The Washington Spirit come into this Pride weekend clash against the Chicago as something of an enigma, despite their recent positioning in the top four of the NWSL table. In order to get something of an inside look, we swapped questions with Jason Anderson of Black & Red United to see what exactly the Red Stars have in store for them come Sunday evening.
More than possibly any team, Spirit saw significant upheaval both on and off the field before this season started. What’s your favorite thing that has come from that, and what’s the thing that concerns you the most?
As much as the Spirit’s play on the field might seem like the obvious answer, it’s the improved health of the club off the field that is really encouraging. The staff has been built out, with new positions being created and filled. The locker rooms have been improved, and players who were here last year have emphasized how they feel like their needs are being met at every turn. A local TV deal similar to what the Red Stars have for 2019 is also helping quite a bit, and probably wouldn’t have happened without the new hires and investment that have followed Steve Baldwin joining the club’s ownership group.
Like a lot of Spirit fans, I do have concerns about the process behind the club’s coaching search in the offseason. At this early date, no one can really say that Richie Burke is doing a bad job; a young, unfamiliar squad is playing entertaining, winning soccer. And in the interest of fairness, Burke has what appears to be the enthusiastic backing of his entire squad.
That said, with information from the team quite sparse this winter — those new hires weren’t on board yet — the hiring process that saw Burke get the job appears to have been more of a case of “who you know” rather than a thorough search for top candidates. That includes the appearance that the Spirit brushed past multiple allegations of abusive language from his past.
The outcome, at least after the first few months, appears to be very positive for the Spirit, but the questions about the path to that outcome remain unanswered.
The Spirit are losing some real contributors this weekend, in Logarzo, Harrison, and Matthews, after losing their USWNT players a few weeks back. Who’s going to have to step up the most now?
First, a quick note on this trio: they’ve been great, and I don’t know if they’ve gotten enough attention league-wide. Logarzo (despite arriving with about a month to go in her recovery from a significant injury) and Harrison (who has played four positions) have both made it clear why they’re in Australia’s World Cup squad. Matthews, meanwhile, missed all of 2018 while pregnant, and has come back in 2019 looking if anything like an improved version of the player who scored 5 goals in 2017. It’s been impressive.
Now, to answer the question: Andi Sullivan has put aside any frustration she might have over being left out of the USWNT roster (I’m sure she might find some sympathetic ears on Chicago’s roster) to play her best soccer as a professional. She was a force last weekend against Portland, and she’s going to have to be just as disruptive defensively while adding a bit more from an attacking perspective to make up for Logarzo’s absence.
As for players who haven’t been starting who probably get their shot now, look out for Cali Farquharson and Arielle Ship. Farquharson, formerly a one-note winger under Jim Gabarra, has made an impact both as a striker and in the midfield (that was her getting a nutmeg and an assist within 45 or so seconds after coming on in Logarzo’s midfield spot against Sky Blue a couple of weeks ago). It’s not clear whether she’ll fill in for Matthews up front or on the left side of the Spirit’s midfield, but she seems sure to figure in as a starter in the next few weeks.
Ship, meanwhile, has shown flashes of real quality in the past, and this is her chance to become more of a factor under Burke. She’s not the same player as Matthews, who is faster and gets into goalscoring positions more frequently, but she will offer an improvement in terms of her pressing without the ball. Ship can be a real pain to play against, and when paired with Ashley Hatch’s endless running, we might see the Spirit shift their emphasis slightly towards pressing teams relentlessly.
With being the Spirit currently in the top 4 of table, and with the World Cup portion of the schedule on the horizon, do you think the team is in a position to sustain the success they’ve had in the 1st six weeks?
At the start of the season, this seemed like the moment things might go wrong for the Spirit, but now? They might actually be for real. There are some things to be concerned with, like their ability to play their way through an organized defense, or the ongoing tendency for a young team to occasionally have 2-3 players take a play off and pay for it, but we’re a long way from the “wow summer is going to be brutal for this team” talk of the preseason. The play of Sullivan, potential Rookie of the Year candidate Jordan DiBiasi (yes it’s early, but I’m saying it anyway), and center backs Paige Nielsen and Sam Staab gives them a real shot at being in the playoff discussion once the internationals start to return.
The schedule is offering up a true litmus test, so we’re going to find out shortly. Starting with last week’s win over the Thorns, the Spirit are in a stretch where they play all four 2018 playoff teams, plus Utah and Houston (who are, along with Washington and Chicago, the other teams with 10+ points this year).
Bonus: what’s the next important written signage you think the team will roll out to keep a secret from you specifically
I have to admit to being completely oblivious several times this season. To recap for Hot Time readers, I missed a physical sign that said that Joanna Lohman was retiring (I’m literally in the background of this photo!), and just this past week did not notice the all-caps GEICO on their jerseys until my good friend Claire pointed it out to me. There are rumors that I may or may not be able to read.
If I had to guess about the Spirit’s next “secret” sign that will actually be missed by me, I’d have to go with some sort of event promoting their games at Audi Field later this summer. My reasoning here is that I also cover D.C. United, so the chances are high that I could very well miss signage at both Spirit and United games.