The Washington Spirit opened their regular season campaign the way many NWSL teams did in week one, settling for a draw. In this case the Spirit split the points with the Orlando Pride after allowing an 84th minute equalizer by Alex Morgan.
The Pride and USWNT star slotted home the late goal during a match that Spirit captain Andi Sullivan felt her side had done enough to take all three points.
“I’m a little bitter at the moment because I thought we played well enough to get the win,” Spirit captain Andi Sullivan said. “But it’s definitely a hard place to play. Orlando was looking sharp, and it’s always good to get a point no matter what, especially on the road.”
“Is that a point gained, or two points lost?” asked head coach Richie Burke, echoing a question asked by Andre Carlisle. “When you’re away from home and it’s unanimous — yeah, we dropped two points that we should’ve gotten — that’s a good sign.”
Washington began the game with a pair of returning starters in their back line. Paige Nielsen and Sam Staubb, who both missed significant time in the Challenge Cup due to injury, made their returns to the Spirit XI. The center backs’ return meant that Saori Takarada and Emily Sonnet were able to revert back to their more natural positions in midfield. These shifts in the lineup were welcome for Burke, who was able to work his squad into a more natural shape resembling a 4-2-2-2, with Takarada combining with standout rookie Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez up front to create several quality chances.
Pride goalkeeper and US international Ashlyn Harris was pressed into action early and somewhat often in the first half. Rodman tested the Pride in the fifth minute, picking up a pass from Victoria Huster and deking her way to a wide open shot just outside the six-yard box. Harris just managed to parry it away with her left leg at extension. Rodman had another chance combining with Sanchez, but put her shot high of the goal in the 18th minute.
The Pride offense, led by Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Brazilian superstar Marta, gave the reestablished Spirit backline fits at various points throughout the first half, with Marta and Leroux linking up with Morgan to create set pieces and force blocks.
The Spirit had another scoring chance just before halftime, when Takarada found Kelley O’Hara on a floating pass across the six. The left back tapped the volley wide of the net. Both teams exchanged scoring opportunities in the second half. The 71st minute saw another welcome return for Washington as Jordan DiBiasi returned from a major surgery she had over the break.
In a recent presser, Burke described what it was like for DiBiasi to return.
“She shed a few tears after the game in Orlando, because she was just so happy and so emotional to be back,” said Burke. “It was emotional watching her as well, because she was just so pleased to come back after a surgery that she’s been toiled with and the recovery process really tested her at the limit.”
The Spirit’s offense finally broke the deadlock in the 76th minute, when Sanchez found Huster deep in the right wing. Huster lofted a cross into the box, which substitute Ashley Hatch dispatched into the goal with a leaping header.
“I was over the moon for Hatchy when that ball went in. I said to her at halftime, ‘Hatchy, I’ve got a good feeling, I think you’ve got a goal in you tonight,” said Burke.
The elation did not last though, as a long ball sailed past both Nielsen and Staubb and made its way to Morgan for the 84th minute equalizer, sealing a draw. Burke admitted feeling disappointed with his center backs.
“It’s a big long ball, it splits the two of them, and I think they’re both mad at each other, mad with themselves, mad with the situation,” said Burke.
Ultimately, Burke was left rueing that his team could not finish some of the chances they created that could have won the Spirit the game.
“We dominated football and we dominated the territory, we dominated chances,” said Burke. “I think we can be a little bit better — we talked about being wasteful with our chances, not in sync.
The final third is a big piece for us. It’s something that we have to get better at. They know it, we know it, and we’re going to try to work to get better.”
Burke talks Louisville, Rose Lavelle and Tara McKeown Ahead of Road Trip
The assessment that a soccer team does well to create chances but lacks finish is something of an adage, a problem that representatives from every club across the globe have confessed to experiencing at one time or another. At present, that adage also applies to Washington’s next opponent Racing Louisville FC who, after playing in two consecutive scoreless draws, have diagnosed themselves with the same affliction. But Burke knows there’s potential in his week two opponent. Burke called his opponent “dangerous,” particularly singing the praises of Racing’s vice captain, midfielder Savannah McCaskill.
“I just love McCaskill,” said Burke. “I think she’s just a pure footballer. And she, for me, she’s very much like the female version of Wayne Rooney. She just is unconventional in the position she takes up from where she plays and how she plays. She finds the game very well and impacts the game. And her vision and our passing ability are a feature for that team.”
Burke finds himself in a sort of similar situation as he did in the Orlando match. A week after facing Marta and the Pride’s dangerous midfield, Louisville’s midfield is similarly designed to cause problems, with talented youngsters such as Lauren Milliet producing solid performances thus far and McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato leading the way as seasoned NWSL stars in their own right.
“That’s one of the things that we’ve looked at their tactical tendencies, they often stay deep and Milliet and McCaskill are a little bit higher,” said Burke. “Their little 4-1-4-1 that they play is an interesting one because Nagasato doesn’t really play as an out-and-out flank player. (Right wing back Emily) Fox is a player that they like to get forward, she’s such a good player all around. So you know, we’ll set up our tactics as we normally do, but we’ll just be mindful of what they can do to cause some problems for us.”
Burke said that the key to solving McCaskill, Nagasato et al. will be to flood the areas they like to possess and close down on the pockets of space they can create. It’s a tactic they used in week one to limit the danger from Marta.
“We’ll do the same thing looking at the areas where when we do our data analysis and opponent analysis, we’ll see exactly where they’ve done well, and where they can create problems,” said Burke.
Burke then made another Orlando comparison, noting that Louisville no. 9 CeCe Kizer can make runs up top to get past the opponent’s back line. “But if we can stop at its source, and really flood those areas where they like to get on the football and build from then I think we’ve done our job,” said Burke.
On matters of personnel, Burke talked of his side’s transfer market strategy, particularly up front.
“We’ve closed the door with one player that we thought we were going to try and lure to the NWSL, she’s agreed to a contract with a European team,” said Burke. However, Burke said that draft pick Tara McKeown has so impressed the team that she “probably would have been starting on Friday” had she not been in California graduating from USC. As the window nears its close, the Spirit will take a wait-and-see approach.
Burke also touched on Rose Lavelle, who has recently announced her return to the NWSL with OL Reign. The former Spirit star has spent the past season with Manchester City in the FA Women’s Super League. The Spirit traded away her rights prior to her leaving for England, receiving $100,000 up front, and another $100,000 upon her signing with OL Reign.
“I’m a big Rose Lavelle fan,” said Burke. “I didn’t want her to leave this football club and wish with all my heart she were still back here. You know, I think Rosie will play against us when we go to Seattle next Sunday (May 30th), and I’m dreading her coming in. Because I think she’ll have a little bit of extra motivation. I know Rosie well. She’s an absolutely brilliant personality, but when she gets the bit between her teeth, and she’s got something to prove, you just need to watch out.”