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Four things from the Washington Spirit stumbling against the Chicago Red Stars

Corner kick goals, dubious calls, Trinity Rodman goals out of nothing...was this a rerun?

Jordan Small / Courtesy of Washington Spirit

The Washington Spirit will be glad to be done with their season series against the Chicago Red Stars, as they fell 3-1 on the weekend. Some of the issues were unfortunately familiar: the Spirit conceded on another corner, and were once again on the wrong end of a colossally bad call by a referee. There was also a team-wide poor start that likely drew some alarm in the locker room, as Washington really struggled to make any impact on the game before halftime and had a mountain to climb in the second half.

As is customary, me (this is Jason typing) and André had to break this one down:

A recurring issue, but not the obvious one

It’s tempting to spend a lot of time on yet another hugely obvious bad call against the Spirit, and specifically against Sam Staab (no idea why she keeps being the target on these, but it’s bizarre). But we’ve done that recently, and while the Spirit had reason to complain about two different Chicago goals today — the penalty kick call is obviously, egregiously incorrect, while the first Red Stars goal had a strong hint of a possible handball and a possible offside — the fact is that we have a bigger issue to talk about: the Spirit are struggling to defend corner kicks on a regular basis right now.

The Spirit can’t control NWSL referees, but they can control how they deal with this. Four of the last seven goals they’ve given up came on a corner kick, and over one-third of their goals against this year have come on set pieces in general (5 of 14). It’s probably the difference between where the Spirit could be (hosting a top-of-the-table clash between the two best teams in the league on Saturday), or the reality of being in 4th place, just one bad weekend from dropping all the way into 8th place. It’s that big of a deal.

That’s probably why Aubrey Bledsoe didn’t even want to spend time on the penalty kick call when asked about it. “Ultimately, we have done a poor job of defending corner kicks. We can’t put a clearance to the top of the box. So, whatever happened, if it was a penalty or not, that’s kind of the source of it... At that point, we kind of put the ref in that position at that point, just hoping it doesn’t hit a hand,” said a frustrated Bledsoe after the game, adding that the issue for her was that the Spirit gave up a “free shot, top of the box” more than the call.

While this particular play was about the specifics of how to clear a corner — wide, high, and far is the order of operations if you aren’t able to get control of the ball and actually spark a counter — it’s not the only weakness, or even the main one, for the Spirit when it comes to dead balls.

Kayla Sharples has two of the aforementioned four recent corner kick goals Washington has given up (one of those was given as a Julia Roddar own goal, but I really think that the league has that one wrong), and in both games she’s the most obvious target on the field for the Red Stars. The vagaries of NWSL camera work — production crews, please zoom out on set pieces — leave a little uncertainty about how she initially got free, but what we ended up with on the second goal in this game was Sharples getting to (legally) drive Ashley Hatch back towards goal before going up against her in a one-on-one for the ball.

This is despite the Spirit having ten players back to defend the corner. There’s no good reason for Sharples to have an unchecked path towards where she wants to go, or to let up a situation where it’s only one Washington player challenging for the ball. There’s a similar dynamic with McCall Zerboni’s goal for Gotham a couple of weeks ago, and in that same game the Nahomi Kawasumi goal came on a play that at first saw Ifeoma Onumonu getting into stride to meet the ball, with no one from the Spirit able to block her path.

So between winning (or at least, not losing) these off-the-ball battles and getting the ball cleared properly, there’s a lot of work to be done for Washington. There’s no magic cure for bad refereeing, but there is a cure for this recurring problem, and the Spirit need to find it ASAP. — Jason Anderson

Trinity Rodman is a menace

As noted, this was an incredibly frustrating match from a Spirit perspective. Not only did the team come out flat and go down by two goals in forty minutes, the Spirit’s playmakers were struggling to have an impact. Jason noted that at the half, Opta stats revealed that Sanchez had the fewest touches of any outfield player (14). As for Rodman, well, she was was embroiled in a dastardly plan by the Red Stars.

An initial reaction to this is: wow. You must pause and consider how amazing it is, and how much it speaks to how good Rodman already is, that a 19-year-old twelve matches into her professional career already requires this sort of gameplan. Secondly, dammit it worked.

