Washington squared off against Houston this weekend in a matchup between the two bottom teams in the table, and in many ways that’s precisely what the game felt like. Neither team looked particularly confident in possession, both suffered awkward defensive breakdowns, and the play was often more than a little sloppy. However, there were also some important signs of life, particularly from the Washington side.
Dueling 4-3-3s, but very different approaches
— Washington Spirit (@WashSpirit) June 3, 2017
Washington came out in a fairly standard 4-3-3, with the only twist being the lack of a true central player in the forward line. Arielle Ship was nominally deployed as the central striker but drifted back and to the wings as much as she stayed in the middle. To the extent that the Spirit had anyone consistently in that central attacking zone, it was due to Kristie Mewis pushing forward.
The result was a very contained approach, with all eleven players taking on meaningful defensive responsibilities, and generally looking to strike on the counter more than to build out of the back.
— Houston Dash (@HoustonDash) June 3, 2017
On the other side, Houston also employed a 4-3-3, as they have used most of this season. However, with new interim coach Morales at the helm, there were some changes. Once again, they experienced a major shuffle in the backline, with Amber Brooks being dropped from the holding midfield role to serve as center back, paired with Cari Roccaro, and flanked by Levin and Daly.
Presumably, these moves were designed to bolster Houston’s midfield, allowing Brian to play the holding role, creating space for both Andressa and O’Sullivan to join her. It’s an idea that makes some sense in theory—bring in more skillful attacking players to link play with the forward line and maintain possession—but which did very little to address their underlying problems.
Washington in 2017: defensive woes
The Spirit’s game plan was quite simple, but also fairly effective. Stay behind the ball in numbers, apply aggressive pressure once the opponent enters your half, and let your forwards break with pace when the chance comes. There have been teams playing like this for almost as long as there has been a game of soccer, and there’s a reason why it’s never truly gone out of style: it’s devilishly effective.
Going into the season, Washington’s strength looked like its backline, which had been quite stingy in their run to the final last year and which was returning with most of its key players. However, the defense has been anything but solid, conceding sixteen goals so far (most in the league).
The real question is whether those failures are primarily the fault of the backline, or whether responsibility needs to be shared more widely. And here the answer is clear: the blame needs to be spread around. The key to Washington’s team defense last year was the way it began from the front. They swarmed high up the pitch, closing tight on the ball to limit time for decision-making, closing down passing lanes, and generally making it difficult to play. And that is where Washington has really suffered this year. Losing the likes of Crystal Dunn, Joanna Lohman, Christine Nairn, and Diana Matheson—all two-way players with the intelligence and experience to work in combination—has made it extremely difficult for them to recover that defensive solidity. And in potentially the biggest blow, they’ve been forced to go without Tori Huster—one of the best defensive midfielders in the game today—since early May.
Coach Jim Gabarra has tried a number of different approaches to compensate, some more effective than others. At times, their deep-defending 3-5-2 has looked effective, but it’s not clear that they have enough quality in central midfield to take advantage of the numbers that it offers there. There is potential there, but so far it’s been a mixed bag at best.
A simple approach: defend in numbers, and let Pugh hit them on the break
But against Houston this weekend, the team finally looked a bit more like their 2016 selves. Not on the attacking side, where smooth passing, confident possession, and creative interplay continues to remain a distant memory. But defensively, this was a far more coherent team performance. From a team that has looked disjointed and more than a little frustrated at times this year, it was a breath of fresh air to see them defending as a unit. Havana Solaun and Meggie Dougherty Howard deserve special acclaim. Neither really fits the mold of a true holding player, but they worked together to close down Houston’s midfield—taking advantage of some relatively lax refereeing to establish a disruptive physical presence.
Meanwhile, the team’s discipline—keeping plenty of numbers back consistently—gave the center backs a bit more freedom to push forward without as much fear of leaving holes behind them. All of this allowed Washington to create a reasonably condensed field—packing the defensive third and stepping out to pressure the ball once it got close. That left Houston with plenty of possession, but also plenty of turnovers from their unsuccessful attempts to pick the lock. And those turnovers were deadly.
This was Mallory Pugh’s third game with the team, but the first time when they took full advantage of her presence. Her blistering pace and skill on the ball was enough to rip Houston apart on the counter and was the clear difference-maker in the game. Washington has other talented attackers, ones who can play the same role on occasion (Ordega, in particular, showed her ability against Sky Blue earlier this year), but none have the consistency or skill of Pugh. Without Pugh, Washington’s approach would be effective but all-too-predictable. With her, even when you know what’s coming, it’s difficult to avoid getting caught out.
It worked against Houston, but …
However, it’s important not to overstate the case. Washington earned a deserved victory on Saturday. They had a clear game plan and executed it well. And it’s certainly a replicable model. After all, a well-organized defense and lightning counters can beat any team in the league on its day.
But it was particularly well-suited for Houston. As mentioned, this was a team with a new (and agonizingly slow) center back pairing, which was hoping to control the midfield with relatively small numbers. And in order to make that plan work, they needed to ask quite a bit of Morgan Brian—who was tasked with occupying the holding midfield role and with pressing forward in the attack. It’s not that Brian can’t do both (indeed, she had her best game of the season), it’s simply that without a second skilled defender in the central midfield, there was no one left to shield the backline from the inevitable counters.
— Charles Olney (@olneyce) June 5, 2017
Given that setup, this Washington approach was perfectly suited. And even with that being the case, it’s hardly like they shut Houston down entirely. Brian and Andressa both picked out some excellent passes, and both Ohai and Beckie found themselves with plenty of solid chances. And while Washington was quite successful at holding a rigid backline and relying on the offside trap to aggressively compress the field, they were only a few inches from getting caught on several occasions.
Against a better team—with an offense more in-sync and a backline with more pace and skill—Washington might have been in trouble.
So it would be a mistake for them to simply rest on their laurels here. Still, this was an incredibly important proof-of-concept game. It showed that they have a good sense of what Mallory Pugh brings to the team, and the ability to capitalize on it. It gave the team a win and lifted them off the bottom of the table going into the international break—which should also do wonders for team confidence and cohesion.
And with the likely return of Huster once the season starts back up in two weeks, there’s every reason to think that Washington can improve on the general model exhibited here. A bona fide defensive all-star guarding the backline should give everyone else a bit more space to press higher, and allow the Spirit to build back toward the sort of all-encompassing defensive unit that they were last year.
Washington still seems like an extreme longshot to make the playoffs—there are just too many unseasoned players in key positions here to achieve the kind of consistency that would require—but this is a respectable team and a far cry from the disaster that many were predicting a few months ago.