At the end of the 2018 season the Washing Spirit were 8th out of 9 in the NWSL standings, with a -23 goal differential. They scored only 12 goals all season, the least of any team in the league.
As of June 3rd this year, seven games into their season, they’ve matched that total, have the best goal differential in the league, and are on a five game unbeaten streak. All this is in spite of the fact that they they rank third in goals, third-to-last in shots, and second in fouls committed.
So what’s changed? What’s clicking?
First of all, they’ve got a top-quality goalkeeper putting up consistently impressive performances. Aubrey Bledsoe was the Week 7 Player Of The Week after she made seven saves in a 2-0 shutout of the Chicago Red Stars. She was also the Week 4 Player Of The Week when she made nine saves in a scoreless draw against Reign FC— one of which later was voted Save of the Week. She was named to the Team of the Month for May.
None of this is particularly surprising— Bledsoe was the co-leader in saves last season with 108. But she’s currently leading the pack with 32 saves, which is ten more than the next-closest goaltender. She has four clean sheets, and a staggering 88.9% success rate on her saves. For comparison, two-time Olympic gold medalist Nicole Barnhart has a 75% success rate and Ad Franch had only around a 54% success rate in her three games played this season for the Thorns.
In short: Audrey Bledsoe is the best goalkeeper in the league right now. And it’s made a world of difference for Washington.
Although the Spirit are only outshooting the Royals and Sky Blue so far this season and are only third in goals scored this season with twelve, they’re succeeding when it matters. One of the ways that they’re doing this is by avoiding the trap of relying on one or two players for production. Eleven players on the Washington Spirit have a goal, an assist, or both.
While they’re not the only team with this kind of depth, there are some key differences setting them apart from the two teams that can match them in this category. The North Carolina Courage also have eleven players getting in on their scoring, but their goalkeeping has struggled, with the Rowland and Labbé tandem’s success rate with saves coming in significantly lower than Bledsoe’s.
Although the Courage are shooting almost twice as much, their conversion rate is markedly lower than the Spirit’s: 13% to the Spirit’s 19%. While the Portland Thorns have twelve players in on scoring, they’ve also allowed more goals (ten) than all other teams except the Red Stars, Sky Blue, and the Pride.
The third and final piece of the Spirit’s puzzle is a pair of defenders who are having absolutely monstrous seasons.
In her first NWSL season, Clemson alum Sam Staab has transformed herself into an indispensable piece of the Spirit’s back line. The 22 year old has started all 7 of the Spirit’s games and played every minute. She has 33 clearances, five blocks and eight interceptions, and she has won every single tackle that she’s gone into.
Not only is she successful in breaking up the opposition’s attack, she’s instrumental in setting up the Spirit’s attack. She may only have one goal on the season, and she may not have recorded an assist yet, but the underlying stats show that she’s creating opportunities by controlling the play in her own end and finding her teammates when they’re in positions to start a play. Her passing accuracy in her own end is at a whopping 92%, and she completes almost 86% of the passes she makes.
Her teammate Paige Nielsen is doing her own part to shore up the Spirit’s defense. She’s winning well over half of her tackles and duels, nearly matching Staab with 32 clearances and completing 84% of her passes. She’s also impressively responsible with the ball in her own end, with a 90% pass accuracy rate in that area.
Between the two of them, Staab and Nielsen make it incredibly difficult for opposing teams to get quality shots on Bledsoe. Although rookie centerback Morgan Reid has been completing a respectable 77% of her passes in her three games played for Orlando so far this year replacing Alanna Kennedy and Shelina Zadorsky, her partner Toni Pressley is only completing around 47% of hers. Part of what makes Staab and Nielsen so effective is their ability to share the workload equally and match each other step-for-step.
If Staab, Nielsen and Bledsoe can maintain their strong performances after the World Cup break, the Spirit should be able to maintain a top-four spot, especially after Pugh and Lavelle return from France.