Two teams under interim leadership meet today in the District as the Washington Spirit host the Orlando Pride. The Spirit have played the Pride twice in the regular season, taking a second half lead both times only to walk off with a 1-1 draw. Both teams will look different today, with Washington having fired coach Richie Burke amid allegations of abusive language and Orlando — following Marc Skinner accepting the Manchester United job —unbeaten (1W-2D-0L) under interim head coach Becky Burleigh.
It’s a vital moment for both teams. A win for the Spirit would see them jump over Orlando and several other teams into a tie for 3rd place, but another loss or draw would extend a recent winless run to four games. The Pride, just two points ahead but with one more game played, will want to maintain or extend the distance as the NWSL season approaches the stretch run.
Key player: Ashley Hatch
Fun fact: Hatch has scored a goal against the Pride in each of the four of the last five meetings between these teams, and she missed making it five from five in this year’s Challenge Cup by about six inches. She’s also been stellar at Audi Field, scoring five times in the Spirit’s seven games on Buzzard Point.
So let’s keep it simple here. If the Spirit were in a video game, Hatch vs. Orlando is a power-up, and Hatch at Audi Field is a power-up. The Pride have been good defensively under Burleigh, giving up just two goals in three games (despite playing Portland and going to North Carolina in that stretch), so it’s going to take that kind of powered-up effort from the entire Spirit to break through. If the goals are coming today, it’s probably going to be #33 finishing them off.
Location: Audi Field (Washington, DC)
Kickoff time: 4:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Saori Takarada, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady; Tori Huster, Andi Sullivan, Dorian Bailey; Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez
Bench: Devon Kerr, Emily Sonnett, Camryn Biegalski, Julia Roddar, Taylor Aylmer, Chinyelu Asher, Anna Heilferty, Kumi Yokoyama, Tara McKeown
With the Spirit’s three Olympic medalists getting back to town earlier this week, and no media availability heading into the game, parsing what the likely lineup will be today is tricky. Our guess? Sonnett and Roddar are probably available off the bench, while Kelley O’Hara might need one more week. But that’s a guess, and with all three it could be any outcome between starting and being in street clothes.
And from there, where do they even play? Takarada and Nielsen have played well, as has the Spirit’s midfield trio, and McGrady is off the injury report after recovering from a pre-game knock a couple of weeks ago. It’s a very unclear situation, especially under interim leadership, so we’ll learn something over the next couple of weeks for sure.
Elsewhere, the injury report for the Spirit is as short as it’s been all year:
Projected Orlando starting 11: (4312) - Ashlyn Harris; Ali Riley, Ali Krieger, Amy Turner, Courtney Petersen; Marisa Viggiano, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir; Marta; Jodie Taylor, Sydney Leroux
Burleigh has played with a back three in two of her three games in charge so far, but in both games Orlando was facing a team that plays with two forwards. Against Chicago’s 4231 a couple of weeks ago, she went with a back four, and it seems likely that she wants that plus-one at the back against the Spirit’s front three.
That probably means former Spirit midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard coming in for a center back, and we’ll likely see a lot of fluidity in how Orlando shifts without the ball. While this midfield diamond means two forwards, don’t be surprised if Leroux is often starting as if she’s the left forward in a front three, providing width and giving herself more space to attack in transition.
Referee: Tori Penso
Available TV: CBS Sports Network
Available streaming: Twitch (non-US-based viewers only)
What are you drinking?: Cold brew (judging from where I’ll be coming from, probably Dunkin) on my way in, water once I get to the stadium, and a couple cans of Sapporo once I get home.
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