Fresh off Two-Win Week, Spirit Take on League Leaders Orlando

By: Justin McMullen
Posted: June 6, 2021

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After two wins within a stretch of just four days have vaulted the Washington Spirit to 2nd place in the NWSL table, the Spirit will return to the nation’s capital with their next challenge: defeating the only team currently sitting in front of them. 

Washington is set to host Orlando Pride at Audi Field on Sunday afternoon, with three points and potentially first place up for grabs in the top-table clash. With four games played in the young season, undefeated Orlando and Washington are currently three points apart, meaning a Spirit win would equal them in points with Orlando and set the two sides apart only on goal differential. 

The Spirit have had a full week to prepare for the match, after a chaotic previous week which saw their May 26 midweek home game get moved to Houston on short notice under seemingly contentious circumstances, a gutsy Spirit win in Houston, and just four days later, a second win over OL Reign to improve to 2-1-1. Ashley Sanchez and Ashley Hatch provided goals in the 2-1 win over the Dash, while an own goal credited to Megan Rapinoe after keeper Karen Bardsley mistimed Julia Roddar’s corner kick in the 52nd minute proved the decider in the 1-0 win over OL Reign.

By the time the Spirit returned home from the Houston – Tacoma road trip, they had travelled nearly 12,000 miles over 17 days, and had played all four of their opening matches away from home. Washington Coach Richie Burke was proud of his team’s efforts to overcome those obstacles and get off to a positive start in the season. 

“We’ve met a lot of adversity, we’ve been really tested, and I think the players, I said to them before the match, ‘you’ve never let me down,’” said Burke after the win over OL Reign. “Whenever I ask them to do something, they respond brilliantly. I feel very connected to this group. They’re a great group, and we asked them to put on a shift and by Christ they did a great job.” 

Going into the match against OL Reign having played just days prior, and without captain Andi Sullivan due to a red card she picked up against Houston, the Spirit had to rely on their depth to sustain a solid 90-minute performance and bag the win. Burke made very few changes to his starting XI between the two games, though, replacing only the suspended Sullivan with Natalie Jacobs in the defensive midfield, and inserting Kumi Yokoyama in the right wing in place of rookie Trinity Rodman for the first 45 minutes. 

“You know I got a little snake bitten in (the Spirit’s May 21st loss to Louisville) when I made three subs at one time, it kind of broke our momentum.” explained Burke. “We had a great chat, especially with the senior, experienced group of our football club and we managed the data really really well, looked at players. We let players miss on Friday, rather than actually train, and they did a pool modality instead of doing something active. And then we had a conversation about where we wanted to go as a group and, to a player, everybody wanted to play.” 

Rodman entered the game in place of Yokoyama after halftime, joining fellow NWSL newcomers Tara McKeown and Ashley Sanchez in Washington’s attack. “We had three rookies, right up front at the end and they were fantastic,” said Burke. 

Rookies have shone in their roles for the Spirit so far this season. McKeown, eight overall draft pick out of USC, put in a solid 90 minutes in just her second NWSL start, combining with Rodman to create chances for the Washington offense. Burke was impressed by his young core. 

“I knew how good she was going to be when she came to our football club, and she hasn’t let us down,” said Burke. “To be able to play with two rookies for a big part of that half, and not really lose much, and play with some danger on the break, it’s great for our football club.”

UCLA product Sanchez has also quickly developed in her first season with the Spirit. Burke explained that she played OL Reign with a chip on her shoulder after feeling slighted and singled out in Burke’s match review after the Houston game. He said that Sanchez had not talked to him in the days leading up to the clash and set out to prove herself by putting in a good shift. 

“She’s got that Maverick way, she’s got that completely creative, skillful trickiness about her, and when you get her a little bit fired up and feisty she goes and plays like that, which I absolutely loved,” said Burke. “So hopefully she’ll start talking to me again now that we picked up three points and I won’t do a match review that highlights a lot of the things she did wrong [laughs].” 

After conceding just once over two matches, including having to play much of the second half down a player in Houston, Spirit keeper Aubrey Bledsoe praised her squad’s defense after the win in Tacoma. 

“I’m really proud of our defensive abilities,” said Bledsoe. “We have an incredible backline. Everyone, the talent level is insane. It’s just, can we make sure we’re in the right positions, we’re covering each other. So I think we’ve done a good job. And I knew if we could see out a win with ten players, we could do it with eleven.”

Defender Emily Sonnett, who was sitting next to Bledsoe, shared the credit with her backstopper. “I’ll just tell you what, Aubrey doesn’t shut up back there,” said Sonnett. She’s the quarterback. ‘Move left, move right.’” 

Now that Washington is back home and returning to Audi Field, their sights are set on toppling Orlando atop the table. The Pride have so far overachieved their expectations, sitting at 3-0-1 on the season. The two teams met in matchweek one, playing to a 1-1 draw — Orlando’s only time dropping points — in mid-May to open the regular season. Orlando’s goal in that match was scored by US Women’s National Team star Alex Morgan, who was recently named NWSL’s Player of the Month for May after producing a tally in every match since, with a total of four goals in as many games. The match will take place in DC at 2pm and will be broadcast on Paramount+ in the United States.

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