The Washington Spirit suffered their first loss of the season at Red Bull Arena Wednesday night, falling to NJ/NY Gotham FC 1-0 in their opening match of the 2023 Challenge Cup. Here are some of André and Annie’s thoughts on the game:

Heavy player rotation

The Challenge Cup games afford teams the opportunity – and perhaps the obligation, given the schedule congestion it creates – to rotate players, and the Spirit certainly seized that opportunity on Wednesday. In place of their standard trio of attacking superstars, Mark Parsons placed rookie forwards Civana Kuhlmann and Lena Silano up top, with rookie midfielder Nicole Douglas supporting them as the number 10.

This approach let some players rest up in between Saturday games: Trinity Rodman, Tara McKeown and Ashley Hatch sat the match out entirely, while Ashley Sanchez, Dorian Bailey, and Gabrielle Carle played just 45 minutes each. Many of the newbies, meanwhile, got much-needed minutes against a professional opponent.

The change-up from the Spirit’s usual starting XI made this an exciting game to watch, and an enlightening one. With the World Cup coming up this year, Washington is likely to be missing key team members for several weeks, and this game gave fans an early look at the team they might see during those matches. The verdict: there’s still some need for growth offensively; the Spirit only made 5 shots in this match, two of which were on target. Parsons acknowledged after the match that things hadn’t gone exactly as well as the Spirit would like but expressed optimism that they would continue to improve as the season continues. We expect to see Parsons use the Challenge Cup to switch things up and get the young players some experience throughout the competition this year.

Contrasts in approach

Prior to the match we wrote that the contrast in approaches to the opening match of a cup competition might cause problems for the Spirit, and that proved to be true. Gotham head coach Juan Carlos Amorós is implementing a new system with a roster full of fairly experienced players. As a result, NWSL veterans McCall Zerboni and Ify Onumonu played all 90 minutes, former Golden Boot winner and NWSL MVP Lynn Williams played 63 minutes, former USWNT Ali Krieger played 62 minutes, and Midge Purce was subbed on at halftime.

For the Spirit, Ashley Hatch wasn’t even listed on the bench, Trinity Rodman was out with an excused absence, and Andi Sullivan was subbed at halftime. This led to an imbalance in experience and cohesion, providing an early test of the readiness of several Spirit young players. Overall, a 1-0 loss to a talented and much nearer full strength Gotham side is a frustrating, but not bad, result. More importantly, it gave the coaching staff a chance to refine the development of young talents with the difficulty setting bumped to World Class.

So what did we learn?

Rookie attackers Nicole Douglas, Civana Kuhlmann and Lena Silano were named in the XI for the first time and each played significant minutes. Maddie Elwell also started and played all 90 in her new fullback position. So what did we learn about some new players?

Kuhlmann was the Spirit’s most active forward on the night. She had the same number of touches as attacking midfielder, Nicole Douglas, and won both of her take-ons. She also dropped a little highlight courtesy of some fancy footwork to evade two Gotham defenders near the sideline. Unfortunately, the new system combined with the unfamiliarity and inexperience of the Spirit’s XI versus a more stable Gotham meant that chances at goal were sparse. The Spirit only managed five shots overall, with just two on target, but those two came from Kuhlmann and Douglas.

Douglas‘ chance was the Spirit’s best of the game, which also came from their best passage of play. Douglas settled a ball in near the top of the box and slid it to Kuhlmann, who waited for Douglas’ run before sliding a perfect pass behind Gotham’s line. Though the move gave Douglas a beat, she rushed the shot a bit and lifted it into the keeper rather than picking out a corner. Still, it showcased good holdup play in a dangerous area, and good instincts from Douglas and Kuhlmann.

Elwell also had a solid match, leading the team in touches and using them to also lead the team in number of progressive carries and total distance. In addition, she also led the team in tackles (8) and interceptions (5). The downside was pretty poor completion percentages across short, medium and long passes, which could be chalked up to the state of the game, or be something Elwell needs to improve on before challenging Gabrielle Carle for playing time.

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