It’s been a dramatic offseason for the Washington Spirit. In anticipation of a looming expansion draft that would only let the club protect two USWNT allocated players — and because it expects captain Andi Sullivan to be added to that group eventually — the Spirit traded Mallory Pugh to Sky Blue FC. The team also completely swapped out its bench, with 11 players departing and just as many coming in.
Only six of the players that head coach Richie Burke initially inherited remain at the club, and it’s fair to say that an overhaul was necessary. Two seasons ago, the Spirit finished in second-to-last place, posting the two worst scoreless streaks in NWSL history in the same season. No one knew what to expect when Burke, who had no previous experience in professional women’s soccer, took over as head coach. But his initial changes led to a winning record in 2019, and he’s expecting further improvement at the NWSL Challenge Cup.
One of the biggest reasons that the Spirit expect to get better despite Pugh’s exit because the team is finally going to have its preferred midfield together. The trio of Rose Lavelle, Andi Sullivan and Jordan DiBiasi started just one match together in the center last season.
Many coaches will openly admit that they’re prioritizing development over immediate results during the Challenge Cup, but the Spirit are taking a different attitude. “We’re here to win the tournament,” Burke says. “Winning it is our target.”
If Lavelle finally duplicates her USWNT form at club level, that might be possible — she only has one goal and one assist in her Spirit career. But the Spirit are going to need a lot more than the improvement of one player to make a jump from 5th place to a title.
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No Spirit players opted out of participating in the Challenge Cup, but forward Crystal Thomas is injured. If she can’t play, Burke will seriously miss her pressing ability off the bench when his team are trying to hold on to a result.
In our conversation, Burke alluded to this 3-4-1-2 system that gets his best players on the field at the same time. New acquisition Jenna Hellstrom is expected to get some time at wingback, and Burke refers to her as “an absolute flyer.”
Most teams will not be sticking to one lineup or formation throughout the tournament, and the Spirit are no different. Expect to see some back four as well, depending on matchups or who needs a rest.
Andi Sullivan is the team’s leader and it’s hard to envision the Spirit being able to execute its style of play without her on the field. She calls all the shots during the build-up and play runs through her whenever possible. If she’s out, other roles might need to change around her. She has no like-for-like replacement.
Left back Tegan McGrady was limited to just six appearances last season due to multiple injuries, but she’s finally fit. However, the team doesn’t have depth at left back behind her, and the dropoff in quality at that position could be significant if McGrady gets hurt again or needs a rest.
If the Spirit switch to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation with wide players, expect to see Ashley Sanchez — effectively Pugh’s replacement — enter the lineup. The rookie from UCLA has extensive USWNT Under-20 experience and is one of the best dribblers in the league.
But Sanchez might be the only one of the team’s rookies who plays a key role right away. “I pulled [the rookies] aside and said, if this was a 33 week period with 24 matches, I’d be much more focused on your development, giving you minutes, and making sure we plugged you into a place where we thought you were going to succeed,” Burke says. “But in this tournament environment, I really cannot afford to throw you to the wolves and let you fail because the implications are more significant.”
How do the Spirit play?
Coaches seem to feel obligated to pay lip service to keeping possession, even if their team ends up utilizing a direct style. The Spirit actually commit to the bit. The club finished the 2019 season with the highest passing percentage in the league. It also had the second-lowest goalkeeper pass distance, the second-slowest pace to goal, and the lowest percentage of passes completed into the box being crosses, according to StatsBomb. Its build-up is patient in all phases.
That was the foundation that Burke wanted to lay down, but now his team has to figure out how to be more creative in the final third. The Spirit was just 6th in non-penalty Expected Goals, and didn’t score any penalties either. Burke has ambitions to play a stylish and exciting game, but defense and goalkeeping are what made the Spirit a good team in 2019.
With Lavelle available, DiBiasi a year more experienced and Japanese international forward Kumi Yokoyama joining the squad, Washington is hopeful that striker Ashley Hatch will have much better supply in the Challenge Cup than she has previously. But Hatch is also getting to a point in her career where she has to start scoring more goals to keep her starting job.
