NWSL 2023: Where Washington Spirit must improve to compete for the championship – scout report
Washington Spirit are having a positive NWSL regular season so far with six wins, eight draws, three losses, and 26 points in total, holding the fifth spot with the same number of points as Gotham FC and only three points separating them from the top of the standings where Portland Thorns are at the moment.
This can be considered a noticeable improvement compared to last season, in which they finished at the 11th spot with just 19 points. However, Washington Spirit lifted the Championship trophy in 2021 after beating Chicago Red Stars in the final and succeeding in eliminating tough teams like OL Reign and North Carolina Courage in the playoffs.
Washington Spirit do not have to finish at the top of the standings in the regular season to win the Championship. Finishing first or second allows those teams to automatically play in the playoff semi-finals and avoid the first round. Yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have the advantage of lifting the title. Washington Spirit know this very well since they finished third in the regular season and won the title in 2021 after passing through the first round, the semi-finals, and the final.
This season, Washington Spirit still have the opportunity to battle for the top two spots, especially with teams like San Diego Wave and North Carolina Courage, knowing that things can change very quickly for these teams following just one or two losses because of the actual small gap between the number of points separating the teams in the standings.
In this tactical analysis and scout report, we will be shedding light on Washington Spirit’s convincing results and tactics so far in the NWSL while looking at how they can improve their performances even further to get more wins and fewer draws. The analysis will also examine how Washington Spirit can be more compact defensively and sustain this compactness for the remaining games.
Formations and tactical ideas
From a defensive point of view, the team looks solid overall and do not concede more than 1.67 goals on average, as they win 59.3% of the defensive duels and 51% in sliding tackles. Goalkeepers like Aubrey Kingsbury and Nicole Barnhart make the difference in goal since they bring a lot of experience and talent and often contribute to finishing the match without conceding goals, thanks to their saves.
Kingsbury will more likely be the one to get more playing time during the upcoming period. Yet, Barnhart’s extensive experience will significantly help the team on critical occasions, even on a psychological level, when she is on the bench. Mark Parsons often relies on Dorian Bailey as a right-back, Sam Staab, Tara McKeown, or Jordan Thompson at times, and Gabrielle Carle on the left flank.
In midfield, the organisation often changes because Parsons alternates between the 4-3-1-2 and the 4-2-3-1 formation this season, even though he kept using the latter formation during the last few games. He sometimes uses Andi Sullivan, former Bayern Munich’s Amber Brooks and Paige Metayer while usually relying on a midfield duo combining two of these three players to guarantee playmaking support and defensive duties. He uses Sullivan, Brooks, or Metayer and Inès Jaurena as three midfielders to ensure more stability.
Upfront, Parsons has some reasonably good options to use in attack, and he alternates between the reliance on wingers plus a playmaker and a striker and the usage of an advanced playmaker with two strikers. Lately, the 4-2-3-1 seems to work better with the team as it allows the attacking players more freedom in movement, play wide, and have different solutions for scoring. Some talented and powerful wingers like Trinity Rodman, Ouleymata Sarr, who had experiences at PSG, Lille, and Bordeaux, and Camryn Biegalski, who has been a very convincing winger this season.
In addition to these players, Parsons believes in young players and is giving chances to Chloe Ricketts as an advanced playmaker, especially when the team’s most impactful player, Ashley Sanchez, is not 100% in form. Ashley Hatch, however, is the only natural striker in this team, and although she is a significant player, she sometimes doesn’t get enough support. The experience of using Sanchez as a playmaker and both Rodman and Hatch as strikers can be a very successful one. However, it was not used enough times since Parsons preferred to resort to the 4-2-3-1.
What to improve attacking-wise?
Washington Spirit will have to exploit their strengths a bit further in attack since they have some of the best players in the league in their positions, and here we are mainly talking about Sanchez, Rodman, and Hatch. These players can always make a difference and should be used more extensively yet intelligently to help the team score more.
Plus, a player like Biegalski can be instructed to have more freedom and to shoot more often on goal since she has some excellent goalscoring skills, especially when shooting from a distance or penetrating toward the box. The following picture highlights her ability to attempt powerful shots from a distance and have the personality to go for such attempts without hesitation, which is very important.
Furthermore, Hatch’s goalscoring skills were and will continue to be Washington Spirit’s primary source of goals. But in addition to her shooting techniques and accuracy, Hatch’s pace and movement without the ball make the difference for Washington Spirit and should be exploited even further by providing more key passes in space for her.
She often moves intelligently inside the box and usually retreats to help in playmaking and to start her runs far away from the box in an attempt to confuse defenders and have more space to dribble past them like she did in this example where she was way behind her direct marker before making a very pacy acceleration to meet her teammate’s pass before the defender and finish the action with success.
Another aspect that the Washington Spirit need to work on is the chemistry between the attacking players and the support of midfielders. The chemistry between players like Sanchez, Rodman, Sarr, Hatch, and Biegalski exists and has been seen several times.
However, we get the impression that these players can do more together if they play closer to each other and exchange passes more frequently and creatively. The support of midfielders in a more regular way can also create numerical superiority for the team and help them find additional passing solutions. Shooting from distance by players like Sullivan is also a key solution Washington Spirit must resort to to avoid recurrent draws.
This picture showcases the chemistry between Sarr and Sanchez and the creativity both players showed in this action with a back-heel assist from Sarr and a quick movement from Sanchez to meet the ball after passing it to Sarr. Moreover, Sanchez’s excellent finishing with both feet should be exploited a bit further, and the player deserves more confidence from the staff in this regard, knowing that she can be highly impactful inside the box.
Sustaining defensive compactness
It should be said that Washington Spirit were not always able to remain compact at the back this season, and there were times when they lost concentration and conceded three goals or more per match. However, this didn’t occur so often, and in other words, conceding six goals in a game can be considered less impactful than conceding a one-goal loss per match for six fixtures.
The team’s defence have usually been good in marking during set-pieces, but sometimes they fail to mark well during crosses. This conceded goal against Houston Dash was one of the most painful ones for Washington Spirit, mainly because it was conceded in the last minutes of the game and prevented them from gaining the three points.
What was more frustrating in this action was that the defender attempted to intercept the cross but in vain, knowing that it would have been more beneficial to keep marking the opponent and not allow her to have the space to get the ball and shoot. Not looking at the player and standing with her back in front of her is another mistake that should be worked on in training to avoid such frustrating situations for the team.
In addition, some of Barnhart’s saves were not as good as needed and led to conceding goals, such as against Gotham FC. The most painful loss for the team was against North Carolina Courage, and avoiding such losses is very important for confidence and morale.
Working on defending crosses better will help the defence a lot in conceding less, as this represents an issue for the team. This conceded goal occurred due to a lack of marking when North Carolina Courage could receive the ball from a cross, control it, and shoot on goal while Washington Spirit’s defenders were yet to disturb their opponent.
Washington Spirit can finish in the top two spots in the regular season and have all that is needed to compete for the Championship if they do well in the playoffs. With the quality of the players, especially in attack, the team should do better attacking-wise and keep improving their defensive compactness to avoid losing points in the remaining games. Having a league system different from the European leagues (such as the WSL) should be exploited to Washington Spirit’s advantage since the team has the time to find their best form ahead of the playoffs while not dropping unnecessary points in the meantime.