The Washington Spirit finished 2021 on an incredible run, and they’ll be looking to carry that into 2022 in today’s NWSL Challenge Cup opener against the Orlando Pride. Despite the Challenge Cup being seen by teams league-wide as a tournament lacking the importance of the regular season, the Spirit established a winning culture late last season, and as such expectations remain very high for the 2021 champs.
A trip to Orlando, who have brought in coach Amanda Cromwell from UCLA and have looked to renovate a roster that frankly needed it, will be an intriguing test after a preseason that saw Washington have two friendlies cancelled, making this the first game they’ve played in 2022 where the full squad is together.
Key player: Emily Sonnett
Much attention has gone to the Spirit’s tremendous attacking core, and to Andi Sullivan as she’s become a starting USWNT defensive midfielder, but with the Spirit talking about adding some high pressure to their game, there will be significant tests at the back as they make the adjustment.
That means Sonnett, who produced some of the best performances of her career late last season for the Spirit, is going to have to be able to strike a balance leading the back line. Knowing when to help step into midfield to close space that inevitably opens up when you press, and when to stay home to anticipate teams beating the press by looking in behind, will be key.
Location: Exploria Stadium (Orlando, FL)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Kingsbury; Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, Sam Staab, Julia Roddar; Ashley Sanchez, Andi Sullivan, Dorian Bailey; Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Tara McKeown
Bench: Devon Kerr, Amber Brooks, Karina Rodríguez, Camryn Biegalski, Morgan Goff, Gaby Vincent, Taylor Aylmer, Tinaya Alexander, Anna Heilferty
We’re told the Spirit played a 433 in their lone preseason game, and they played a 433 last year en route to a championship, so let’s not overcomplicate things here. Still, there are spots we could see Kris Ward consider new combinations, especially on the right side. With O’Hara (like the rest of the USWNT group) further along in her season preparations, players like Anna Heilferty or Camryn Biegalski could start at right back, while Rodman has only recently overcome an injury and could be on limited minutes. That could open the door for Heilferty or rookie Tinaya Alexander to see major minutes up front today.
Washington is missing five players due to injury (Jordan Baggett, Averie Collins, Bayley Feist, Tori Huster, and Alia Martin), but all five are simply in the rehab stage over past injuries rather than having new knocks.
Projected Orlando starting 11: (433) - Erin McLeod; Celia, Megan Montefusco, Amy Turner, Courtney Petersen; Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Mikayla Cluff; Sydney Leroux, Leah Pruitt, Marta
This is a big swing of a guess, and Amanda Cromwell could go in several different directions with a team that has been significantly rebuilt. Orlando is missing four players through injury, including potential midfield starter Viviana Villacorta. Offseason additions Celia and Montefusco (née Oyster) are going to be huge for their hopes this year, as is their rookie playmaker Cluff.
Referee: Laura Rodriguez
Available TV: None
Available streaming: Paramount+ (USA), Twitch (international). If you subscribe to Paramount+ via this link, your friends at B&RU get some cash!
What do we have to say about it?: We’ve got a piece on the Spirit’s Challenge Cup roster, and in more of a meta Challenge Cup preview than a strict preview of this game, yours truly talked to Meg Linehan of The Athletic about what we’re even doing with this tournament:
️ NEW EPISODE ️— Plex Weather (@PlexWeather) March 18, 2022
The Athletic's @itsmeglinehan is the guest, as she & @JasonDCsoccer ended up doing a meta #NWSL Challenge Cup preview centered on one question: "What is the Challenge Cup?"#OneSpirit #NWSLChallengeCuphttps://t.co/ew72vTN2Kl
What are you drinking?: After the game, all signs point to a Sam Adams, but until then, probably just a can of citrus seltzer, flavor yet to be determined.
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