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Four things about the Washington Spirit’s glass half-full draw with NJ/NY Gotham FC

The process, the grind, the moves, the posts, the rookie...we’ve got some things to talk about

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit weren’t able to beat NJ/NY Gotham FC, playing to a 1-1 draw last Friday despite putting the visiting side’s goal under siege for almost all of the 90 minutes at Segra Field. It was the definition of a mixed bag: a frustrating scoreline paired with a performance that was more “rounding into top gear for the stretch run” than “second game of the Challenge Cup.” It also may have taken the rivalry between these teams to a new level, thanks to a move, a tumble, and some tweets.

Me (this is Jason, hello) and André figured there were four big points to get into before we move on and focus on tomorrow night’s game:

Embracing the (very good) process

Obviously the point of soccer, as a competitive endeavor, is to score more goals than the other team. Home teams tend to do that more often than away teams, so when you’re known to be a good team, a draw at home is to some extent a disappointment. The Spirit are a known Good Team, so Friday was a letdown from a purely results perspective, all due respect to Gotham.

But we should put that aside for a second and focus on process rather than result. From that perspective, the Spirit were outstanding at Segra Field. The stat that catches the eye, as a short-handed Washington had 21 more attempts than a Gotham side that had Kristie Mewis and Ifeoma Onumonu back in the fold, but it’s really across the board when it comes to the basic data. The Spirit dominated duels (55 to 41), won more than double the number of tackles Gotham managed, controlled 55% of possession (despite Gotham ostensibly being built to be a possession team, while the Spirit are less committed to that dogma these days).

Gotham is not a team projected to struggle this year, either. People have picked them to win this Challenge Cup group, and most opinions around the league seem to think they’ll be a playoff team once again. Losing Kailen Sheridan is a big deal, but so too is adding Mewis (who was in my book a lock for the Best 11 last year and arguably an MVP candidate, only for voters to drop the ball). They’re experienced and intelligent. The rematch is going to be tough.

And yet, the Spirit more or less cooked them for 75 of the 90 minutes, with the one lull coming after Mewis put them ahead from the penalty spot, a play that came about from just the second time NJ/NY got within 25 yards of the Spirit goal. The Spirit took 10 shots after Amber Brooks was sent off, which is more than Gotham managed with 11 players for the entire match.

It’s rare that you see a team awarded a penalty kick in a given game, and not even get above 1.00 expected goals over 90 minutes, but that was the case here. The Spirit set up shop in Gotham’s end for so much of the game that a high-powered attack sputtered. Midge Purce had one shot, Onumonu had zero, and Gotham only took three shots from inside the 18 yard box (one of which was the penalty kick).

There are things here to improve, for sure. Gotham blocked 8 shots on the night, a sign that while the Spirit are getting close to goal, they’re also not quite cutting the defense out of the equation, and they’re settling for a shot when there might be one more pass on. They did more than enough to win this game, and if you port this performance outside of the finishing to another game, it would be a win probably eight times out of ten, but it’s still something to keep an eye on.

But still, it’s the Challenge Cup rather than a playoff game, so let’s take a big picture approach here: the Spirit may only be knocking on the door rather than walking through it, but the process to get to that last step was hugely impressive against Gotham. — Jason Anderson

Sanchez skill check

The Spirit are a good team because their defense is full of defensively sound athletes who are difficult to get by, and a great team because of a versatile and intelligent midfield that can both destroy and create. What makes them fun is their collection of young and diabolically skilled attackers. One who has been in ridiculous form pretty much ever since her first minutes as a professional, is Ashley Sanchez. During the match, Ali Krieger found herself stranded in an ocean of space with Sanchez dribbling toward her, and this was the result.

It’s a totally unfair position for any defender to be in versus Sanchez. Krieger is certainly not alone in the room of people who have been victimized by a Sanchez dribble, and more are certainly on the way. However, this seemingly innocuous tweet by the Washington Spirit, a team that doesn’t have a, say, Gothamesque track record of Being Online, became a bit of a spark between the clubs.

The @GothamFC account sent ‘Not you making a dvd about a draw’ and ‘Go get brunch bro it’s Saturday’ in two separate replies, and then all hell broke loose. Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger and McCall Zerboni all broke several rules of online engagement:

Rule #1: Never go online to relitigate an L suffered in real life

Particularly if that also includes the re-sharing of an embarrassing real life moment. Harris and Zerboni attempted to make it about Segra Field, a surface Spirit players have been vocal about not liking themselves. Attempting to shove that in the face of the team or players is strange, because if the concern were truly about an unsafe playing surface, it probably would’ve come up without the prompt of Krieger badly losing a 1v1. Also, let’s be honest, the pitch has nothing to do with why Krieger fell. Sanchez got her with a hesitation, baited her into a wide stance, then megged her while re-accelerating. It was a filthy move that sometimes happens, even to very good defenders.

Rule #2: Don’t post your Ls (this extends to significant others as well)

Though Krieger seemed to enjoy Harris’ barb at the Spirit, I can’t help but feel that not sharing a clip of your wife getting diced to your nearly 500,000 followers would have been better. The spreading of that tweet, largely by Gotham players with large followings, gave the GIF a massive boost, particularly among Spirit account tweets. You have to scroll all the way back to the Spirit winning the championship to find tweets with similar engagement.

