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Four things about the Washington Spirit getting a cathartic 2-1 win over the Orlando Pride

Ashley Sanchez’s goal is not the only thing we’re talking about, we promise!

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit put on a pretty good performance throughout their game on Sunday against Orlando Pride, but were very close to relying on a gift of a goal just to walk off with a draw. It would have been, on the basis of their play, another tough one to take. Fortunately for all of us, though, with both teams deciding to push for a winner, Ashley Sanchez stepped up with a Goal of the Year contender, giving the Spirit a desperately-needed 2-1 win.

After having some time to digest what is hopefully the spark Washington has been looking for over the past few weeks, me (it’s Jason again, hello) and André have some thoughts on the goal, and then some other thoughts that are not about the goal:

It took a while, but it’s here and it’s perfect

We’d been waiting for it. We’ve seen them narrowly fly over or wide, we’ve heard the disappointing clangs posts and bars. Sanchez has been so close all season to scoring The Goal, that unmistakable banger suitable for a player of her substantial audacity.

Finally it came, and for a multitude of reasons, it was perfectly timed.

Goals don’t change tangible things, but one like this give the players something to feel good about. — André Carlisle

Context is key, especially on 89th minute game-winning golazos

I want to join in here and put in some historical context on this goal, which was just as good as it was important. The Spirit — players and fanbase — needed this goal. Think of the circumstances in play as Sanchez moved the ball back to her right foot:

  • Richie Burke’s departure was first framed as being for health reasons, then reported as a firing, and then reported as a firing due to substantial allegations of abuse.
  • Washington entered the game on a three-game winless run, falling from the cusp of a potential playoff bye to the semifinals to a spot outside the playoff places altogether. The Spirit had what I would argue was their single best performance in club history on their previous home game at Audi Field, but had just four points from the five games to follow it. We’ve been through a similar thing with this team before, as the 2019 Spirit saw a great start to the year eventually undone by a long midseason slump, and they started this game with something of the same vibe.
  • They’d lost two straight home games, bringing their home record at all DMV venues (sorry BBVA Stadium, you’re not really a home stadium for our purposes here) to an underwhelming 8W-6D-7L since the club began to remake itself after the horrors of the 2018 season.

If we combine technique, audacity, importance, and that je ne sais quoi that all great goals have, I’m really struggling to come up with too many for the Spirit that are at this level. Maybe Crystal Dunn against the Reign in 2016? Or Franny Ordega’s extra time playoff game-winner later that year? Or perhaps Yael Averbuch’s game-winning rocket deep in stoppage time back in 2014?

Even on a team that has been scoring some great goals this year — Paige Nielsen and Tori Huster both had amazing goals literally 12 days ago, and this team has Trinity Rodman — this one felt different. According to acting head coach Kris Ward post-game, Sanchez wasn’t feeling well when she arrived at the stadium, and despite efforts to boost her hydration, the plan to start her fell by the wayside...and she still managed to produce this goal.

One goal, and one win, can’t fix everything. The abuse allegations and apparent attempt at a cover-up in particular are not going to be solved by events on the field. However, from the bubble of just a soccer team going through a season trying to finish the year with a trophy, one goal and one win can do some wonderful things if they come at the right time. If the Spirit really get rolling, this could be the moment they started becoming the team they’ve been threatening to become for 2.5 seasons now. — Jason Anderson

We need to talk about Anna Heilferty

With Sanchez and Rodman deservedly receiving most of the headlines, Anna Heilferty, the 22-year-old hometown product, is flying under the radar. Heilferty has been deployed at outside back with Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara missing extended time on international duty. In that time, Heilferty has gained the on-pitch trust of the experienced players around her.

On the right or left, players like Huster, Nielsen, Andi Sullivan, and Sam Staab ping the ball wide to Heilferty as the open player on the far side or to escape a press. While not an outside back by trade, and it’s uncertain whether the Spirit want her there long-term (or whether she wants to play the position long-term), Heilferty shows impressive composure to receive (sometimes difficult) passes, control the ball and keep it moving, or sometimes even shift and twist until she pops out of a phone booth on the other side.

