Washington Spirit team photo before their 2023 home opener versus OL Reign // Photo Courtesy of Washington Spirit

For the second year in a row, the Washington Spirit triumphed over OL Reign on opening weekend. Both teams sported early season rust, but the Spirit’s fresh squad outlasted Reign’s old guard, with Trinity Rodman working her magic to deliver the 1-0 win.

Here are some things Annie and André are still thinking about days after the match:

In Kingsbury we trust

Aubrey Kingsbury wore the captain’s armband on Sunday – we learned after the match that she will be taking over captain duties for the season – and her leadership and overall importance to the team were on full display.

Kingsbury’s performance throughout the match was instrumental in the Spirit’s win; she made several big saves and recoveries to keep her team on top, ending the day with a clean sheet. We’re especially fond of this save where Kingsbury perfectly read OL Reign forward Jordyn Huitema. With only one Spirit defender between them, Kingsbury came out of the goal in an attempt to capture the ball. She succeeded not just in blocking a shot but in swiping the ball neatly off of Huitema’s foot, in a move Trinity Rodman compared to Spider-man.

After the game, Kingsbury heaped praise on her teammates for the “fight” they put into the game, calling out the defenders specifically with individual compliments for each. She said the team has worked hard to improve defensively from last season, and that “they did a good job of keeping it simple. You know, just force out wide, and I’m there to make the saves.”

As Kingsbury said after the match, the Spirit of last season could easily have lost this game. They had developed a bad habit of allowing late leads to turn into losses or, more commonly, ties. While she downplayed her own efforts in favor of praising her teammates, Kingsbury’s skills prevented another late game disappointment and ensured the season started off on the right foot.

Tara McKeown, CB

Given that Tara McKeown was switching ends of the pitch and that injury carried over from last year prevented her from joining full training until later in preseason, we weren’t expecting her CB debut just yet. But a recent nagging injury to Amber Brooks meant she was only available for 30 minutes, so McKeown got a surprising immediate start next to Staab on opening day.

While there were some incongruent moments, overall the defense held last year’s NWSL Shield without a goal, and McKeown’s 60 minute shift at CB was an important factor. According to Fotmob, the freshly dubbed center back completed 15 of 19 passes (3 into the final third), made 1 block, 6 clearances (3 headed), 1 interception, 2 ball recoveries, and was only dribbled past once. She also won all three of her aerial duels, which is more impressive considering she was often up against 5’11 Jordyn Huitema.

OL Reign have a weird ability to dominate a game while failing to get the ball into the net, and a bit of that was on display against the Spirit. American Soccer Analysis had Reign’s 2.02xG (expected goals) as the third highest of the weekend, with every team that posted a +2 number scoring at least two goals, except them. Kingsbury made excellent saves, but it was also the defense in front that helped her anticipate the danger to come. Though there’s still a lot of positional nuance and backline cohesion to learn, McKeown had an outstanding start to her CB career.

Paige Metayer, from undrafted to opening day starter

In addition to McKeown, undrafted rookie midfielder Paige Metayer was named in Mark Parsons’ first XI. Metayer entered preseason camp as a non-roster invitee and impressed to the point of earning a three-year contract with an option to extend to a fourth. Still, with the midfield unit being the Spirit’s deepest, it was assumed that the 5’10 22-year-old midfielder wouldn’t be flung into the fray against last season’s NWSL Shield winners. But that’s exactly what happened.

While no one would call the Spirit’s performance fluid, the midfield had to adjust and Metayer showed an ability to adjust when downshifted into Plan B, or C, perhaps even G. Her 57% pass accuracy is less than ideal, but it was her 100% tackles won (3/3), four ball recoveries, 1 clearance, 1 block and 2 of 3 aerial duels won that was needed more on the day. She only won 36% of her ground duels, but showed fearlessness in getting into 14 of them — highest among all midfielders on the pitch.

It was also Metayer’s slight movement that caught the eye of former Spirit player Emily Sonnett prior to the throw-in that led to Trinity Rodman’s goal.

It was a great win, but…

After the match new head coach Mark Parsons admitted that the game the Spirit played was not the game they intended to play. OL Reign’s tactics disrupted the original intent to play the ball along the ground, which is what they’d worked on all preseason.

OL Reign are one of the most complete teams in the league, and one of the most cohesive, so there’s no shame in a new unit with a new style being rerouted by a well-coached squad that’s been together since 2021. The opening day win, plus stunning solo goal by Trinity Rodman, allows the manner in which it was achieved to be an afterthought — as long as you don’t look at the numbers.

Whoops, I did. According to Fotmob, the Spirit created zero big chances, completed just 164 of their 294 attempted passes (56%), and fouled more than they shot at goal.

While it’s impressive that the team can already flip the switch to grind out a win, we’ll have to see if this is something only teams as composed as OL Reign can accomplish, or if the Spirit will be forced to deviate from Plan A often. This weekend away versus Racing Louisville will be solid a test to see whether the new Spirit can show against talented but less organized opposition than OL Reign.

Here’s a GIF of Rodman & Sanchez celebrating

You’re welcome!

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David Rusk

Thanks for the great coverage, Andre and Annie. Despite “kickball “ it was a thrilling match to watch on an absolutely picture perfect Sunday afternoon. A great memory for me to carry off to a month in Buenos Aires.

Talonesque #

The early Kingsbury save on that header was universe opening.

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