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Four things about the Washington Spirit returning to action with a win over KC NWSL

It’s been a long journey, but the Spirit kept themselves in a playoff spot in a tougher-than-expected game against Kansas City

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

After 28 days, and seemingly 28 different crises impacting the team on and off the field, the Washington Spirit had to show some real resilience to beat Kansas City NWSL 2-1 Sunday evening. KC scored first, and will probably feel like they left another goal on the table in a dominant first half, but the Spirit flipped the game with essentially the last play of the first half (an Andi Sullivan penalty kick) and the very first play of the second (Tara McKeown’s first professional goa).

It wasn’t easy, but virtually nothing has been for the Spirit this year, particularly after going so long without a game, and going through so much during a September that saw the team in the news for the wrong reasons.

Normally this kind of piece is me and André Carlisle, but he’s off expanding his global podcast empire (or just on a well-earned vacation), so you’re stuck with me and my thoughts, which are:

Times are tough

We’ll get into the Spirit’s tactical adjustments in a second, but Washington has to be credited with overcoming quite a bit to get this win. 28 days between games while in-season is more or less unprecedented, and the soccer side of the organization has surely been immensely stressed out with the fallout from the club’s various front office crises. You can compartmentalize all you want, but there’s no blocking everything out, and the departures on the business side do impact things for players, whether it’s how training and travel are arranged, or the million other small details that add up to a successful club.

On top of that, the Spirit have had to break training into two groups to comply with NWSL protocols as international players returned from their travels. Obviously after a Covid-19 outbreak among the roster and the forfeits that came with that, there’s no room for Washington to take any chances with league protocols, and in this case that meant splitting the squad in half to train...which of course means there’s not a lot of work you can do 11v11. It’s conceptual rather than practical, and generally in soccer you have to combine those two aspects into one coherent idea.

They also ended up having to play at Segra Field — we’ll talk about that in depth later in this piece — that may well have been a reason for the unfamiliar starting eleven. The long layoff between games may have helped players heal up from whatever knocks and nagging issues they’ve had, but it also means issues playing a full 90 to the standards we’d normally see. It’s not just rust, but much like in preseason, players simply lose that ability to stay sharp in the final 15-30 minutes when they go this long between games.

Finally, they had to make do without Ashley Hatch, one of the league’s top scorers and someone who has been in uniform in every game the team has played this year. While I’m told that this was something the team had known about for some time, it doesn’t make the job easier.

Yes, a home game against the team in last place should be a win for any serious playoff contender, but the Spirit came into this game with about as many obstacles and distractions as a team can have in NWSL. In that context, getting this win is no small achievement.

Protests continue

The Spirit Squadron had announced their intentions to not chant, drum, or wave flags until Steve Baldwin had sold his stake in the club, and they followed through. They did have banners, though, including one that read “Can you hear us now?”:

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The atmosphere at Segra Field appeared muted as a result, and the strangeness of the situation — the banner supporting the NWSLPA’s #NoMoreSideHustles campaign is right there — is clear. Fans want to back the players on the field while not wanting to support what has reportedly been going on off the field.

Those protests aren’t limited to Segra Field, either. Banners have been posted in Portland calling for similar changes in Washington, and at yesterday’s OL Reign-Orlando Pride game, Reign fans did the same, with a #SellTheTeamSteve banner at Cheney Stadium:

Then, just a few hours later, Austin FC fans had a banner of their own:

The Spirit and NWSL remain in what seems like an untenable situation, and on game day, that manifests now as a quieter stadium where the focus is justifiably not 100% about what’s happening on the field. That’s not what anyone wants, but it’s impossible to blame supporters for demanding change and protesting in what is effectively one of the only ways they can. There’s no doubt Spirit supporters are ready to stick it out if they have to, but here’s hoping the protest doesn’t have to be a long one.

Halftime changes pay off

The sight of a quadruple sub, even in this era of five substitutions, is extremely rare, but the Spirit went that route at halftime yesterday. It’s not hard to imagine why, though, as KC were clearly the better team, and were only kept to one goal thanks to Aubrey Bledsoe and a couple of chances where their attackers failed to make contact with the ball in promising spots.

Post-game, Kris Ward said that Kansas City’s choice to play a diamond 442 rather than a 433 meant adjusting on the fly. “It was tough to get the message across as to how we wanted to defend them,” said Ward in discussing the first half. “(Kansas City) were really intelligent in how they moved and how they played. You have to give them credit, because you can say we didn’t do a good job, but at the same time they did do a very good job in the first half.”