In the first half Rodman couldn’t break free from Sarah Gorden, whose blazing speed and solid positioning limited Rodman’s space and options. The Red Stars were also, as they admitted, targeting Rodman with a bit of the dark arts. There were a few times Rodman was called for a foul after a Red Stars defender would get in a jostling match with her then fall and draw the whistle. After one such moment, Rodman backheeled the ball away after the foul was given and was shown a yellow card.

Part of the problem was also the Spirit not moving Rodman around the attacking line as they had been doing. In the first half Rodman was exclusively on the right, squeezed between Gorden and left back Arin Wright. In the second half the Spirit moved Rodman around, and in fact she began the half on the left side. The attack flowed much better but they still struggled to score, until Rodman spotted a half-chance to get some revenge. A heavy touch from Gorden was all Rodman needed to close hard and win the ball, then speed away from the defense, round the keeper before settling and finding the net.

This isn’t likely to go down as one of Rodman’s most memorable performances, but how she responded is important. It’s also worth noting that even in the infancy of her career, “success” against her looks like limiting her to one chance, even if that chance is a forty yard ripping apart of the backline. — André Carlisle

Answering the bell

My initial read at full time was that the Spirit started adequately, but let the game drift away from them after 10-15 minutes, and went completely flat after Mal Pugh scored what I’ve taken to calling The Mal Pugh Goal (seems like this sort of disguised shot into the bottom corner from 17-25 yards makes up 40% of her pro goals).

So I framed my first question to Richie Burke after the game around that idea, and he politely but firmly disagreed. “I think we struggled to get into the game well before that. From the kickoff, it took us six minutes to get out of our own half... We were our own worst enemy by a longshot.”

Burke gave some tactical details on how he wanted the Spirit to approach the Red Stars, saying that the Spirit’s plan to work around the Chicago midfield triangle was to have Ashley Sanchez and Kumi Yokoyama move into spaces above Andi Sullivan and Tori Huster. The idea was to create a midfield box and have possession just around the edges of their central midfield (which was set up with two defensive midfielders and, in Morgan Gautrat, a third defensive midfielder playing higher up).

That didn’t materialize much at all — Burke said that it wasn’t until “the 18th or 20th minute” that he saw the team build out in a way that got Sanchez on the ball in the spaces the tactical approach was designed for — and it apparently resulted in a different sort of halftime team talk.

“No raised voices, no profanity-laden outbursts. Just massive, massive disappointment at a performance that lacked any bite, any real character, any real personality,” said Burke. The Spirit also shifted into a more familiar look at halftime, with Sanchez moving up front again and the asymmetrical 4231 look they had from the start being ditched for a 433 that Washington has spent most of the season in. However, the second half probably was much less about that adjustment and simply being up for the whistle in a way the team wasn’t when the game began.

It’s not a common thing for the Spirit to start like this, and hopefully it’s a one-off. As we talked about before, the Spirit are closer to being in 8th place than they are to the top of the table. If this team’s going to break out of their recent yo-yo form and get on a run, starting games off at a high level is very likely a non-negotiable. — JA

Sullivan vs. the Red Stars Midfield

The Red Stars are not a fun team to play against. Sure, they have a negative goal differential right now, due to a couple of lopsided losses, but they currently sit third on the league table. A primary part of that is because Chicago’s midfield is very good. They may not yet have an elite attack or even a stalwart back line (particularly without Casey Krueger), but their midfield can prove quite the obstacle course for a team like the Spirit, who like to build attacks.

Against this backdrop, Andi Sullivan’s performance really stands out. The star midfielder was all over the pitch, getting on the ball, progressing play and trying to create danger. The Spirit were open about their first half being inexplicably flat, which makes Sullivan’s passing stats even more incredible. Here’s her pass map below.

Yes, that is only five unsuccessful passes. Even more impressive, however, is that four of those occurred in that dubious first half we just talked about, meaning Sullivan misplaced only one pass in the second half of the match! Normally the passing numbers from a player known as a defensive midfielder are to be taken with a grain of salt, as a priority of the position is to protect the ball. As such the passes are either short, safe, and/or lateral or backwards.

That’s not the case here. Sullivan picked out multiple forward passes, both from defensive midfield spaces and areas typically occupied by a central attacking midfielder. There’s no doubt that Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman are exciting, but also make sure you keep an eye on how Sullivan manages and influences a game. — AC