Heilferty isn’t just playing the specific role of an outside back well on a talented team, she’s doing so while learning a new position in her rookie season. Sanchez and Rodman are the stars of the Spirit’s last two drafts, but Heilferty must also be recognized as an important pick, and increasingly important piece of the team. — AC

Good problems

Everyone’s back from the Olympics, and other than Jordan DiBiasi’s excused absence, the Spirit had no new injuries in this game. They’re as close to full strength as they’ve been all season, and just in time. There are nine games left in the season, and there appear to be eight teams — maybe nine, if Louisville can ride the momentum from their surprise win at The Women’s Cup — battling for just six playoff spots.

That pressure is even more acute when you acknowledge that Portland and North Carolina have distanced themselves at the top of the standings; barring an epic collapse by either of those sides, we’re talking about four spots left for six or seven teams that all feel pretty evenly matched.

So it’s a great time to be able to call on your whole squad, but having everyone back does bring with it a different sort of challenge: how do you keep everyone happy on a team that has so many starting-caliber players vying for time?

The Spirit gave us a preview of how difficult this is at halftime, bringing Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett in for Heilferty and Nielsen. There was no hint after the game that these moves were due to injury; rather, it was that the training staff said that both players should play no more than 45 minutes as they ramp up after time off following the grind of the Olympic schedule.

Nielsen overcame an early-season injury to re-establish herself as one of the best center backs in the league, and her competition for time is a USWNT regular, among others. Post-game, Ward said the team has five options at center back, which includes Saori Takarada (a Japanese international who started at center back in the Olympics) and Karina Rodriguez (who is emerging with Mexico’s national team as a potential starter). You could also expand that further outward and include Sullivan, who has done well dropping into central defense when called upon.

Ward, by the way, made it pretty clear that he views Sonnett as a center back rather than a potential right back. But even without her competing for time as a fullback, that still leaves all of the following:

  • Takarada, who has looked excellent as a right back
  • Heilferty, who André already discussed
  • Huster, who I would argue should have been on the NWSL Team of the Month in May, where she was a right back in every game
  • O’Hara, a longtime USWNT starter
  • Tegan McGrady, who has a USWNT cap and just needs one long injury-free run to break out as one of the best left backs in the league
  • Julia Roddar, who only just brought home a silver medal with Sweden at the Olympics
  • Camryn Biegalski, who has quietly been picking up regular appearances off the bench
  • Chinyelu Asher, a longtime starter for Jamaica who has recently seen some time at left back

We’re not even including Dorian Bailey, who spent most of her rookie year as a fullback, or Taylor Aylmer (initially billed as a midfielder/defender), or Morgan Goff (a defender whose position with the team is unclear since she hasn’t appeared in a game yet).

This extends on and on. The list of potential midfielders in the Spirit’s current set-up (a six dictating from deep, with two free no. 8s further forward) is ten players long, and expands out to twelve if you switch to the look that we’ve seen when Sanchez moves back there. Or, maybe it’s 13, since we saw Tara McKeown play some central midfield against Gotham after Sam Staab’s undeserved red card.

Up front, it’s the same: eight players for three spots, a group that includes four players with international caps (and that doesn’t include Sanchez or Rodman, both of whom must surely be very high on Vlatko Andonovski’s list of future call-ups), and four first-round picks. And that’s after the team lost Bayley Feist and Averie Collins to injury in the preseason!

It seems doubtful that Ward and Paul Crichton will want to return to the three-back that Washington considered in preseason (and seemingly made its big offseaso moves based on), so that leaves the Spirit with a good sort of problem. Top-notch players are going to be on the bench, or not playing at all, every weekend. Yokoyama, McGraddy, and Roddar were unused subs Sunday, just as the latest example.

So while the problem is “good,” it’s also still a problem. You can’t just tell players who know how good they are that they’re not getting time, and that’s that. It’s a blow for players every time, and managing minutes means asking other players who are also extremely good that they have to share some time. There’s no reason to believe they took the news with anything less than the professionalism that you’d expect, but do you think Nielsen and Heilferty were super hyped to sub out at halftime? Probably not!

While there will be some rotation and knocks along the way for sure, the schedule is largely pretty friendly from an overuse perspective. The international windows in the next two months coincide with breaks in the Spirit’s schedule, which only has one mid-week game (October 6 at Gotham FC) left.

That leaves us in a curious position: it’s not entirely clear what the Spirit’s actual best eleven is, nor is it entirely clear where several players (Sonnett, Takarada, and Roddar included) will be at their best in the 433 that seems to be the formation Washington is most comfortable in. We’ve seen Spirit teams where the problem was not having enough good players, and this situation is much better, but it does still require some careful management. — JA