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

The Royals take on the Spirit and Black and Red United gives up an update on Washington

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

Utah Royals FC are on the road to the Washington Spirit as they take on the Spirit for the third time this season. The first two meetings between these two clubs saw the Royals win both games, with a 1-0 win at home for Utah, and a 2-0 away win. We reached out to Jason Anderson of Black and Red United to see what’s going on with the Spirit these days.

It wasn’t too long ago when the Washington Spirit sat in first place in the NWSL standings – what’s gone wrong to see them drop to 7th? Do they have any hope of making the playoffs?

It feels like ages ago, but the same day the World Cup knockout rounds began, the Spirit were still flying pretty high. That day, though, they had their first particularly disappointing result of the year. A 0-0 home draw doesn’t sound like reason for alarm, but the Houston Dash were not playing well at the time, and yet they came to the Maryland SoccerPlex and basically ground the game into dust for 90 minutes. It’s not necessarily that Houston exposed the secret to beating the Spirit, but rather that some small edge at either end of the field seems to have departed Washington that day. The Spirit are 1W-1D-6L since that day, though they’ve only had two truly bad games (a 2-1 loss to Houston at home, and a completely silly 4-3 loss at Orlando).

Essentially, the explanation is simple: the Spirit have gotten worse at burying their scoring chances, and they’ve gotten worse at defending inside their own penalty area. Early in the season, the Spirit were leading the league in set piece goals, and kept having someone produce the big tackle when games reached crucial phases. In most games of late, the level of play between the boxes has been respectable, but they aren’t producing those game-winning moments closer to both goals, and that’s a path to having six different one-goal losses. They’ve been competitive in every game they’ve played this season, but lately they’re just not quite able to get over the hump.

Mal Pugh has only played four games for the Spirit this year, how much is her loss felt?

Pugh’s an important part of what the Spirit want to do. Under Richie Burke, they’ve gone all-in on a possession-based style, and they’ve been leading the league in stats like passing accuracy for most of the year as a result. However, without your fastest attacker providing a major vertical threat, it’s hard to play that way. Teams can move their back line up and compress the space, making life much more complicated for the Spirit midfield. They’re also willing to take more chances with the ball, because they know they can catch up and get back into proper defensive shape against the Spirit.

That’s not to say that Pugh is the only speedster on the team. Ashley Hatch and Cheyna Matthews are among the NWSL’s fastest players, but they don’t have Pugh’s shiftiness, her comfort on the ball, or her unpredictable movement. When the Spirit are at full strength, they can put a really difficult choice to teams: do you play narrow to congest the middle and make life harder for Rose Lavelle, Jordan DiBiasi, and Andi Sullivan? Because if you do, your fullbacks or wingbacks are going to be isolated against Pugh, which is probably bad news.

It’s currently unclear whether she’ll be fit for this game. Pugh was healthy before the USWNT’s first Victory Tour match, but picked up a hip injury during warm-ups before kickoff. Between the Audi Field game on Saturday and the general need to get points ASAP, Washington could definitely use some good news as far as her health goes.

What will the Royals need to do to get a win against Washington and what will the Spirit’s biggest assets to prevent that?

In the first meeting this year, at least early in the game, Utah had some level of recognition of the Spirit’s passing patterns out of the back. That’s where the only goal in that game came from, and that’s certainly something that can really rattle Washington. It’s not so much that they fall apart as it is that they lose that little bit of confidence that any team needs to be at their best. However, that’s not to say that stepping high and taking the risk of pressing is the only way forward against Washington. As Houston showed in both of their visits, you can take a lower block and slow the game down. The Spirit haven’t created a lot of real chances down the wings, particularly when Pugh is out, and the service they do get can be rather predictable.

If Utah takes the first approach, the Spirit’s solution has almost always been to simply bear down and try to play their way around the high press anyway. I say “almost” only because the last Spirit home game saw Richie Burke mix in a new willingness for his center backs to play the ball long. Chicago was certainly surprised, but to their credit they managed to handle it because they’re so strong defensively. Still, if Sam Staab has the time to go over the top, and if the Utah back line doesn’t get their angles right in trying to contain Hatch, it could easily result in a goal.

With the second approach, the challenge is being consistently in each Spirit player’s face without losing defensive shape. With Rose Lavelle fit and looking sharp, that is a very difficult task. It’s worth noting that the Dash didn’t see Lavelle at all in their successful trips up here, and it probably played a factor in their tactical approach paying off. Utah is probably better at this sort of style than Houston, but then the Spirit rather unsurprisingly improve a lot when they add a world-class player to their midfield.

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