Spirit face Sky Blue in opening match of the NWSL Fall Series

Washington Spirit  |   September 4, 2020
Spirit face Sky Blue in opening match of the NWSL Fall Series Featured Image

HERRIMAN, UT – JULY 18: Paige Nielsen #14 of Washington Spirit plays the ball against Paige Monaghan #4 of Sky Blue FC during a game between Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit at Zions Bank Stadium on July 18, 2020 in Herriman, Utah.

Ian Decker

Boyds, MD. (9/4/20) – The Washington Spirit will face Sky Blue FC in the opening match of the NWSL Fall Series on September 5 at 1 pm ET at Segra Field in Leesburg, VA. The game will be streamed live on CBS and CBS All-Access.  

While this is the first meeting between the two sides since Sky Blue advanced on penalty kicks at the expense of Washington in the Challenge Cup, the Spirit hold the advantage over the last ten regular season matches (8-0-2). This will be the first game for both clubs since the Challenge Cup and the first of two meetings as part of the Fall Series. 

The Opposition 

As the seven seed in the knockout round of the Challenge Cup, Sky Blue advanced to the semifinals and narrowly missed out on advancing to the championship game. A 3–2 loss to the Chicago Red Stars — the third team in the Northeast pod – saw Sky Blue eliminated from the competition. 

Despite a disappointing result, there were several positives from the Challenge Cup — namely the goalkeeping of shot-stopper Kailen Sheridan. The Canadian number one secured the golden glove, recording 21 saves and posting a 1.00 goals against average. She made some game-altering saves, several of which were against Washington. 

Along with Sheridan’s stellar stops, Sky Blue unlocked what was perhaps the best midfield of the tournament. Jennifer Cudjoe, Sarah Woldmoe and McCall Zerboni became head coach Freya Coombe’s go-to midfield three, and the unit certainly impressed. While Zerboni will miss the Fall Series due to injury, it will be interesting to see what happens to this trio with the return of US women’s national team player Mallory Pugh, who did not play in the Challenge Cup due to injury. 

With the Fall Series only being four games, clubs have opted for loan spells so that players can get more field action. Sky Blue has three players out on loan who will not feature this fall: Elizabeth Eddy (Vittsjö GIK), Nahomi Kawasumi (INAC Kobe) and Evelyne Viens (Paris FC). With Eddy, Kawasumi and Viens all playing in the Challenge Cup, expect some lineup shuffling from Coombe ahead of Saturday’s game.  

The Spirit

While many NWSL clubs elected to send players abroad to gain match experience, the Spirit mostly stayed put. The one exception was midfielder Rose Lavelle, who was traded to OL Reign. Lavelle, who signed with Manchester City of the WSL, desired to play more than four games, while also getting Champions League experience. 

With Lavelle gone and captain Andi Sullivan still recovering from MCL surgery, the approach to the Fall Series, aside from positive results, will be the further development and evaluation of young players such as midfield duo Dorian Bailey and Bayley Feist. The coaching staff will also evaluate players to determine who to protect in the upcoming expansion draft.  

“This is an ideal for managers like me to do an assessment,” said Spirit head coach Richie Burke, “an overview, a complete rundown and evaluate where our players are this year.”

Even without several key players and a lack of match fitness, Burke envisions his team being competitive and lively this fall. Integral to that energy is center back tandem Paige Nielsen and Sam Staab. With a plan for the players to work within, Burke believes in a player-first approach. “This is the framework of how we’re going to play,” he said while speaking to his players after Thursday’s practice. “These are our principles of what we’re going to do, but you bring your character, your personality into that role and make sure you express yourself.”

In addition to Bailey and Feist, players who will look to play larger roles in the Fall Series include forwards Kumi Yokoyama and Ashley Sanchez — the Challenge Cup’s future legend award winner — who will look to continue to provide quality service to forward Ashley Hatch in the final third. Also keep an eye out for performances from rookies Averie Collins, Natalie Jacobs and Katie McClure.   

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