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Four things about the Washington Spirit turning it around in North Carolina Courage draw

The Spirit had a rough start, but flipped the switch at halftime to avoid defeat mid-week

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

The Washington Spirit turned around a dismal first half into a dominant second half to earn a 2-2 draw Wednesday night at Audi Field. After Debinha put the Courage ahead five minutes in, and Taylor Smith added a second, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Hatch scored nine minutes apart in the second half to level the score. We’re now halfway through the Challenge Cup group stages and the Spirit have both scored and allowed the same number of goals in every match, 0, 1, then 2 respectively.

Hi, it’s me, André, and I figured there were four big points we should get into ahead of tomorrow’s game:

Wrong foot

Every collection of footballers that call themselves a team and plays even semi-regularly must admit that they go through bad patches. Whether they’re the result of something the opposition is doing, a key player (or players) being slightly off, simple fatigue or adjusting to new additions to the lineup, it happens. On Wednesday night it happened to the Washington Spirit in the first half as they suffered through their worst half of football under Kris Ward.

There seemed to be a lot of confusion about how to cope with North Carolina’s high press. Worse than the confusion was the lack of movement to force the Courage to stay rigid or make decisions, possibly opening up gaps. After the match Ward, Kingsbury and Rodman spoke about the weirdness of the half and how uncharacteristic it was. Rodman specifically noted that players, including herself, were stagnant and didn’t want to get on the ball.

Given all the above, it was somewhat impressive that the Spirit only gave up a two goals, with one being a fortunate ricochet that found its way to Debinha. It’s also worth noting that the solution wasn’t a fire and brimstone halftime speech by a coach, but rather the players taking it upon themselves to increase their intensity levels and get on the same page as a team. “By the time I got in there at halftime,” manager Kris Ward said, “the players said they’d already had a conversation.”

Is this an identity?

One thing that’s quickly becoming tangible with this collection of players under Kris Ward is that these moments do not last for the Spirit. It was the crux of their run to the Championship, which included outrageous comeback wins in the semifinal and final. Though the stakes were obviously different Wednesday night, we saw this trait yet again.

Whereas the Courage had the overwhelming run of play, to the point of Trinity Rodman admitting North Carolina’s press had gotten into their heads, the second half was very much the Spirit going full action hero wiping blood from their lip and whispering “my turn” with a disconcerting smirk.

After halftime Washington allowed just one (1) slight sniff of goal while racking up potential chances. Rodman and Hatch’s goals were just nine minutes apart and gave the Spirit just over twenty minutes to bag a winner. The third goal never came, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of chances.

What’s most interesting about Washington in these flip-the-switch moments is that, as cliché as it sounds, that’s sort of what they do. Sure, we hear of leaders on the team demanding more from one another and working out better ways to communicate once they get back on the pitch, but it’s rarely the result of a major tactical tweak or substitution.

Of course this is a tricky thing to rely on, but it’s also one of the most fun things to witness in the NWSL. Getting results from runs of poor form can be just as important as the days you’re flying from the first minute and the opposition never comes close. As far as team identities go, being extremely hard to kill is one of the very best.

Squad, goals?

As far as goalscoring, the Spirit have been the epitome of linear progression. Their first Challenge Cup match ended 0-0, the second 1-1, and third 2-2. From a defensive vantage point this could be viewed as regression, however the defense has seen the most shuffling of personnel. Offensively, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez have started every match, while Ashley Hatch and Tara McKeown have started two of the three.

While the Spirit attack has grown in each game, there have been goals left on the field. Through three games so far, the Spirit have amassed a total of 5.11 expected goals (xG; data provided by American Soccer Analysis), with the largest single game total being 2.86 from the match versus Gotham in which Washington played the final twenty-five minutes down to ten.

It is, of course, still only preseason (if only because this tournament occurs pre- the start of the season), a lack of sharpness, clinical finishing, etc. can be expected. To be fair, this may only be a thing because the Spirit have yet to win a game, despite wins from at least two games being well within reach given chances created.

Though still a draw, the most positive sign came in the Spirit’s lowest xG game so far (.99 vs North Carolina). Their two goals came from beautiful deliveries into the box from wide areas. From the right, Andi Sullivan found Trinity Rodman near the penalty spot for a volley she smashed by the keeper. The second came from Julia Roddar on the left, whose dangerous cross was directed into goal by Ashley Hatch (who has scored two of the Spirit’s three goals).

Going into the next three Challenge Cup games it’s worth seeing how this progresses, and if the Spirit can find additional ways to get the ball to their most dangerous players in the most dangerous areas of the pitch.

Sanchez skill check

Close hard, get wrecked. Fire emoji.