Through last night’s game of the Challenge Cup, the Spirit have faced three of the four playoff teams from last season. Each game has been a test of the resolve and energy of not only this young Spirit team, but of the coaching staff as well. In the first game versus the Red Stars, the Spirit had to absorb waves of pressure in the final fifteen minutes to maintain a one goal lead. A challenging 2-0 loss to North Carolina last Wednesday highlighted the areas the team needs to work on, namely moving the ball out of the defensive half and not getting too stretched. And in last night’s game, a 1-1 draw against the Portland Thorns, Washington had to rally from a goal down – scoring in the 77th minute – illustrating this young team’s persistence.
23 years and seven months
That was about the average age of the Spirit’s starting XI last night. Out of the eleven players, four are in their first year with the team – three of which are playing professionally for the first time – five are in their sophomore seasons in the NWSL, leaving goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe and captain Andi Sullivan as the only players with more than two years of top- flight experience. In a tournament where every team qualifies for the knockout round, coaches have some flexibility when it comes to adjusting lineups. While the Challenge Cup provides an opportunity for coaches to tinker with lineups and positions, due to the unpredictability of the novel coronavirus pandemic, these may be the only NWSL games of the 2020 season. Each team is guaranteed five matches, which is a drastic contrast from the 24 usually played. Despite a limited amount of games, Washington Head Coach Richie Burke has given several young players field time during the Challenge Cup, hoping to further their development and growth. Irrespective of the number of minutes, these chances to experience the competitiveness and physicality of the NWSL is invaluable for younger players.
Interchangeability of the wings
Supporting Averie Collins up top were Japanese international Kumi Yokoyama on the right and fourth overall pick in last year’s draft Ashley Sanchez on the left. While they started in these positions, there were several times throughout the game in which Yokoyama appeared on the left, while Sanchez floated over to the right, with both providing a creative offensive spark. Yokoyama had several chances to score last night, and overall looked much more comfortable in possession than she did against Chicago. She was involved in link-up play, moved the ball forward, evaded challenges, and did well to track back and defend.
On the other wing, Sanchez continued to impress. Sanchez’s composure and maturity belie her inexperience, and these traits were on full display last night. Christen Westphal (right back) and Emily Menges (center back) – both veterans of the league – spent most of the game backing off of Sanchez when she found the ball at her feet. The fact that the right side of Portland’s defense chose to drop back and give themselves more time to defend Sanchez illustrates how advanced her dribbling is. She has a creative soccer mind and is always looking to get forward.
Perhaps the moment that epitomizes her ability to get forward and create came in the 63rd minute when, after a quick counter-attack, she feathered the ball to the feet of a cutting Ashley Hatch. Her pin-point passing led to a scoring opportunity that forced Thorns goalie Bella Bixbie into a sprawling save. Sanchez was also instrumental to setting up the tying goal. On a low, driven Dorian Bailey corner, Sanchez flicked the ball to the middle of the six where Sam Staab headed the ball back the way it came and into the back of the net. When asked about how she managed to redirect the ball for the game-tying assist, she said, "I honestly have no idea. I saw the ball and tried to get something on it, put it back into the mix. We were down one. I was doing whatever I could."
With USWNT Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski and his staff in the stands watching the Challenge Cup, this tournament provides Jill Ellis’ successor a chance to evaluate current and hopeful national team players. One of Twitter’s favorite moments from the Challenge Cup has been the speculation as to what Andonovski is writing in his little black notebook. Fans across the league are wondering which names have been etched into the confines of those pages.
Dear Vlatko (and any USWNT pundit),
If for some, unimaginable scenario in which Paige Nielsen’s name has not already been inked into your notebook for national team consideration, let me open your eyes to the fulcrum of the Spirit defense. Not only has Nielsen been overlooked when it comes to the national team, she is also overshadowed on her own team by defensive partner in Staab, who has long been seen as a future central defender for the Stars and Stripes. With all due respect to Staab, who is an excellent defender in her own right, here is why Nielsen deserves a call-up.
In only her second year with the team, Nielsen has established herself as one of the toughest defenders in the league. Her aggressive style of play, combined with her otherworldly ability to read the game and low turnover rate, allows her to direct the defense. During the Challenge Cup, Nielsen has shown her understanding of the game, when to step, when to drop off, and when to charge forward. She is tenacious and poised on the ball – as evidenced by her 100 successful passes against Portland – and is an exceptional one-on-one defender. If anyone still needs convincing, here’s a comparison to a similar player.
Abby Dahlkemper is one of the top defenders in the league. As a central defender, she has been selected to the NWSL Best XI each of the past three seasons, has won two titles with the Courage, and played 622 out of a total of 630 minutes for the USWNT at last summer’s World Cup in France. She is a bona fide superstar and is a no-brainer starting center back for the national team. Here is a graphic depicting her defensive statistics (tackles won, defensive blocks, interceptions, clearances, and recoveries) against Portland, in which she stifled the opposition attack and helped her team to a 2-1 win.
Now let’s look at how Nielsen – who also plays as a right-footed center back – fared against Portland.
While one-for-one comparisons exist in a vacuum, they can be useful in demonstrating the skills of a player who has been underrated. There will always be reasons for the differences in Dahlkemper’s and Nielsen’s statistics, such as the fact that the Courage have a more polished midfield, which takes pressure off the defense, but using data from two players who operate in the same position, against lineups that were virtually the same, allows for an analysis of Nielsen’s defensive talent. Dahlkemper is an unquestioned starter for the national team, and for good reason; she has been identified as one of the top defenders in the league for several years. What is important to note is that Nielsen is vital to the Spirit’s success and similarly deserves recognition for her contributions during the Challenge Cup.
The substitutions of Ashley Hatch and Rose Lavelle at halftime gave the Spirit some life in the second half, with the two attacking players bringing speed and a desire to attack. What a luxury it is to be able to bring these two off the bench. In goal, Bledsoe had another quality game. The reigning NWSL goalkeeper of the year made an incredible save on Lindsey Horan in the 86th minute to preserve the tie. Other than a couple errant passes, she looked sharp in net and was quick off her line. Sullivan again had a game in which she dictated the tempo and served as the central disruptor. She showed her capabilities defending, going forward, and had a meaningful interchange with Hatch late in the game. The final, final thought, comes from Sanchez during her post-game interview. "They went up and we just wanted to get one back as fast as possible. We didn’t get the result we wanted, but a tie and a point is good enough right now." This quote represents how the Spirit play, driven by a mentality to keep fighting and pushing, and although the result doesn’t reflect where the team wants to be, it helps provide the foundation to take that next step.