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Scouting OL Reign’s semifinal opponent

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In short: The Washington Spirit are good.

MikeRussellFoto / Sounder at Heart

When OL Reign kicks off against the Washington Spirit on Sunday at Cheney Stadium, it will be a battle between two teams that had some of the best results in the second half of the season. Arguably no team was better than the Reign since mid-July, and no team was better than the Spirit since mid-August (setting aside the Spirit’s two forfeits).

The Spirit earned a trip to the semifinal thanks to a 1-0 win in extra time against the North Carolina Courage last weekend. It was an entertaining match that was a great display for the league, with plenty of attacking opportunities and even better goalkeeper play. North Carolina’s Casey Murphy set a playoff record with 13 saves (breaking her own record of 11 saves with the Reign in the 2019 playoffs). The Spirit found better opportunities as the game progressed, however, and scored in the 113th minute to book a trip to Tacoma.

The Reign are 1-2-0 against the Spirit this season, with their one win being a forfeit due to COVID-19 protocol breaches by the Spirit. The Reign’s two losses were a 1-0 defeat in May thanks to an own goal off a corner kick and a 2-0 loss in their final regular-season home match — a game that was a lot closer than the scoreline indicates.

So, what makes the Spirit so hard to break down? Here’s what you need to know about the Reign’s semifinal opponent.

They’ve overcome a lot of off-the-field adversity

Every player has been forced to play through a lot of adversity in the league this year, and OL Reign certainly went through their share of hard times at the start of the season. The Washington Spirit, however, have been through even more as a team. Here’s a short summary of what the players have overcome:

  • In August, Kaiya McCullough was the first player to speak out about the verbal abuse and racially insensitive remarks that head coach Richie Burke made. He was let go soon after.
  • Assistant coach Kris Ward was appointed to lead the team. Soon after, the Spirit were forced to forfeit back-to-back matches due to COVID-19 protocol breaches.
  • A follow-up Washington Post article highlighted the misogynistic environment created by Spirit owner and CEO Steve Baldwin, and Larry Best, president of sporting operations.
  • Players called for Baldwin to sell the team to Y. Michele Kang, who was already a co-owner and had built a strong relationship with the players.
  • Baldwin stepped down as CEO but remained an owner, and Best resigned from his position. Ben Olsen was appointed to oversee operations.
  • Baldwin and fellow co-owner Bill Lynch are reportedly looking to sell the team to The St. James, a sports and performance center in a D.C. suburb. This move would ignore the wishes of the players and is apparently an offer lower than Kang’s to buy the team.

In short, these players have been through so many ups and downs this year off the field. A lot of it was outside their control. But they found a way to stay united on the field, and the Spirit have been the most in-form squad over the last two months. Any team would be silly to count them out for this reason alone.

They win balls deep — then transition

Unlike the Portland Thorns, who press teams high up the field, the Spirit are more patient on the defensive end. Where the Thorns won 230 balls in their attacking end, the Spirit have only won 124. The Reign, by comparison, won possession 175 times in the final third, but lead the league in balls won in the midfield: 781. Washington won possession only 585 times in their midfield.

What do all these numbers mean? The Spirit are patient on the defensive end — staying organized and keeping the play in front of them, but not pressing as a team higher up the field. This works for Washington because they have attacking players who are really fast and have tons of endurance, allowing them to transition quickly from deep in their defensive half.

“The Spirit are more selective about pressing than most teams, preferring to defend out of their mid-block and save their legs by trusting that they can keep their shape well enough that they can eventually work teams into a blind alley by denying options and passing lanes,” shared Black & Red United editor Jason Anderson. “They have some very specific triggers, and when they press it’s done swiftly (particularly with Trinity Rodman leading the charge), but it’s not an all-the-time thing.”

More on Rodman later, we promise ...

While the goal highlighted below isn’t caused by the team’s pressing, it’s a good example of how easily the Spirit can stretch teams. Centerback Sam Staab tried this ball a few times earlier in the match and was able to finally connect in the 76th minute for the Spirit’s lone goal.