Andi Sullivan echoed that, saying that when Ward asked the team how they felt after the first half, she responded by saying “I feel lost.” So the Spirit changed some things, simplifying how they organized themselves defensively and setting up in a diamond of their own. Sullivan added that they wanted to find ways to conserve energy on the defensive side, which against a team that plays fluidly like Kansas City means less chasing off the ball and more consistency switching off on who has to keep an eye on a given runner in a given moment.

So while the quadruple change worked — Tara McKeown’s goal may be the fastest goal by a substitute that the Spirit have ever had — don’t underestimate the importance of the overall tactical adjustment. Sometimes it’s about individual performances, but in this case there was a situation where Julia Roddar may have been the nearest defender on a lot of KC attacks that produced danger (including their goal), but did she have adequate support? In my view at least, the answer is clearly no, she did not, and if a fullback is just constantly isolated against a fluid opponent, you’re going to concede a lot of chances from that side of the field.

It’s almost never as simple as one player having a bad game, and the players that came out didn’t have the benefit of getting to play in the Spirit’s adjusted tactical set-up, which saw them really control the game to such an extent that KC was credited by Opta with one shot attempt in a half that they were trailing in for 44:49 out of 45 minutes. That’s no small thing, and it may even end up being a turning point for the Spirit in terms of putting the off-field matters to the side and battling for a playoff spot they’re more than talented enough to claim.

Adios, Segra?

The Spirit beat Kansas City, and they also beat Segra Field. Washington kicked this game off with a 1W-0D-4L record all-time at the smaller venue way out to the west of the District. It’s jarring to hear broadcasters say the venue is “just outside Washington” when Segra Field is over 40 miles from Audi Field; a drive to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore is three miles shorter.

There are plenty of Spirit fans in Loudoun County, which the team has cited as a big factor in shifting their emphasis away from the Maryland SoccerPlex. However, there’s no mistaking that from a business perspective as well as an on-field proposition, playing at Segra Field has simply not worked out. One of Washington’s home games this year took place in Houston because of doubts the venue wouldn’t be ready on time (as an aside, D.C. United told Black and Red United that the venue did end up meeting all NWSL requirements in time for that match, but in the end NWSL needed certainty that couldn’t be provided two days before the game and made the call).

This isn’t a business blog, though, so let’s stick to the field itself. The turf at Segra Field was described as “unlike any other turf I’ve ever experienced” by Kris Ward heading into this game, and we saw why over and over again. There are turf bounces at every venue with an artificial surface, but there’s nothing in American top-flight soccer like watching a well-hit pass die four yards short of its target because that spot happens to be where the rubber pellets have piled up, or the bizarre, physics-defying bounce that nearly gifted the Spirit a goal early in the match.

Players and coaches have to be diplomatic about the surface, but they are frank that it impacts the game beyond the normal issues about it causing more fatigue and turning minor, nagging injuries that could be played through into situations that require substitutions or leaving players out entirely.

“It’s very strange,” said Sullivan of the turf. “It’s not really advantageous for us to play here... It’s just hard to hit (passes) consistently, anything that’s greater than five yards. It’s just hard to hit a long ball,” adding that she had a few passes where the surface’s differences from grass or even other turf fields caused a turnover. “Especially for us, we like to ping these passes, and it just slows our momentum down from the start.”

That’s no small thing for the Spirit’s fundamental approach. They want to be a possession team, which only really works if you can disorganize the other team by moving the ball faster than they can adjust. If the ball slows down every time it touches the ground, well...gravity being what it is, the ball is on the ground a lot in soccer. There’s no workaround to that for a team built to play that style, and it’s fair to draw a direct line between the Spirit’s generally slower, less dangerous play at Segra and the surface.

Other teams, as the road team looking at a draw or win as essentially bonus points, can afford to sit in, slow the game down, and look for counters (what KC did) or wait for set pieces (the Chicago Red Stars approach). The Spirit then face some unpleasant choices: scrap their normal approach that fans and players all enjoy and accept several ugly home games a year, or try to overcome the disadvantages on the turf, which carries a very high degree of difficulty.

Players and coaches have to be diplomatic, but I do not. While I think Segra Field has gotten a bum rap from people who haven’t been to it — I have my problems with its lack of a functional press box, but I’d also say public perception does not match the experience players and fans seem to have — the playing surface is simply not up to standard for NWSL play. For that matter, I’d say the exact same thing for Loudoun United, another team that would be better off on a field that plays faster and more predictably.

Starting in 2022, and assuming the playing surface is not changed, the Spirit need to make sure they no longer have home games there. That will require both United and NWSL to accept that as essential rather than optional, and work with them in terms of scheduling. It is great that Washington is going to be training at United’s new facility, which is coming along, but what we call “home” when we talk about the Spirit has to mean Audi Field from now on.