Houston heads were down as the final whistle blew at Zions Bank stadium. Rachel Daly was unable to hide her frustrations in the Utah heat. Ten players and their captain sank to the turf, crestfallen and spent. Another excruciating 90 minutes had passed them by, further deflating their once buoyant aspirations at the Challenge Cup.
It was just two minutes into the match and the Spirit looked to have scored when Kumi Yokoyama creatively flicked Katie Stengel’s botched clearance back towards the Houston goal. Daly bailed out her teammates with a timely block on the goal line, after the ball skipped past keeper Jane Campbell.
Maintaining their ferocity, the Spirit could smell blood. In the 16th minute they got their reward by scoring arguably the goal of the tournament so far. The breathtaking 18 pass move began with Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, mozied between nine different teammates, then concluded in Bayley Feist slamming home from the edge of the box. Masterful scenes and Houston blushes. Fair play Washington.
Against the run of play, Daly cracked the top of the bar just before halftime. Nothing but a glimmer of hope. When compared to the Sky Blue affair, The Dash at least regained some credit in an encouraging second half display. Off the bench Nichelle Prince and Bri Visalli were impressive at stretching the game. Their presence, mindfulness, and energy helped unlock parts of the pitch that were barely encroached in the first 45 minutes.
As the game wore on, so did the Spirit’s energy levels. Late on the Dash did look like the team more likely to score, however they struggled to adequately test Bledsoe in the Spirit goal. In the end, an effervescent first half display proved to be enough for Washington to claim all three points.
With a place in next week’s quarter finals guaranteed, the Dash’s only real goal would have been to avoid the #8 seed and a potential match up with the NC Courage. The remaining three matches on the NWSL schedule mean that it appears to be impossible for the Dash to fall to the #8. Job well done then. The performance and the result against Sky Blue FC, on Wednesday evening, will feel more disappointing than this. For 45 minutes the Washington Spirit, even without their star player, looked like the second best team in the NWSL. Credit where credit’s due.
Here’s three things we learned from another Dash defeat:
Hitting The Wall
When the line ups were announced this morning, I questioned whether starting Groom, Mewis, Naughton and Daly for a fourth consecutive start, in a mere 13 days, was the right call. Almost immediately the Dash looked fatigued. Their press and counter style came unstuck quickly as players struggled to recover shape. Closing down the ball with any real speed failed to materialize. The Spirit dazzled with the ball, the Dash were chasing shadows. Coach Clarkson’s post-match comments were revealing on this matter. When discussing managing the load on his star players he said: “I’ve had full intention before the game to take them off, and the way the games have gone and the way that they’ve performed has changed my opinions at times.” Perhaps if the Dash win or draw the Sky Blue match, then we see a different lineup versus Spirit. Clarkson is prioritizing cohesion from his starters. He has not leaned on roster depth as much as some of the other coaches. The emphasis going forward is now on these players to get rest and reset. “It’s not just physical recovery. It’s mental recovery...the bubble has taken a toll on everybody.”
Deadly To Deficient
In Texas, fireworks are legally only allowed to be sold from June 24th through July 4th. For the Dash, it would appear that scoring goals falls under the same litigation. The dizzy heights of the Dash’s attack after the first two matches - 21 shots, 8 on target, 5 goals - were always expected to regress to a more reasonable total. Sadly for Dash fans, the fizzling out has been greater than first imagined. In the last two matches the Dash have only produced 11 shots, 2 on target and 0 goals. Before game four, the Dash’s XG was 2.59, which showed they were more clinical than most.
I still believe Daly can be one of the most efficient forwards in the NWSL. In 2018 Daly’s conversion rate was 19%, in 2019 it fell to 11%. In the Challenge Cup it is currently sitting at 29%, which I actually think is about the right target for her. The quality of chances the Dash have created has been the issue, not any particular drop off in striker chance conversion. Daly is doing so much work for the rest of the team, she’s reduced her availability to capitalize in attacking positions. You can see how deep she has to come to claim the ball and how much defending she had to do against the Spirit in the heat map below. The lack of goals isn’t helped by Groom and Mewis’ movement declining as the team has tired. The pitch has narrowed, the forward runs evaporated and the duo has struggled to push up through the midfield.
Stengel and Visalli Should Start
A positive to take away from the Spirit loss is the knowledge that Clarkson has potentially established his best attackers to play alongside Daly in the front three. Stengel has impressed in all four matches and was arguably the Dash’s most likely source of a goal against the Spirit. Her physicality is unmatched in the rest of the Dash squad. With how much Daly strays from being a true number 9, Stengel’s tactful build up play is crucial. Pace and width is then essential for Clarkson’s third attacking wide option.
Whilst it would’ve been nice to have seen more of Jamia Fields, or in fact anything of Maegan Kelly, Kayla McCoy and Bridgette Andrzejewski, the starting place would now seem to be contested by Visalli, Veronica Latsko and Prince. Latsko has the most minutes, one assist, and the most starts but has positionally struggled to affect games. Prince arrived late to Utah and perhaps that has hindered Clarkson giving her more of a chance. It’s important to note in both Dash losses, there hasn’t been a spark until Prince was called in off the bench. Nevertheless, my personal choice would be Visalli because she has been successful within the constraints of Clarkson’s pressing game, as shown against OL Reign .The Dash are yet to concede with Visalli on the pitch. Her only start coincides with their most complete performance yet.