly need a right back. Anna Heilferty has been capable there, and they have three different Olympic medalists coming back that have all appeared at right back for top national teams within the last month. Tori Huster got NWSL Team of the Month votes for May, a month where she played right back. Camryn Biegalski’s a natural there, while Dorian Bailey and Karina Rodríguez can play there too. The Spirit are deep at right back.
But look over that list again, and maybe they’re not as deep as it seems. Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett will both have plenty of USWNT games coming up, and O’Hara might not be ready to return to play so quickly after having to play so many games in such a short timespan in Japan. Julia Roddar has looked more comfortable in the midfield in NWSL. Huster has arguably been the Spirit’s best (or at least most reliable) player in the midfield, and Heilferty is a wide attacker. Bailey’s been first-choice in central midfield, and Rodríguez playing there is more theoretical than proven by now.
Takarada has looked viable at a few different positions for the Spirit. While we’re in a strange phase as far as what roles players receive — Kris Ward and Paul Crichton may want to change somethings, and we know even less about what the next head coach will have in mind — we may see her spend a little longer in this spot.
Based on what we saw against Portland, that’s an appealing possibility. — Jason Anderson
The point where points are crucial
It was about as frustrating a 1-0 loss could be. The Spirit were hosting the best team in the league, on a surface not conducive to their preferred style of play, had a goal saved after Trinity Rodman’s shot beat the keeper, and had a piledriver of a shot from Takarada smack against the bar. These things happen in football, and they are indeed annoying, but what’s worse is it has also dumped the Spirit out of the playoff spots on the league table.
Yes, it’s August, and early August at that. But we don’t refer to this as the most competitive women’s soccer league for nothing. It’s bonkers how tight it is. Four points separate the second place team (North Carolina Courage) from the team in eighth (Houston Dash). So while, yes, only August, the Spirit’s match versus the Thorns brought them over the midway hump.
With eleven matches remaining, the table already so unreasonably tight, and Olympians returning to their clubs, the Spirit must get back to finding ways to get points from tough games. There are no easy matches in the NWSL, the Spirit’s early season loss to Racing Louisville and late-game heroics to beat against KC reveal that, but Washington now has more home games than away games remaining, and only one left to play at Segra Field. There’s plenty of the season left to play, but the Spirit are running out of any leeway to grab the goals, and points, they should. — AC