BOYDS — This past weekend at the Maryland SoccerPlex, the Washington Spirit pulled a 1-1 draw against the New Jersey Sky Blue FC team. The match was particularly difficult for the Spirit as they had lost 6 players to international friendlies during the FIFA international break from Aug. 23 through Sept. 3. cutting the number of regular starters for the Spirit by half. Called up for the U23 division is forward/defender Mallory Eubanks, midfielder Andi Sullivan, and forward Ashley Hatch. These three will be playing in the U23 Nordic tournament against Norway, Sweden, and England.
The other two players call up were midfielder Rose Lavelle and forward Mallory Pugh. They were call into the USWNT roster for two matches against the international team from Chile. Defender Rebecca Quinn was called into the Canadian WNT camp for a friendly against Brazil.
Making up for the missing 6 players on international duty, the Spirit pulled a rabbit out of their hat and signed for the 6 national team replacement players. In a herculean effort the Spirit signed, Zoe Clark, Brenna Connell, Alexa Newfield, Tiffany McCarty, Morgan Ruhl and Megan Crosson. Connell is a resident of Olney.
Down six starters, the Spirit played well opening with three national team replacements, Clark, McCarty, and Crosson. The first half belonged to Sky Blue FC as the Spirit worked out the interactions with so many new players on the pitch. While neither team scored in the first half, Sky Blue FC owned the owned the ball. It was the second half when things started gelling for the Spirit.
Replacement player Crosson stepped up in the second half and really showed great skills as a defender. She was key in stopping multiple Sky Blue FC attacks that made it through to the backline. Watching her play and follow the directions of Bledsoe looked like they had played together for years. That might be something for the Spirit to look at for next year? McCarty the first Spirit player to ever score a goal for the Spirit when the league started in 2013 looked like she had not missed a beat and was truly enjoying her time on the pitch.
In the 71st minute, the Spirit scored first when Arielle Ship chipped in a ball that was originally shot on goal by Francisca Ordega but deflected back out. Ship had to clip the ball a second time before it found the back of the net. It looked like a ping pong game for a couple of movements.
Sky Blue responded with a goal of their own in the 87th minute when Sarah Killion sank a shot off an assist by Madison Tiernan. That was the end of scoring for both sides.
Notable accomplishment in this match: Aubrey Bledsoe stopped 5 of 6 shots on goal, putting her at 108 saves for the season. That is two more than the previous league high of 106 set by Alyssa Naeher who now plays keeper for the USWNT.
The Washington Spirit is a team laden with world class soccer talent looking for an opportunity to prove themselves in the NWSL. Last season they finished in dead last in league standings; number 10 of 10 teams. Three seasons ago, om 2016, they nearly won the league championship. This 2018 season they are going to finish in 8th place out of nine teams. The NWSL lost one team at the beginning of this season when the Boston Breakers unexpectedly folded operations at the last minute and moved the failing Kansas City FC franchise to Utah, re-branding them as the Utah Royals FC. That is another story for another time.
Attendance at Spirit matches this year has been good. Between 2016 and 2018, average attendance rose from 3,782 to 3,931. Within the league, the Spirit ranks right in the middle of the pack. They are up against money machines like the Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride. Both of these teams, as do the Utah Royals, play in large stadiums built as professional soccer venues When those teams play big name attendance easily exceeds 10,000 spectators driving up the teams average attendance. Those same big-name teams, when playing lesser known teams or lower ranked team, the attendance falls back to league average attendance levels in the range of 4,000 to 5,000 fans who love the beautiful game.
How does average attendance play a role in where the Spirit will play next season? Audi field’s seating capacity is nearly 4 times that of the SoccerPlex. Last week the Spirit broke their all-time attendance record when they played the Portland Thorns at Audi Field, putting 7,976 fans in seats. The match at Audi field showed that the Spirit has the reputation to draw larger crowds when playing league leading teams. Does the record attendance mean the Spirit will play full time at Audi field next year?
A source at the Spirit head office was asked this question. The answer was not a simple yes or no. Our source elaborated on the possibilities and business logic behind a decision on staying at the Soccerplex or playing at Audi Field full time. Most likely, the solution will be a hybrid of matches at the SoccerPlex and when appropriate and available, playing at Audio field.
Scheduling matches at Audi field is not a simple matter. To use Audi field the Spirit and NWSL have to interweave their schedules amongst the schedules DC United and the Washington Nationals plus whatever outside events are scheduled for either venue. If available dates match up the Spirits need for a larger venue, the match will likely be played at Audi Field. For smaller matches, it will make more sense to play these at the SoccerPlex.
Using the Soccerplex for smaller because of the expected crowd size. Consider this, four thousand raucous fans at the Soccerplex is an intimidating 12th player to visiting teams. The same 4,000 at Audi Field would get lost in a sea of open seats. Optically, for TV, the full venue at the SoccerPlex looks so much better than a 3/4 empty Audi Field. However, if the Spirit can put 10,000 fans in the seats at Audi field for a big games, that 12th player gets just as large a voice, the TV optics are better, and the revenue increase is good for all.
For the 2019 season, the Spirit looks to be playing at both fields. For those of you who had not heard, the Spirit is looking for a new head coach. They have officially said they would pick one in the off season. Whoever they pick, it will have to be someone who can manage the deep pool of talent the Spirit has on roster now. Losing 6 starters because the Spirit has such good players to international friendlies would be tough any team. The new coach is going to have to figure out how to maximize that talent. There are other teams in the league looking to trade precious early draft round picks or other valuable assets to get their hands on some of the talent the Spirit has on roster.
Good luck in 2019 to the Washington Spirit.