The Washington Spirit, after a convincing 2-0 victory over league leaders North Carolina Courage at Audi Field, will now move to their second home venue, Segra Field in Loudoun County, VA for a matchup with NJ/NY Gotham FC.
Last weekend, the Spirit dismantled a weakened North Carolina Courage side missing several of their best players to the Olympic period. Spirit forward Ashley Hatch bagged a brace and picked up NWSL Player of the Week honors for her performance. While the Spirit handled a Courage team known for their firepower when playing a transitional game, Burke is expecting a different challenge altogether for the Gotham matchup.
“This one I think is going to be a little bit similar to the [recent 1-0 loss to Chicago], where they will be a reactive team and we’ll be forced to be proactive,” said Spirit coach Richie Burke in his pregame media availability. “We’ll be forced to drive the tempo, we’ll be forced to keep the football, we’ll be forced to try and break them down. They’ll be compact and very connected, and deny spaces in most of the typical areas, especially in the midfield triangle that they’ve got.”
The Spirit are now just one point off the top of a very close NWSL table as the season continues through the Olympic period. Gotham are currently positioned in the final playoff spot at sixth. Just six points separate first and ninth places heading into matchweek 11. Parity has been a theme throughout the early stages of the season, and is only increased by the absences of many top players as they join their respective national teams.
“This league has got 10 really good teams in it, and everyone presents a different challenge,” said Burke. “And if you want to grow as a footballer and become a really good pro then you have to learn how to handle and deal and be effective against every single challenge that you go up against.”
The Spirit will be returning to the 5,000 seat Segra Field outside of DC. In contrast to the fresh grass pitch at Washington’s other home venue Audi Field, the playing surface at Segra is artificial turf, presenting a challenge for the Spirit during a home match that would normally provide an advantage.
“The difference between playing on a top professional venue like [Audi Field] when the field is watered and the surface is slick, is we’ve got players who travel across the ground very well with the football at their feet, and are pacey with the football,” said Burke. “This is a little bit of a worst case scenario, a challenge for us. So to be quite candid we’re not comfortable with it, we don’t like it. We’re not going to go and enjoy playing the expansive beautiful quick-tempo football that we normally play, but we’re going to go and try and give it a shot and see where we go.”
Though they are middle of the pack in the standings, Gotham have a formidable side which took Portland Thorns FC to penalties in the preseason Challenge Cup final. They are lowest in the league in goals against having conceded an astounding three goals over eight matches. Burke praised a slew of Gotham’s veteran players including Allie Long, Gina Lewandowski, Estelle Johnson and McCall Zerboni for providing discipline and communication that keeps the defence solid.
“They are the ones who are constantly reminding players to do that little bit of grunt work, a little bit of dirty work that it takes to do out of possession–to drop five, to slide five left, slide five right, press a little bit,” said Burke. “So that communication that you hear on the field when those team leaders are moving players around make it very difficult to break [Gotham] down.”
For Gotham, solid defense can often lead to offense as Gotham have a dangerous counterattack through forwards Ifeoma Onumonu and Midge Purce, the latter of which barely missed out on an Olympic roster spot with the United States. Burke said the Spirit will look to limit mistakes that would lead to chances for Gotham.
“We just have to be vigilant that we don’t get caught on a counter, because [Onumonu and Purce] live for those breakaways,” Burke said. “They’re very effective in transition moments.”
Burke is also looking out for Gotham’s physicality in midfield with Long, Zerboni and Jennifer Cudjoe. Burke called the trio “combative midfielders” and said that they would likely have to commit fouls often to keep Washington’s speedy forwards from getting past them.
“They’re all good passers, they all pick a pass, they’re all smart. The one thing that they’re not is quick across the ground like Ashley Sanchez is,” said Burke. So, if she gets in the flow, then they’re going to have to foul her … But you’re only allowed so many fouls before the referee cracks down. I think, you know, we’re gonna encourage [Sanchez] to get on the football and do her thing, continue to taunt and torture defenders with their pace and trickiness on the ball. So if they are going to foul her consistently, then I’m hoping the referee is going to be strong enough to at least take some measures to stop it happening.”
Gotham will be without United States legend Carli Lloyd as well as goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan and forward Evelyne Viens from Canada, as Washington will again be missing Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett (United States) on defense, Julia Roddar (Sweden) and Saori Takarada (Japan).
In the defender’s absence for the Spirit against North Carolina, Paige Nielsen held down the fort at center back and positionless rookie Anna Heilferty shone at right back. While Burke doesn’t envision Heilferty as a right-back for the rest of her career, she’s likely to feature at that position again after impressing in her debut.
“She’s done great, and she deserves it,” said Burke of Heilferty. “It can be very hard to drop a player who’s played that well, it would be a little bit unfair. I wouldn’t do that to a rookie … While she continues to play that well, we’re going to utilize her in that role.”
Gotham FC enter the match reeling after the public announcement that general manager Alyse LaHue is no longer with the team after a “league investigation into a complaint of violation of League policy,” according to a statement provided by the club’s Twitter account on Friday afternoon.
“Following a complaint, the league conducted an investigation and shared the findings of that investigation with Gotham FC,” a league spokesperson shared with Venus Sports. “Those findings will remain confidential and the league will not comment further on individual club personnel matters.”