Is this finally Hatch’s year?
Washington’s starting striker had a decent 2019, but didn’t quite live up to expectations, scoring 7 goals in 24 appearances. Hatch’s 0.12 xG per shot, according to StatsBomb, puts her in the bottom-third of NWSL strikers. Burke doesn’t think that was her fault. “Anything she created, she had to create on her own,” he says.
Hatch is popular among Spirit staff and fans because of her work rate, even if the goals haven’t come yet. “She’s so dedicated and works her ass off, so I want her to be able to take a massive leap,” says Black and Red United’s André Carlisle.
“I think she is really hard on herself and that has worked against her when she gets too frustrated and presses too hard,” Carlisle says when asked why Hatch hasn’t quite become an elite scorer yet. He continues, “She’s talked some in Twitch chats about her focus and learning to not beat herself up by shifting her concentration toward burying the next chance.”
But Hatch shouldn’t be as isolated up top this season. Burke is expecting Yokoyama’s addition to be a massive help to his line-leader.
“Kumi is a crafty, sneaky player,” Burke says. “She’s very bright intellectually. They’ve forged a good relationship and I think Hatch is loving it, that Kumi is tricky and sees things. I think Kumi’s going to put some real good chances on a plate for Hatch this season.”
With better playmakers around her, Hatch should thrive. But the Spirit have some international slots available after this offseason, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team take a look at the international striker market if Hatch doesn’t take a leap forward during the Challenge Cup.
Bledsoe, Nielsen and Staab anchor the team
Center back was a massive question mark heading into last season for the Spirit, but it turned out to be the team’s biggest area of strength. Paige Nielsen — who had played more forward than defense in her college and pro career before last season — and rookie Sam Staab formed an impressive partnership. And behind them, goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe was the league’s top shot-stopper.
Spirit fans and staff have asked why Bledsoe isn’t getting more national team looks, and it’s probably because she’s not as comfortable coming off her line as the players she’s competing with. She’s also not on Alyssa Naeher’s level when it comes to aerial claims. But her talent as a shot-stopper is undeniable.
The Staab-Nielsen partnership functions so well because they’re fundamentally different players. Staab is the less aggressive of the two, regularly covering her partner. She doesn’t make a lot of tackles or interceptions, but she also doesn’t commit any silly fouls. Staab is also the better long-range passer of the two, and hits all the long balls.
Nielsen is extremely effective as the more aggressive player of the pairing. She’s 4th in the league for tackles + interceptions per 90 among players who spent any time at center back last season, and is 1st among players who only played in central defense. She’s not nearly as good as Staab at connecting long balls, but she’s effective at helping the Spirit keep possession, completing a higher percentage of her passes than her partner.
Staab has been touted as a USWNT center back of the future because of her long passing ability, and she gets more hype than Nielsen due to being three years younger. But there’s an argument to be made that Nielsen, with all of the aggressive challenges she wins and low number of turnovers, is the more effective of the two players.
In any event, the defensive solidity that these three players provide are as critical to the Spirit’s success as Lavelle and Sullivan. They’ll need to pick up where they left off if the Spirit are going to have a chance to make a deep run in the Challenge Cup.
What’s a successful tournament for the Spirit?
Burke says the goal is to win, and Lavelle is starting to be touted as one of the best players in the world, but a semifinal appearance would be enough to represent a significant step forward for the Spirit. And to have a chance to win a title in 2021, the most important thing for the Spirit in this tournament is developing chemistry between the midfield trio of Sullivan, Lavelle and DiBiasi. If those three can get comfortable playing together, the Spirit should be a force heading into the future.
Red Stars vs. Spirit — Saturday, June 27
Spirit vs. Courage — Wednesday, July 1
Thorns vs. Spirit — Sunday, July 5
Spirit vs. Dash — Sunday, July 12