Tested Against the Best

In what was always going to be a difficult game against the two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage, Lynn Williams bagged a brace against a Washington side that couldn’t find a way to slow down the prolific striker. Despite a mountain of pregame hype, when the final whistle blew, it was clear that the Courage were still the best team in the league. In an interview in which he was asked about North Carolina, Washington Head Coach Richie Burke said, "I don’t want to look at North Carolina. Do I have to look at North Carolina? Every time I look at them it makes me sick." Despite a humbling 2-0 defeat, there were several positive takeaways from the Spirit’s first loss of the 2020 season.

A new starting XI

Burke made three changes to the side that beat Chicago 2-1 on Saturday. Jordan DiBiasi, Ashley Sanchez, and Kumi Yokoyama all started on the bench, while Bayley Feist, Dorian Bailey, and Meggie Dougherty-Howard all started. The insertion of Dougherty-Howard as the central defensive midfielder allowed Andi Sullivan to operate in more of an offensive role, which led to several chances – she forced a strong save out of Steph Labbé in the opening minutes. While the midfield three of DiBiasi, Rose Lavelle and Sullivan is the indisputable starting three, Dougherty-Howard’s defensive stability and passing intelligence allows Sullivan to showcase all the skills that make her one of the top talents in the league.

Going into last night’s match, the Courage aimed to stifle the creativity of Lavelle and Sullivan in the midfield by putting them under constant pressure and taking away any space to drive at the defense. Stopping Lavelle and Sullivan has, in the past, been an effective tactic to breaking down the Spirit’s attack. As teams will focus on Washington’s top two players, Burke and his coaching staff are depending on offensive production from other players.

Both Feist and Bailey played all 90 minutes against the Courage, earning valuable minutes against the league’s top class. In productive outings for the two second-year players, Feist hit the post off of a cross from Bailey, and both were hard-working tracking back and going forward. Feist won the ball in several advantageous areas of the field, and even sprung Lavelle on one occasion. Bailey, meanwhile, looked clever on the ball, and her versatility – moved to right back late in the game – gives Burke the opportunity to utilize her talents all over the pitch.

Back line struggles
The speed and precision of the Courage attack stretched the Spirit back four more than they were on Saturday against the Red Stars. The constant pressure exerted primarily by the forwards and midfield made it difficult for the Spirit to get the ball forward. "They were coming down our throats a little bit," said right back Tori Huster. "We did stay tight as a unit, but there are some things that we definitely need to clean up in order to keep the shutout for the next 45. We need to watch their long balls. Lynn [Williams] is very dangerous getting in behind. A little more communication. Aubrey [Bledsoe] is doing a great job, but through the back four it needs to be better." Hopes of keeping the shutout were erased in the fiftieth minute when Williams powered into the box and deftly put the ball past Bledsoe.

During the second half, the back four of the Spirit looked disorganized at times. North Carolina’s attack came in waves, and their pace and passing made it difficult to defend. At times the communication seemed to break down, as through balls broke the back line, and players were caught out of position trying to cover on the wings. The quickness and skill of Williams and Jaelene Daniels on the outside is nearly impossible to defend for a full ninety minutes, but overall, the Spirit did well to slow down the high-octane Courage offense. This was a formidable foe, the type the Spirit will need to beat in order to take the next step as a team.

A quiet game for Lavelle
As one of the superstars of the NWSL and of the national team, defensive schemes will always be centered around impeding Lavelle. North Carolina was able to do just that, for Lavelle only had one shot – which was off target – the entire game. She was only given space a handful of times to dribble, and she wasn’t her usual brilliant self when facilitating. The Spirit rarely threatened North Carolina’s goal (only one shot on target) and failed to create much in the attacking third. The team had more possession in the first half (53 percent), but the substitutions of Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, and Denise O’Sullivan at the beginning of the second half saw that possession dry up (the Spirit finished with 49 percent possession). Lavelle had an even harder time creating in the second half, due to North Carolina’s compact midfield. Despite having a quiet game, this was a way for Lavelle to gain experience being the focal point of opposition defenses, something she will undoubtedly have to get accustomed to in the NWSL and on the international stage.

Debut for three rookies

Welcome to the NWSL Jaye Boissiere, Natalie Jacobs, and Katie McClure! Boissiere, who played for second division Le Havre in France last season, came on in the 71st minute for Andi Sullivan. The Stanford product will be a quality depth player who can come in and assume the role of gritty, hard-working defensive midfielder, one that Sullivan plays to perfection. In the 83rd minute, the Spirit made a double substitution, with Natalie Jacobs and Katie McClure making their professional debuts, replacing Ashley Hatch and Tori Huster respectively. Jacobs moved into the midfield, while McClure played in a more advanced position. Jacobs did not have enough time to make her mark in this outing but is a highly rated player who the Spirit hope to develop in the midfield. McClure had one of the five total shots the Spirit logged in last night’s game. While she put the ball over the net, it was a positive moment of getting forward and finding space to shoot. McClure clearly has a nose for goal, she just needs a little more composure when it comes to her scoring touch.

See you in the Finals?

This game was billed as a potential preview of the finals for the Challenge Cup, with both North Carolina and Washington impressing in their opening matchups. Storylines can sometimes feel fabricated in tournaments – the lack of games forces pundits to overrate certain matchups – but I think it was fair to consider this game a potential championship preview. The Spirit looked excellent last week against a Chicago team that made the finals a year ago and boasts the likes of USWNT players Julie Ertz, Morgan Gautrat, Alyssa Naeher, and Casey Short. The Spirit dominated possession and looked dangerous offensively for a majority of that contest. Burke has been vocal about his desire to win the Challenge Cup, and Washington has the players, coaching, and a winning mentality that will be instrumental in collecting silverware come late July.

While many saw last night as a preview of the Challenge Cup championship game, it was also a look at future NWSL finals. Washington is one of the youngest teams in the league (with an average age of 23), and the team made massive strides in Burke’s first year as head coach. As the young players continue to develop within Burke’s system, Washington will only get better. North Carolina is the undeniable dynasty in the NWSL, but the way the Spirit are trending – mixing veterans with young players, building through the draft, and cultivating a winning mindset – has many around the league marveling at the revitalization of this franchise. When new owner Steve Baldwin and Burke, among others, came in, the goal was to leave behind the previous regime’s toxic culture. Entering a new era in the nation’s capital, the Spirit are prioritizing youth, style of play, and positive communication, all of which will lead to long-term success, and hopefully, matchups against the Courage in future championship games.