The Washington Spirit are set to resume their season after this week’s international break, with a Saturday clash on the books with the Chicago Red Stars. Spirit coach Richie Burke, whose side enter the weekend with a 2-2-1 record, good for third in the table, predicts a tricky tactical matchup.
“Rory [Dames] and Scott [Parkinson] will set them up really, really well,” said Burke, emphasizing his respect for Chicago’s technical staff. “I think they’re committed to their system, they’re tough to break down … they tweak their tactics to negate their opponents. So I’m sure they’ve had a look at us and they watched Rodman and Hatch [who] can be dangerous, they’ve had a look where Sanchez gets the ball in pockets and runs with it, so I’m expecting smart guys like those two to set up tactically to stop us from doing well.”
SeatGeek Stadium, the host venue for the match, holds a large playing surface at 120 yards by 75 yards. It’s longer than their home venue’s, but Burke sees an advantage for his side, who like to carry the ball in possession and find open spaces for their pace and skill to create opportunities.
“It’s a very big field, SeatGeek Stadium’s a big pitch to play on,” said Burke. “So they’re going to have to do really well to stop us on that big surface, because we’ll be able to move the ball around a bit, I hope.”
Chicago comes into the match on a high after an uneven set of early results which began with a 5-0 defeat to Portland to open the season. In their last match before the break, the Red Stars frustrated the North Carolina Courage into a surprising 1-0 shutout, bringing their record to 2-2-1. Chicago are led by former Spirit forward Mallory Pugh, who Burke is happy to see back in form, though he said he’d prefer if she were still with the Spirit. The 2021 season has been something of a reunion tour for Burke and some former players, as the Spirit defeated Rose Lavelle and OL Reign this May. Burke talked about facing off against yet another former player.
“She’s a prodigiously talented kid,” Burke said of Pugh. “She will be a bit motivated to play against us for sure, I don’t think it’s anything personal, I hope it’s not personal [laughs] … I hope she has a great game, I just hope she doesn’t punish us too much and we get away with the three points.
The Spirit have perhaps surpassed expectations so far this season on the backs of standout performances from their rookie forwards Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez and Tara McKeown. In response to a question from Black and Red United’s Jason Anderson, Burke praised McKeown, who is perhaps the greenest of the rookies and is adjusting to a wider position than where she played during her college career at USC, for her work so far.
“I think she’s proven that she’s strong and quick, and switched on and can hold the ball up really, really well. When she gets face-up to goal, she’s dangerous. I think she’ll move on and do a really good job and have a really good career at our football club if we keep giving her opportunities to play like that.”
This past week without NWSL matches represented the first FIFA international window during the NWSL season, where Spirit players represented the United States, Sweden and Japan in friendlies. For this weekend, the league opted to pause play to accommodate NWSL players fulfilling international duty, but there are several more windows ahead, including an Olympic tournament for which the NWSL will not pause league play — meaning players that normally sit lower down on the selection list will be asked to have an impact on the pitch. In addition, international federations may request that club teams limit their international players’ minutes to prevent injury and overuse. Burke talked about the importance that every player in his squad, regardless of squad placement, stays ready and focused when they are called on.
“We talked about contingency plans, and players need to be ready if that contingency actually comes about,” said Burke. “Nobody’s brought to our football club as a gift. You’re there because you deserve to be there, you’re there because you’re of value to us, and when your chance comes then you need to show us that you have that great value, and that you can perform to the level that we expect.”
The Washington Spirit take on the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday, June 19 at 8pm eastern. The match will be broadcast on the league’s Twitch channel.
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Photo Credit: Jordan Small