From the very first moment of the game, it was clear that this match would be far from usual. It wasn’t just the absence of fans, the automated sounds, or all the face masks, but also how prominently intersectional justice and the Black Lives Matter movement was worn proudly by players. The image of Chicago’s Julie Ertz and Casey Short sharing an emotional moment, where players knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement, made it clear from the onset that these teams, this tournament, and this game, means much more than a return of sporting entertainment to relieve us from our quarantine boredom. This moment, in fact, illustrates how poignantly sports can bring light to society’s injustices and can even help us comprehend even the most complex of issues and structures like institutionalized racism.
Now, on to the game. In what is a welcomed change for the Spirit, they lined up in a more attacking-minded 4-3-3 set-up with a midfield trio of Lavelle, Sullivan, and DiBiasi at the heart of the field. For a team defined by their youthfulness, their starting line-up only included two newcomers - fourth round pick Ashley Sanchez and newly signed Japanese international Kumi Yokoyama, who supported Ashley Hatch on the frontline. The defensive line remained similar to last season, with Staab and Nielsen in the center flanked by McGrady and the experienced Huster. Rest-assured, the Spirit were protected in the net by Aubrey Bledsoe, 2019 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year.
Chicago lined up with a similar 4-3-3 system supported by USA goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, in the defense by Sarah Gorden and Casey Short, who brings threatening skill down the flank. Julie Ertz held in the center, completely controlling the field with her leadership and ability to stifle oncoming attacks and establish the game’s pace. Kehila Watt and Rachel Hill are two newcomers on the frontline aiming to replace the offensive prowess of departed Sam Kerr. Yuki Nagasato’s creativity was implemented in a false nine role where she provided support to Watt and Hill.
Right from the start, it was sure to be an electric game. Chicago midfielder DiBernardo blasted through the center and threatened Bledsoe with a low shot that just missed the net. While Chicago seemed to have the upper-hand, the cards were sure to change by Rose Lavelle. Finding dangerous open space in the center, Lavelle drove through and threaded a ball to Hatch whose shot was blocked by Naeher. Barrelling into the box, Lavelle found the rebound and slammed the ball into the roof of the net, giving the Spirit the lead in the 8th minute.
After this commanding start, the Spirit continued to pull the strings on this game. Sullivan, Nielsen and Staab were able to keep Nagasato from getting on the ball, challenging everything that came across the backline. The Spirit let their fluidity and creativity show, allowing Lavelle, DiBiasi and Hatch have free reign through the final third, constantly moving and combining with and off each other. Newcomers Sanchez and Yokoyama supported well on the flanks, catching the Chicago defense on the counter attacks with their speed. Hatch could almost always be found blazing behind defenders, providing outlets for Lavelle and DiBiasi to play through to. The Spirit practiced a newfound confidence and strength in possession, being patient and dynamic with their attack.
Chicago found most of their strength on the flanks as well as through Ertz’s solidity and distributing ability. Watt was stand-out throughout the game, using her one-on-one ability to catch the Spirit defenders in vulnerable positions. St. Georges and Short were also key in Chicago’s attack, finding space up the sidelines to make the Spirit’s solid defensive block momentarily unbalanced to find Watt, Nagasato, Hill, or Gautrat (formerly Brian), at the top of the box. The Spirit’s defense, however, was able to stifle most of Chicago’s attacks, with Huster and McGrady putting up impressive performances against the crafty Chicago flanks.
The second half began with immediate excitement, with Hatch charging into the Chicago end and taking advantage of Naeher’s weak touch, slamming a shot into the back of the net in the 46th minute.
Responding quickly, Chicago increasingly found their chances, mostly from the magic of Shot and St. Georges working double duty on offense and defense on the sidelines. Their overlapping runs caught the Spirit defense under threat. Reward for Chicago came in the 51st minute, with Gautrat slotting in a DiBernardo ball into the bottom left corner from the top of the box, out of Bledsoe’s reach. Nagasoto’s dynamic movement through the center had a key role to play in this goal, opening up acres of space for Gautrat to perfectly place her shot. DiBernardo’s assist came after a pattern of creating opportunities throughout the game.
The action didn’t stop there, with both the Spirit and Chicago making use of their dynamic forward lines to create opportunities. The Spirit, ultimately, were able to create more threatening scoring chances, with Lavelle hitting a shot directly into Naeher of a Hatch through ball in the first half and hitting over a cross from Dibiasi in the 52nd minute. In the closing minutes, Sanchez began to find herself in opportune moments, getting on the end of plenty of DiBiasi threaded balls on counter attacks, but was hesitant to take the shot. Sanchez’s talent is clearly there, but it will be interesting to see how her confidence grows throughout the tournament.
In the 63rd minute, the Spirit brought on a whole slew of substitutions, introducing Dorian Bailey, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Jenna Hellstrom, Bayley Feist, and rookie Averie Collins. Overall, these subs mostly bolstered the Spirit’s defensive positioning to hold on to the lead.
Chicago also brought in substitutions to balance their players’ minutes, bringing in Danielle Colaprico, Makenzey Doniak, Michele Vasconcelos, Savannah McCaskill, and Katie Johnson. This brought renewed energy to the Chicago attack. One of Chicago’s most threatening chances came in the 89th minute, where a St. Georges’ close-up shot was blocked by Bledsoe.
Overall, this game showed a rejuvenated Washington Spirit team. Lavelle and the midfield looked refreshed and in-sync, consistently moving and combining. The defense remained strong and steady, but were not invulnerable to a Casey Short or Kaelia Watt flash of brilliance. This game did expose a need for more clinicality on Chicago’s end. While Watt was able to create a lot of chances from the flank, she was largely isolated. Nagasoto was unable to get on the ball in her higher positioning and without a Sam Kerr to feed to. Putting Nagasoto in more fruitful positions will be crucial to Chicago in their next game on Wednesday July 1st against the Thorns.
The Spirit’s 2-1 win really showed their talent during this match up and proved to the rest of the league that they should not be counted out of making a long run in this tournament. They acted as a machine, with a strong defense and stellar goalkeeping providing the base for creativity and magic to flow through the midfield and into the forward line. The Spirit are sure to bring an abundance of confidence with them to their match against NC Courage on Wednesday, July 1st.
This game was so many things. It was moments of brilliance, of flash, and of glory. But it also provided raw insight into the real trauma that black athletes are facing right now and have been facing for many, many years at the hands of systemic racism. Let this match and the moments right before it be a reminder that sports are, in fact, a mirror to society, even in all its ugliness and complexities. Sports, however, can also be a vehicle for growth, for learning, and for progress for a more equal and just society. Let us all do our part to make sure it’s the latter.
By Anna Goorevich
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos