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Utah Royals FC vs. Washington Spirit — three questions with Black and Red United

It’s the Royals home opener and they host Washington Spirit. Our friends at Black and Red United answer our burning questions.

Utah Royals FC are back after the long offseason. They host Washington Spirit. The Spirit, who have already played one game, are off to the right start with three points. The team struggled last season, scoring the fewest goals in the league. Jason Anderson of Black and Red United answer some key questions we had going into this match up.

It is Richie Burke’s first season with the team — what have you seen from him and what has the changed from last year? It’s his first job in women’s soccer, how is he adapting to the league?

So far, the major emphasis has been on being positive, and in multiple ways. When you ask Burke about a Spirit player, you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear the phrase “good footballer” somewhere in the answer. Burke has been working to boost morale after a terrible 2018 season, and so far that appears to have worked quite well. He’s also made a big shift towards a more positive style of play, with the Spirit looking to up the tempo while still keeping plenty of possession. Hitting that balance between keeping the ball for long spells while also looking to take risks and create chances has mostly been successful, at least when Washington has had their full compliment of players available.

Burke seems to have adapted pretty well to the women’s game so far. He’s leaned on some holdovers, including entrusting assistant coach Tom Torres (who has been with the Spirit for years now) to take the lead on the 2019 College Draft, and thus far the squad seems to have taken to him. There were some troubling allegations before the preseason got going concerning his past in local youth soccer, but it’s apparently been addressed to an extent where the players don’t have any outward issues. Obviously things are still very early, but so far I’ve been left with the impression that everyone seems pleased with how things are going.

Washington Spirit score a mere 12 goals last year and still were able to finish ahead of Sky Blue — how has that issue been addressed this season and where will the goals come from in 2019?

I don’t know if people realize just how bad the Spirit attack was last year. They had 10 goals after 10 games...and then only scored twice in their final 14 games! You couldn’t even really blame the finishing, either, as the Spirit might not create a single noteworthy scoring chance in a given game. Poor tactics, bad morale, and injuries combined to create the worst attack the NWSL has ever seen.

The problem is being addressed with a mix of changed tactics and new faces. The new tactical approach involves more clarity in the midfield, and an emphasis on keeping the tempo high while not resorting to long balls. The Spirit are trying to make good use of a very fast front three (Mallory Pugh, Ashley Hatch, and Cheyna Matthews) by playing them into space behind opposing defenders, but the team isn’t just dumping the ball in behind and hoping for the best. There’s real thought in terms of off-the-ball movement, and Burke has repeatedly said he wants to emphasize technique first and foremost. It’s a big shift away from a very slow style of play under Jim Gabarra, where possession was used as much to protect the defense as it was to create chances.

As for the newcomers, first round pick Jordan DiBiasi is currently the first choice playmaker. Burke has placed a ton of trust in the Stanford product to be the main link between the midfield and the forwards. So far, her style of play seems to result in frequently being responsible for the pass before the actual assist, but that shouldn’t indicate that she’s not making a major impact so far. I mentioned Matthews, who was unavailable for 2018 while pregnant, and her return is an underrated positive as well. She scored 5 goals in 2017 and caused Sky Blue all sorts of problems last week. They also got a goal from Meg Crosson, who turned an appearance as a replacement player in last season’s finale into a contract in the offseason.

Set pieces may also be more important. While they haven’t had too much time to work on them in the preseason while instituting their new style, that’s how they got their first goal of 2019. Rookie center back Sam Staab had the goal, and she could be a big factor both in the box and serving the ball in. She had 11 assists last year for Clemson thanks to her dead ball delivery, and she is also a threat on long throw-ins.

At full strength, the Spirit should have no problem scoring goals on a regular basis. Pugh and Rose Lavelle are USWNT regulars in attacking roles, Hatch won a Rookie of the Year award thanks to her goalscoring in 2017, and Matthews appears to be back at her old level of play already. On top of that, they’ve added Australian midfielders Chloe Logarzo and Amy Harrison, who should both add some sharpness to the midfield, and Burke has given Andi Sullivan an ideal role by making her a deep-lying playmaker at the base of the midfield. There are more than enough weapons here to trouble any defense, and the new style of play is helping to prove that.

What did you see in Washington’s 2-0 win over Sky Blue? What positives can the team take from that game into their match against Utah?

Washington looked good, and it’s been a long time since I could say that. There was a confidence in how they were playing, with new center back Paige Nielsen in particular looking completely assured despite having last played in NWSL in 2015. All over the field, the Spirit looked to know what they were doing, and played with a sense of belief that wasn’t there last year. It took them a few minutes to get fully up to speed, and they caught a break when Carli Lloyd’s early header hit the crossbar, but the Spirit dominated the final hour or so. The 2-0 scoreline seemed fair in the end, though to be fair there were a couple brief defensive wobbles that could have undone their hard work.

The game served as a proof of concept for the Spirit, who can now look back and know for sure that their new approach can win them games. In particular, their ability to keep possession (Washington had 60.5% of possession in their opener, the highest figure any team has posted thus far in 2019) is valuable going on the road. With the altitude factor in play as well, the more the Spirit have the ball, the better off they’ll be.

Bonus question: Who are the Spirit losing during the World Cup and how will they weather that time?

The definite absences will be Rose Lavelle (USWNT), Chloe Logarzo (Australia), Cheyna Matthews (Jamaica), and Mallory Pugh (USWNT). Amy Harrison (Australia) and Andi Sullivan (USWNT) are both up in the air at the moment. Assuming all 6 players depart, it’s the attack that will really suffer. Lavelle, Pugh, and Matthews are the three players the Spirit have that can threaten defenses while dribbling at high speeds, and losing that cutting edge might make it a lot harder to turn their possession into chances. They’re going to have to change their approach to a certain extent, or find those qualities in some players who previously haven’t done that in NWSL play.

The other issue will be what they look like without Sullivan. She’s their midfield linchpin, and sets the tempo for the group. In the preseason, Meggie Dougherty Howard and Tori Huster were both given some time in that role when Sullivan was away with the national team, but neither could replicate her passing range. Plus, both of those players started elsewhere, so even if they do get up to speed playing Sullivan’s role, they’ll leave a hole somewhere else in the team.

You can read our responses to Black and Red United’s questions over at www.blackandredunited.com.