After five matches, the Washington Spirit are one of just two unbeaten teams in the NWSL (Portland), but they find themselves in a three-way tie for third place with San Diego and Gotham because they have won just two of those five games. Head coach Mark Parsons may find solace in the fact that the Spirit have held a lead in all but one of their matches (the 0-0 draw against Houston) and have yet to trail this season, but the flip side of that is they’ve dropped four points from winning positions. So we know that the team is performing fairly well overall, but how are they doing statistically? (Disclaimer: Of course this is a small sample size, so things might have changed drastically by the next time I run through the numbers)
This plot measures the teams’ non-penalty xG (expected goals, simply described as the likelihood that a shot results in a goal) per match against their npxG allowed. Teams below the line are accruing more npxG than they’re allowing, and teams above the line are doing the reverse. Washington finds itself near, but on the right side of the line, accruing 1.24 npxG per match, and allowing 1.13.
Piggy-backing off of that is this next plot, which measures teams’ performance (for and against) their npxG per match, subtracting their non-penalty xG from non-penalty goals. This can be used to get a feel for what teams are performing as they should be, and which might regress to the mean. Teams inside the oval are performing roughly as they should be, which is quite bad for both 10th place Louisville and last place Orlando. For the Spirit, they’re underperforming offensively (scoring 0.44 non-penalty goals fewer than npxG per game) and overperforming defensively (allowing 0.52 non-penalty goals fewer than npxG per game.) This suggests they might start to score a little more, but also concede a little more, which is not a bad tradeoff when your offense is 7th ranked and your defense is 2nd ranked.
Put simply, the Spirit need more from their attack. Their 1.20 goals per game amounts to a total of six, which is tied for seventh in the league and less than half that of league-leading Portland’s 14, The number looks a little worse when you consider that two of those six goals have come from the penalty spot, and the total of four non-penalty goals sees them tied for eighth with Orlando. That said, their 1.24 npxG is fourth best in the league, which suggests that they’re creating decently enough compared to the rest of the league, but not finishing.
One area that the Spirit are falling glaringly short is passing in general, but specifically attempted passes. They’re last in the league in that category, attempting 387.6 passes per game (if you want to feel really bad, the best in the league in this category is OL Reign’s 512.0 followed by North Carolina’s 502.6). To make things worse, and I suppose contributing to their lack of attempts, they’re completing just 66.5% of those passes, comfortably the worst in the league behind Houston’s 70.2%. How bad is this? The gap between 12th place Washington and 11th place Houston is larger than the gap between first place North Carolina (77.2%) and sixth place San Diego (74.3%.) Obviously there’s not a direct link between passing competence and scoring, as the Spirit would be at the bottom of the table if there was, but even a slight improvement here would lead to more possession, which just might lead to more danger in attack.
The Spirit’s 0.80 goals allowed per game is tied for second best with league-leading Portland, and behind Houston’s 0.40. As I briefly touched on above, they’re perhaps primed to regress, as their stellar defensive record comes despite allowing 1.12 npxG per game, seventh best in the league. In any case, a significant contributing factor to the Spirit’s defensive record is how they have effectively locked down their own penalty area. Washington allows a fourth best 5.60 completed passes into the penalty area per game (OL Reign is first with 5.20), and the average shot by a Spirit opponent comes from 19.2 yards, the longest in the league. One way to keep an opponent from scoring a lot is to keep them out of your penalty area.
Meanwhile, Washington is also a very active tackling team, attempting 20.2 tackles per game (third best) and successfully tackling 10.2 times per game (second best.) Unfortunately, those numbers mean they’re allowing their opponents 10.0 successful take-ons per game (those 10 unssuccessful tackles), which is third worst in the league. Perhaps a byproduct of the frequent tackling is that the Spirit commit the most fouls in the league, 13.2, two more than the next team, Gotham. If this is the worst thing I can say about a defense (and I think it is at this point), they’re doing just fine, and for the record, they’re also fouled the third most times in the league (10.4.)
I think the best statistical measure of goalkeeping is a stat called PSxG+/-, which subtracts goals allowed from post-shot expected goals, which itself measures the likelihood of a goalkeeper saving any shot. Think of it this way: this stat tells you that a team has allowed X goals from Y expected goals, and if PSxG+/- is positive, you’ve got above average goalkeeping. The Washington Spirit, just Audrey Kingsbury in this case, have the third best PSxG+/-, +0.38 per game. Putting this together with the defending, we have a team that doesn’t often allow teams to enter its penalty area, forces them to shoot from outside its penalty area, and a goalkeeper that is adept at saving shots that should be goals (in terms of xG, Kingsbury should have allowed six goals, but she’s allowed four.) This is a recipe for success, and we’ll see how sustainable it is.
Individual Performers (among players with 180+ minutes played)
- Trinity Rodman is third in xAG (expected assisted goals, which measures xG that result from her passes) with 0.41 per 90 minutes. She’s actually the leader in the category overall (2.0 xAG total,) but she’s played more minutes than her competitors.
- Paige Metayer attempts the fourth most tackles in the middle third (2.00) per 90 minutes. Bayley Feist is actually more active here (2.35,) but she just missed the minutes qualifier.
- Trinity Rodman is here again, with the second most attempted take-ons (6.94) and successful take-ons (3.47) in the league, behind Portland’s Sophia Smith in both categories (8.21 and 4.36.)
- Normally this space is saved for positive notes, but after pointing out the Spirit’s poor passing, it must be noted that Rodman also is the worst percentage passer in the league, completing 45.4% of her passes. If you remove the minutes played qualification, she’s seventh worst.
There’s a long way to go still in this season, but for the time being it’s hard to argue too much with an unbeaten record and a tie for third place. There is still plenty of room for offensive improvement, but if the defense continues to play like this, it may be all the team needs to go far.