NWSL Challenge Cup #5: Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue FC

July 18th, 2020

Final Score: Washington Spirit 0-0 (3-4 Penalties) Sky Blue FC

Background of the Challenge Cup: After eight months without women’s professional soccer in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has returned in style with a one time tournament replacing the normal season schedule. In light of recent events, namely the global pandemic, the Challenge Cup is hosted by the owner of Utah Royals FC, Dell Loy Hansen in Utah. The tournament features a preliminary round, though because of a last minute withdrawal of the Orlando Pride from numerous positive COVID-19 tests, these games will only determine knockout round seeding. The later stages of the tournament work similarly to those seen in World Cups, with the winner of each match moving to the next stage of the tournament, and the loser ultimately being knocked out. The final will be held on July 26th, 2020 in Rio Tinto Stadium, one day shy of a month after the tournament opener. The NWSL Challenge Cup is the first professional sports league to return in the United States, and though there have been debates on the welfare of the tournament, it is inarguably a great boost for women’s sports in America. Aside from larger health concerns, people may be disheartened to not see a few big names of the United States National Team on television. However, big name stars, including many World Cup winners, still are featured and many more talents, international and domestic, have a chance to shine.

Game Recap: The Spirit started out strong in the first half, trying to find Ashley Hatch for multiple early chances that ultimately were not able to find the back of the net. Sky Blue were limited in their first half attack, with the only breakthroughs coming from players driving through the midfield, which is not their usual method of going forward. The Spirit however, created one of the best opportunities of the match by pulling Tori Huster up field for a lengthy cross to Ashley Shanchez which forced a crucial save from the Canadian goalkeeper, Kailen Sheridan. This momentum kept going until the very end of the half, where Sanchez, and Kumi Yokoyama, each had good opportunities to turn the score in favor of Washington. Going into the second half, the Spirit were keen to start out strong, continuing their exciting energy from the first 45 minutes. Unsurprisingly, the Spirit did just this, passing the ball long to Hatch, before laying it off to Kumi Yokoyama who struck the crossbar. As the half went on, each team put in a shift to create more opportunities. Ifeoma Onumonu of Sky Blue was responsible for the next opportunity that had players on their feet, managing to head the ball down and over the goal from a cross by Sabrina Flores. Just a few minutes later, the Spirit forced another brave save out of Sheridan, who denied Huster a toe-poke into the back of the net. Sky Blue had one more opportunity just before the final whistle, but the fate of the game remained to be decided by penalty kicks.

Washington Spirit Analysis:


The Spirit, as usual, kept a solid 4-3-3 formation throughout the match with a few tweaks here and there to be able to play with the notable absence of the team captain, Andi Sullivan. Overall the Spirit defensive line is very possession oriented. Most of the time the Spirit spends on the ball is within their back four players, as well as most of the build for their attack going forward. Once the ball is able to reach the middle of the field, Washington is able to continue their attack in quick speedy combinations and knock the ball out wide. Although this method of attack has remained relatively consistent throughout the tournament, the Spirit changed a number of things during this particular match. In order to allow their fullbacks to be able to become a part of the attack, the Spirit allowed their outside forwards and attacking midfielders to be able to drop back into deeper areas to receive balls and play forward. This strategy, aside from the ability to interchange attacking players out wide, also has the added benefit of the Spirit being able to use their fullbacks as distributors into the box and additional defensive security. Even though it might seem contradictory, because the Spirit allowed their defensive players to push up the field, it gave their forwards an opportunity to become more defensive-minded. This largely limits long balls over the top or players running down the sideline from Sky Blue into dangerous areas. However, if this strategy is not deployed properly, Washington’s players can be caught out of position and have no one out wide to cover.

Although this strategy does have its advantages, it can significantly hinder attacks going forward. Because outside forwards have dropped back to play a more defensive role, it leaves Hatch with very limited options up the field. This was seen frequently, when Hatch would be chasing a ball over the top or attempting to press Sky Blue’s back line from wider areas. This limited the ability to play combinations at the top of the box like usual, and made Hatch carry the majority of the attack throughout the game. Bailey Feist attempted to cover for both this absence, and the absence of Rose Lavelle and Sullivan in the midfield, by trying to make runs for Hatch to play off of. This ended up being hard considering the fact that she had to keep up with her own playing responsibilities on the field.


The Spirit continued using their possession oriented strategy from previous games, playing combinations through the middle, and staying patient to distribute the ball. This is the common style of play from the Spirit, who have discussed previously that this is the game they feel comfortable playing and the style they want to stick to. Once the Spirit receive the ball from their defensive line, or win the ball in the center of the field, they play using quick passes, getting around the other team’s press and up the middle of the field to eventually either knock the ball wide, or try to create a chance at goal. With the absence of Sullivan and Lavelle from the lineup, it meant that the Spirit were forced to tweak their formation slightly, and although this was effective enough, it created problems that could have caused the Spirit to ultimately create less chances throughout the game. One problem, the one most directly impacted by the loss of Sullivan, was the lack of a true holding midfielder on the pitch. The Spirit had no anchor in their midfield, and as a result, became very bunched up in the center of the field and were too close to one another to properly create the combinations that they are used to. This allowed for Sky Blue to be able to press their midfield, and limit possession going through the center of the field. Although their strategies were not completely impeded, it did make things more difficult. Defensively, this midfield also caused more problems for themselves by allowing Jennifer Cudjoe and Onumonu to dribble and play line-breaking passes.

