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Washington Spirit vs. Utah Royals FC: three questions with Black & Red United

The top two teams in the NWSL face one another — our friends at Black & Red United provide some Spirit insight

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

This is a game with a good deal of significance for the league. Both the Washington Spirit and Utah Royals FC are level on points, but Utah takes the lead with the better record. Things could easily flip this weekend, and with Portland and Chicago both on 11 points, it’s very tight in those top spots. We spoke to Jason Anderson of Black & Red United to get some insight into how the Spirit have done so well this season.

Washington Spirit are in second place in the NWSL standings, but level on points with first place Utah Royals FC. Did you foresee the Spirit doing this well a quarter of the way through the season? What have they done to find so much success over last season?

No! While I think everyone expected the team to be better, because you almost couldn’t avoid improvement over the Spirit’s 2018, I don’t know if even the biggest optimist within the organization would have seen Washington being where they are so quickly. Just about every question mark surrounding the team has had a positive answer, and the feared loss of attacking punch once the World Cup took so many players away hasn’t slowed the Spirit down.

There have been a few keys to this early success. First of all, last year’s plodding tempo and confused player roles have been tossed aside, with the Spirit playing with clarity on both sides of the ball. Washington gets pressure on the ball quickly, and their movement off the ball has been far sharper under new coach Richie Burke. They’ve also been extraordinarily dangerous on set pieces, though there is a sense that things like own goals and olimpicos aren’t necessarily going to keep happening forever.

The last meeting between the Spirit and Royals saw URFC take all three points at home. What will the Spirit do to improve over that performance?

The Spirit were the first team to play Utah this season, and Laura Harvey’s tactical set-up seemed to catch them off-guard early. In particular, Christen Press created the game’s only goal by taking up an unorthodox defensive position, and they couldn’t really solve Desiree Scott in central midfield either. This time around, they should be prepared for how the Royals like to play, which should make a fairly significant impact on the game. On top of that, I think the major improvements are less in the Spirit’s approach to the game, and more in players finding their feet. Ashley Hatch has broken through after some near misses in the season’s first two games, and rookie Jordan DiBiasi was just named to the league’s Team of the Month, so the offense is certainly going to be more of a threat.

I’d also throw in that the midfield has become tougher to break down as a unit, with Andi Sullivan in particular standing out. Washington has been good at forcing turnovers and getting on the front foot, whereas their visit to Rio Tinto Stadium saw them struggle a little bit in that department.

Former BYU player Ashley Hatch has scored in their last two games -- will she be the main goal scorer during this World Cup stretch? Who else is stepping up while the national team players are away?

Hatch does appear to be the top goalscoring threat right now. She’s drawing a ton of praise from coaches and teammates for her hard work, and getting a goal against Portland seems to have boosted her belief. There was a real concern that the Spirit attack would slow down once they lost all of their World Cup players, since all 5 are either forwards or midfielders, but with DiBiasi looking sharp and reserves stepping up — Arielle Ship got an assist last week in her first appearance of the season, while Cali Farquharson also got an assist at Sky Blue despite playing in an unfamiliar midfield role — Washington has remained dangerous in front of goal.

The biggest key, though, has been their set piece execution. DiBiasi’s corner kicks have been consistently dangerous, but Washington also appears to be doing a good job of doing something to make that matter. Sam Staab appears to win most of her battles in the box, and the rest of the team does a good job creating havoc inside the six yard box. The goals have been a little odd, but as long as the Spirit’s service remains a threat and they keep having multiple players escaping their markers, they’re creating their own luck.

You can read our responses to Jason’s questions at Black & Red United.