The good news for OL Reign is that the shorter and more narrow field at Cheney Stadium will make this ball more difficult for Washington. But they’ll still have to be well-positioned to handle the Spirit’s quick transition moments — and limit their giveaways at the same time.

At the same time, interim head coach Kris Ward has this team pressing more and has added a few pressing triggers, even if it’s not a core focus for the squad. Against the Reign in October, when the Spirit won 2-0, the team came out aggressive from the beginning. The home side should expect the same intensity on Sunday.

They have a young, dynamic frontline

The Washington Spirit attacking trio of Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch, winger Trinity Rodman, and attacking midfielder Ashley Sanchez is a scary thing for opponents.

While Hatch in many ways is a true No. 9, she doesn’t always play that way for the Spirit. Often pulling wide or dropping into the midfield, Hatch is much more involved in the attack. She opens up space for Rodman, Sanchez, or other attackers to move into. She drops back to build before darting into the box to receive the ball. She can also shoot from distance. Case in point: her goal against OL Reign in October. Those are all reasons she’s the Golden Boot winner and is up for NWSL MVP.

Sanchez is allowed to roam freely for the Spirit and will sometimes actually line up on the wing. She pulls the strings in the attack — disrupting in the midfield and creating chances. She might not have a ton of stats to show for it (4 goals, 0 assists), but Sanchez is often sending the final ball that leads to the assist.

Rodman, who is just 19 years old and a rookie this year, can do just about everything. In fact, she’s third in the league in Goals Added (g+) this year, according to American Soccer Analysis (ASA). Rodman was one of only two players to have notched 12 goals + assists (she had 6 goals, 6 assists) in the regular season.

The wing player is often dropping back to defend and is sixth among forwards and wing players in ASA’s “Interrupting” category — a sign that she’s consistently disrupting plays. As we highlighted earlier, Rodman is often the one triggering the press. Here are two examples of how Rodman successfully won possession against Racing Louisville.

Rodman also is third in dribbling and fourth in passing in ASA’s g+ metric. She’s putting up MVP numbers as a rookie and will make sure the Reign backline has plenty of work to do. The backline will be successful if they don’t lunge into tackles and move and clear the ball efficiently, and the midfield can limit Rodman’s opportunities with quick, one-touch passing.

They have an organized defense

If you remove the two 3-0 forfeits that Washington was given in September, the team has given up just five goals in 10 games under interim head coach Kris Ward. They also haven’t lost any of those matches. The Spirit benefited from the return of U.S. women’s national team defenders Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett after the Olympics, but the team has also played differently on the defensive end under Ward.

The centerbacks, Sonnett and Sam Staab, are playing more narrowly, so they aren’t getting stretched defensively. And, to put it frankly, the players finally got the attention of their coach to focus on defensive organization.

In addition, much of the defensive organization comes from smart players in the midfield. Again, Black & Red United’s Anderson highlights how this plays out for the Spirit. “Dorian Bailey, Tori Huster, and Andi Sullivan have been able to anticipate where teams want to connect, and even when they allow a completed pass into central areas, they make sure the player receiving it isn’t in control, or can’t face forward. That keeps opposing teams predictable, and gives what is a very good (and deep) backline an easier job.”

You can read a lot more about this defensive approach — and how it shifted in recent months — thanks to our friends at Black & Red United.

If you watch the highlights from their semifinal win, you will notice that the Courage were able to create chances by pulling the Spirit outside backs out — creating space in and around the box. North Carolina also had some dangerous crosses into the box that caused trouble for Washington. These are both areas of strength for the Reign.

In short, it should be a fun match

The Washington Spirit are a dynamic and fun team. So are the Reign. This has the potential to be an entertaining semifinal match, with the winner booking a trip to the NWSL Championship next weekend in Louisville. Fans can catch the action at Cheney Stadium on Sunday at noon PT. If you can’t attend in person, the match will air on CBS Sports Network for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.