Reign FC heads to the “other” Washington this weekend, taking on the Washington Spirt on Saturday at 4 PM PT. Our friends at Black and Red United reached out to exchange three questions ahead of the weekend match.
Sounder at Heart: The Spirit gave up quite a few goals last season. It’s still early, but with a completely revamped backline, Washington looks a lot more steady — giving up just one goal in two matches. What’s been the most dramatic change to the defense?
Black and Red United: It’s been a little bit of everything. Richie Burke has made major efforts to rebuild the confidence of the team’s holdovers, and the group no longer has that “deer in the headlights” look when the other team breaks forward with the ball. The defense itself is completely revamped, with three newcomers (including Paige Nielsen, who I probably don’t have to mention was once upon a time a forward for Reign FC) and veteran midfielder Tori Huster making up the back four, and while they still look like a group that has some growing to do, it’s safe to say they’ve been ahead of schedule. The fact that the new regime has managed to put together an attack that looks capable of scoring has also helped keep opponents honest.
Most importantly, though, the midfield looks so much more stable. Last season, something went badly awry between Jim Gabarra’s vision for what his midfield was supposed to be doing and what his players managed to glean from his instructions. In particular, the engine room would be totally confused, with no real clarity as to who was supposed to be the no. 6 and who was the no. 8, and what roles those positions even had within their structure.
Under Burke, everyone seems far more clear on what they’re actually supposed to be doing. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but after the Spirit’s 2018, it’s huge progress. The midfield still has some fluidity to it — it’s mostly a 433, but sometimes shifts into more of a 4231 for stretches — but the confusion is gone. Andi Sullivan knows she’s the no. 6, and knows she’s there to dictate the tempo and occupy the space between the lines. That clarity extends to the box-to-box spot (probably Australian national team hopeful Amy Harrison this weekend), and really goes throughout the team. This group has a plan, and everyone is on board.
SaH: Washington is one of a few teams this season that brought in a new coach. How have you seen the attack evolve under Burke?
B&RU: I can’t bring myself to say it’s night and day, but it’s not far from that. Under Gabarra, the Spirit wanted to be a possession team, but between the muddled directions and a sloooooow tempo, they weren’t good at keeping the ball, and they were never direct enough to create that way either. Players were not given a chance to do what they do best (for example, a team with some fast forwards simply never seemed to play the ball into space to stretch the field), and everyone’s confidence plummeted.
Burke has placed a real emphasis on possession, but there’s also a real desire to keep the ball moving quickly. The plodding tempo that allowed teams to get organized is gone, and the Spirit have been fairly dangerous going forward despite seeing all that possession often end up at the feet of Nielsen and fellow center back Sam Staab (both of whom have over 180 touches in just 2 games). The Spirit really, really want to have the ball as much as they can, and they really want to let their biggest attacking talents express themselves once they get it. Rookie playmaker Jordan DiBiasi has shown an eye for passes that defenses don’t realize are available, and that means plenty of passes that let the speedsters up top get running. Even when defenses have gotten organized, Washington has shown the right balance of patience and determination to pick the lock.
No one’s going to throw a party for scoring 2 goals on Sky Blue FC at home, but what was huge for the team and for fans was seeing that it wasn’t a fluke 2-0 win. Washington had a very narrow offside call take a goal away from Ashley Hatch, and actually dominated a game for the first time in at least 1.5 seasons. It was a proof of concept game for a team that needed one.
SaH: Some big names are going to be missing for the Spirit during the World Cup. Instead of focusing on that, I want to know: what player is poised to be the biggest positive surprise for the Spirit this summer?
B&RU: If the Spirit keep making progress on their possession-based game, DiBiasi might end up getting herself into the Rookie of the Year conversation. It’s rare to see an NWSL team hand the keys to their attack over to a first-year pro, but Burke can barely contain his glee when he talks about DiBiasi’s game. It’s going to get a lot more challenging for her once Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, and Cheyna Matthews all depart for national team duty (the USWNT pair is already gone, but Matthews figures to start tomorrow as a wide forward), but the Spirit have unwavering faith in DiBiasi to be their playmaker.
I know you asked for just one player, but I’m going to indulge and throw in two more. I think people will also be surprised to see how steady Nielsen is as a center back. Despite being just 5’5”, Nielsen hasn’t struggled in the air or lacked the strength to win physical challenges (just ask Carli Lloyd, who repeatedly found her attempts to muscle into the Spirit penalty area foiled by Nielsen), and her time as a forward has made her very comfortable handling the number of passes she has to play in the Spirit’s system.
As for someone who isn’t currently a starter stepping in for a departed World Cup player, this may be Arielle Ship’s time to shine. Ship (acquired from Reign FC in a post-draft trade before the 2017 season started) has been more of a physical sub that the Spirit have looked to for energy off the bench, but she has shown some occasional flashes of skill and creativity to suggest there’s more to her game than just hard work and a knack for winning the ball back in good spots. If the Spirit are going to emerge from the summer with a shot at the playoff race, they probably need her to put it all together on a consistent basis.
The reverse questions are available here on the B&RU website.