Rule #3: This is Gen Z’s world now, understand and respect that

The Spirit’s attack is comprised of confident and accomplished Gen Z’ers. Harris and Zerboni are Millennials, and one thing all Millennials should know by now is that our time as overlords of the internet is over. We enjoyed elevated status as Boomers who said ‘Tweetface’ and ‘Instabook’ struggled to gain competence and literacy with online realms that didn’t exist for the vast majority of their lives.

But where we once had a leg up as early adopters of online spaces, Gen Z has never known a world without them. We merely adopted the darkness; they were born in it, molded by it.

— André Carlisle

Rookie Tinaya Alexander gets her pro debut and first start

It didn’t take long for the 14th overall pick of the 2022 NWSL College Draft to make her first start, as Kris Ward gave Tinaya Alexander her first start Friday. Alexander was part of a forward line with the two top-ten picks from the 2021 draft, Trinity Rodman (#2) and Tara McKeown (#8).

During the post-game press conference, Ward shed some light on the rookie wanting to be certain in her movements given the speed, intensity and organization of the Spirit’s press.

“She was nervous at first which is to be expected. Some of that manifested in just needing to go and close people down faster. She’s been very good in terms of asking questions and wanting to do the right things. For her, she doesn’t want to run to the incorrect player and have people get on her about that. She wants to always do the right thing, so a little bit of that hesitancy was needing to hear that behind her ‘Yes you’re going to the correct player, go go go go go!’”

As the first half wore on, however, Alexander got comfortable, and the skills she was drafted for began to show. Alexander is smooth and quick on the ball, and delivered a couple quality crosses, which Ward is hoping to see more of soon.

”She really grew into the half. She had a very good cross, she had a couple other good moments, so [she] was doing really really well. It was just getting over the nerves and getting a start.”

Given Alexander’s path to the NWSL, she isn’t afraid to challenge herself. Tinaya spent time in Reading and Chelsea’s academies before putting together four highly decorated years in Arsenal’s U-17 squad, and then moved across the Atlantic to play at LSU. Breaking into this attacking group is a lofty challenge, but one Tinaya has the tools to reach. — AC

The grind is real

Washington opened the Challenge Cup on March 19, played a physical road game, and got back to their hotel with five days to prep before another gameday rolled around. That’s close to normal, especially in a league where you might play on Sunday followed by Saturday on a regular basis.

However, that bruising encounter with Orlando has been followed up by three games in nine days; this draw was game one in the set. Washington plays all three of these at home, which is certainly a mitigating factor, but it’s still a strange situation to be in. The Challenge Cup being seen as a preseason tournament rather than a Preseason Tournament is a consistent talking point around the league, but teams have to balance that with a) the money available to players that win it, b) the fact that everyone in the league is at their core hyper-competitive, and c) the long-term fitness needs of the players involved.

For the Spirit, there’s even a fourth item, which is that their roster happens to have plenty of players who are closing in on a return from longer-term injuries that required surgery. Jordan Baggett, Averie Collins, Bayley Feist, and Alia Martin are all in that boat, which is to say that having 25 players on the active roster (Tori Huster’s “Season-Ending” Injury designation means she’s not taking up a roster spot) gives you very little in the way of a margin for short-term absences.

When you add in a suspension for Amber Brooks (side note: I know the team was not happy about this call, but having watched in person and then watched the stream, I think both plays unfortunately had to result in yellow cards), and the knocks that Emily Sonnett and Dorian Bailey have, suddenly you have a lot of minutes to spread around over a short period, and few people to actually carry that load.

All of which is to say that we should probably expect some rotation tomorrow night. Six Spirit players have played at least 150 minutes so far in the Challenge Cup, and five of them are internationals, meaning they’ve already had more of a physical load this year. That doesn’t include players like Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman, who receive an abnormal volume of fouls, and it’s fair to note that playing at Segra Field is universally viewed as a particularly draining experience across multiple leagues.

So while the Spirit will surely be playing to win against the Courage — there’s rivalry talk about Gotham out there after the tweet storm over the weekend, as if there hasn’t been something of a rivalry in place with these teams for years, but the Spirit have seemed to get tangibly amped up to play NC on a more consistent basis — they’re very likely going to be looking to do it with an unfamiliar group.

Based on the post-game from Friday, Gaby Vincent is on that list, and Ward told reporters this afternoon that Karina Rodríguez has been planned as a starter for this game since sometime last week. Plans to give Anna Heilferty more time at left back may have been interrupted by simply not having that many experienced attacking players available. Alexander, as André talked about above, will get better with more time, and Morgan Goff has yet to make her Spirit debut after joining last year.

It’s tempting to point to the upcoming international break affords Washington a two-week break, but there’s a reason my silly “United Spirit, Washington National Team” joke works: much of the team won’t actually be on a break. Six Spirit players will have a “break” that consists of multiple flights, intense training sessions, and two games, and that’s just with what we know. Rodríguez and Julia Roddar have been regular call-ups for Mexico and Sweden, respectively, and those teams have actual qualifiers on the docket rather than just friendlies.

All of this is a long way of saying that we’re going to learn some things about the full group in the next few days, and we’re going to do so out of necessity due to the scheduling of this tournament. — JA