RFKWrap: Washington Spirit 0, Gotham FC 0

RFKWrap is going to be our version of a post-game story. There are many places to read the conventional gamer after the final whistle, and they’re all going to be better than ours. This style will hopefully give the reader some additional value to go along with the excellent gamer they already read. Enjoy.

The NWSL Challenge Cup is finally over. The NWSL season finally approaches. After the world’s longest preseason in history made its way into a frenetic and high pressure tournament with half of the team on national team duty, the Spirit concluded tournament play with a 0-0 draw at home to Gotham FC. While there were no goals, there were a number of takeaways from this game and the tournament on the whole.

Andi Sullivan is going to be very important for this team this season

After she was left of the 2019 US World Cup roster, Andi Sullivan played like a woman possessed. She factored heavily in the attack, scoring a few goals and being relied upon to start attacking moves while players like Rose Lavelle were off becoming household names. At the close of the season, she was back in a conventional 6 position and was doing an excellent job of that as well.

This season, Richie Burke had new ideas for an attack and role for Sullivan. In a 3-4-3, Sullivan can both drop back to fill one of the defensive back line positions, but can also fill in the right channel and overlap. She can also take the ball and run up the center of the field towards the goal, which she did a number of times tonight in the second half.

While she wasn’t able to convert her chances, she was often able to glide past her opposing midfielders to either create her own shot or create imbalances that defenders struggled to account for. This fluid role suits Sullivan and will make the Spirit much harder to play against than in past years. When asked if this the plan for the season, Andi said that “I know I have that in my locker, and the team is set up for me to feel comfortable doing that. I know Dorian will cover for me when I go forward.” While fans will have to wonder what could have been with a Spirit midfield including the injured Bailey Feist, at least they get to enjoy an Andi Sullivan playing with all of her available gifts.

Saori Takarada made me look like a fool

Before the game, I was discussing the pedigree and play so far of newcomer Saori Takarada. I had been incredibly underwhelmed by her composure and ability to move the ball quickly and confidently out of the back (a skill required to play competently under Richie Burke’s system). She had a made a number of mistakes against Racing Louisville FC that should have cost the Spirit goals, but they didn’t. Takarada was playing basically right off the tarmac from national team duty, but I was nervous about what I had seen.

Flash forward to tonight. Takarada and Emily Sonnett locked the back down for large stretches of this game, or when “lockdown” was too generous, they scrambled, slid and clawed to keep the score level. Gotham FC had previously been a goal scoring juggernaut in the small sample of this tournament, but the Spirit rendered them harmless. Clearly, I had judged a player too harshly on one very bad, jet lagged appearance and she appears absolutely capable for success with the Spirit in the position. (I also would like to see her play attacking midfield which she has played frequently in her career)

Ashely Sanchez and Kumi Yokoyama are two dynamic players (who might not work well together)

Yokoyama had another impressive performance in an attacking midfield role, mixing well with Tori Huster to overload the right side of Gotham’s defense on a number of occasion. The final ball was proving elusive for Yokoyama and the Spirit, but she was consistently driving forward to try and create opportunities for her teammates. Ashley Sanchez, repeating a pattern so far this tournament, failed to put her stamp on the game early. After Yokoyama subbed off in the 60th minute, Sanchez was able to have more of the ball in the middle of the field and create more opportunities for Trinity Rodman and Ashley Hatch (who moved back into the 9 after a first half playing on the wing). They are clearly two talented player who like the ball at their feet and relish dribbling past their opponents. This will be an interesting story to watch this season.

The manager and players are glad the Challenge Cup is over

A 13 week preseason was wearing on the team and staff and a condensed tournament with opposition running 400 miles per hour, and with this draw, it comes to a close. Asked about where he thinks the team is at the moment, Burke said “we’re good, we’re also much better than we’re showing.” The team has incremental improvements to make but is generally making the progress that the staff had hoped for at this point in the year.

The Spirit will take some time off of training after this game and will prepare for the season to begin on May 16th in Orlando.

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