As discussed in terms of the Spirit’s defense, the Spirit’s strategy of long balls over the top was also slightly altered. Because outside forwards were forced to defend more, it limited Hatch’s options up top. This meant that all three of the Spirit’s midfielders should have been making runs in and behind the Sky Blue defense, trying to get on the end of a pass or cross, but this was not happening nearly as much as it needed to. For the most part, Hatch and Feist were doing most of the running up top, with Sanchez and Yokoyama each being able to create their own opportunities to try and score. The effect of this type of direct play however, remained the same. These balls are successful in getting in behind the other team’s midfield press, and this lessened a lot of the issues that were faced in the middle of the field.

Sky Blue FC Analysis:


As seen with most United States teams, Sky Blue plays in a 4-3-3 formation. Similar to how the Spirit played against them, Sky Blue prefers to play with attacking minded fullbacks. Though unlike the Spirit, Sky Blue has this system mostly sorted out. Sky Blue are a team that prefer to play narrow in attacking areas. They like to pull their outside forwards in towards the box so that they can make runs in behind Washington’s defense and get on the end of balls played through. This, in turn, means that they need to get width from somewhere else, namely, their fullbacks. These outside backs are already attacking minded players, as both have been primarily played as speedy forwards for previous clubs. This means that Midge Purce and Imani Dorsey are both very comfortable with driving up the side of the field to combine with players in forward positions, or cross the ball themselves. Purce and Dorsey can also combine with players in the middle so that they can play a chipped ball or tricky pass into a dangerous area. These things are very useful when playing into the box, as it can become a numbers up situation when attacking with outside backs occupying the wider areas.

Nevertheless, there are two main negatives that stem as a result of this tactical choice. The first is the positioning of Sky Blue’s center backs. Because Sky Blue’s fullbacks stretch so wide to create the width going forward, it leaves many gaps in behind their defense that their Spirit players were more than happy to run into. This was shown on numerous chances by both Sanchez and Yokoyama, especially in the earlier parts of the game. Although their center backs did attempt to stay compact, this only left wider areas open for the Spirit to play into. Luckily for Sky Blue, which seems to be the story for a lot of the teams Washington plays, the Spirit are not a huge fan of using wide areas to attack and prefer to use the middle. The second, is that if Purce and Dorsey are unaware of their positioning at a certain time, it can throw the entire team out of whack and expose the Sky Blue back line. This of course was the case at certain points throughout the game because neither Dorsey nor Purce are natural fullbacks.


Sky Blue’s attack heavily relies on what the defense are doing, as shown by their fullbacks who love to push forward. Sky Blue love to attack using passes down their wider areas, bringing in their center midfield when necessary. This passing can sometimes include combinations to dismantle Washington’s press. Occasionally, Sky Blue don’t even feel the need to pass and one of their fullbacks can drive the ball down the wings. Once Sky Blue has reached a position to play the ball into the center of the field, they try to pick out an attacking midfielder. This midfielder, usually McCall Zerboni or Cudjoe, can do a number of things. They can drive the ball themselves, pass back out wide, or try and slip the ball through to a forward who will be trying to make a run in behind or around the Spirit’s defense. Because the Spirit keep such a centralized defense when they are not in possession, Sky Blue are also big fans of trying to pressurize the Spirit into giving up the ball in the center of the field. This worked more than it would have ordinarily because of Washington’s midfield set up, though Sky Blue looked very effective regardless. This can catch the Spirit off guard and force them to have to regroup very quickly, giving Sky Blue enough time to be able to play the ball out wide or in behind.

In addition to helping to move the ball down the pitch, Sky Blue’s outside backs spreading the field wide also allows forward players to position themselves centrally to help move the ball forward and play passes into the box as discussed earlier relating to Zerboni and Cudjoe. If the ball is either won by Sky Blue’s press in the middle of the field or passed in from out wide, the player who receives the ball can drive forward themself to try and create an opportunity. This was seen in the first half by Onumonu who was able to get herself all the way up the field and into a wide area to give herself a shot at scoring. Players who do this can also create chances for others running in behind as well, both of which are very dangerous to the Spirit’s back line.


With Sky Blue advancing on penalty kicks, the Spirit have gone home. Even though there was hope that the Spirit could advance all the way to the final, they have made a name for themselves as the team to watch out for in the future.


Washington Spirit: 4-3-3


Huster        Staab        Neilsen        McGrady

Jacobs       Bailey       Feist

Yokoyama        Hatch        Sanchez

Sky Blue FC: 4-3-3


Purce      Lewandowski       Johnson       Dorsey

Cudjoe       Woldmoe       Zerboni

Monaghan       Onumonu       Kawasumi

Written by Maddie Metz

Creator of Only Women’s Soccer



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