For the first 20 minutes or so, Washington Spirit’s Friday night Challenge Cup match felt like it was headed for disaster, a repeat of their 6-0 loss the week prior. Fate – in the form of a lightning storm – and some strong individual performances intervened, allowing the team to turn things around for an exhilarating 4-2 win. Here are some of our biggest takeaways:
Ashley Hatch getting the job done
There’s one big reason the Spirit were able to turn things around on Friday night, and that reason is named Ashley Hatch. Just as things looked dire, Hatch took control and gave one of her strongest performances of the season, notching two goals and an assist. Plus, her passing accuracy was the best on the team (and a good 20 percentage points higher than her own season average).
“I thought Hatch was on absolute fire,” coach Mark Parsons said after the mach.
Both of her goals were beauties shot from over 20 yards from the goal that showcased Hatch’s skill with the ball at her feet. The first was a first-touch strike off an assist from Lena Silano that Hatch timed perfectly to slide under Gotham keeper Michelle Betos. For the second, she swiped a ball settled by a Gotham defender and just blasted it into the corner of the goal.
Hatch’s assist, though, really showed the extent of her talent and likely won her NWSL Player of the Week.
Surrounded by four Gotham defenders in the 70th minute and with her nearest teammate covered, Hatch had a tough choice to make. While video shows how quick her thinking was, watching live, it felt like time around Hatch froze as she held up play to consider her next move. Yet her decision still felt like a surprise. Instead of driving forward toward goal or making the quick pass ahead to Biegalski, Hatch threaded the ball between her opponents into the space where she knew 16-year-old Chloe Ricketts could be. Ricketts sprinted unmarked to receive the pass and slotted into the goal to the left of Betos, scoring her first professional goal.
The return of OG23
629 days after tearing her Achilles tendon while on a breakaway in a semifinal match of the 2021 NWSL playoffs, Tori Huster returned to the pitch. Huster subbed in for just 15 minutes of the match on Friday, and in that time, she made two interceptions and one clearance and created one shot. Huster’s return means so much more to this team than stats can show, so let’s turn things over to Parsons, Huster’s teammates, and the player herself:
Tori’s leadership and intensity and voice is something that this group has needed. Actually, [Marissa] Sheva or Civana [Kuhlmann] asked me a couple of months ago, like, “Hey, what do you think of our team, the culture?” And I said, “It’s a really nice team, really amazing nice team. I’ve been on a lot of teams; this is a really nice team. But we need a little bit more ‘Let’s fucking go and get the job done.'” They were like, “Oh, what are we going to do?” I was like, “Don’t worry. She’s coming.”Mark Parsons, on Tori Huster
Parsons also said Huster’s return to play was emotional for him and if Huster had been available for the previous match against North Carolina Courage, the team would not have lost 6-0 “because she won’t let it happen.”
“Tori is probably the smartest player I’ve ever played with,” Ricketts said, explaining that Huster’s communication helps her to learn new tactics as a young player. “And I’m ten times more confident when she’s behind me.”
“Tori hasn’t lost her touch. Her first training back with us, I was like, ‘Holy cow!'” Camryn Biegalski added. “I’m really happy to have her back with us.
It’s probably one of the proudest moments in my career. I might cry a little bit, but I’m super proud of the journey that has been really difficult but really special in some moments as well. And I’ve had a lot of support through it. A wide range of people have helped me through the course of this, and then there’s a very select few who were rocks for me throughout the whole process. I couldn’t have done it without them, and I’m excited to be back and stay back.Tori Huster
Shelter in the storm
Another undeniable factor in Washington’s win was the lightning delay of over one hour that began just minutes before the end of the first half. While the storm raged, Spirit players rehydrated, refueled, and talked tactics, according to Huster.
“I think the best thing that happened tonight was that we had a rain delay, to be honest,” Huster said after the match. “I think we went in the locker room and kind of got a reset.”
After returning to the match, the Spirit scored 3 of their 4 goals goals and made 8 of their 9 shots, while also preventing Gotham from scoring again. The shift in mentality and on-field communication was clear.
But this team can’t rely on individual brilliance and a lightning delay to refocus them every week. They’ve had difficulties getting into games on-and-off all season, and starting games in the right headspace remains one of the team’s biggest challenges.
Lightning in a bottle
There’s no need to end on a bad note after such a fun match, so let’s take a look at another one of Washington’s goals: the career first of Camryn Biegalski.
The play started with (who else?) Ashley Hatch. Not seeing an easy path to goal for herself, she made a diagonal pass to Amber Brooks, running up from the Spirit’s half. Multiple Gotham defenders made a run to square off in front of Brooks, but she calmly slotted the ball to the right of Ali Krieger and into the path of Camryn Biegalski. Former defender Biegalski finished things off with a strong first hit directly into the top center of the goal. (“Like a rocket, right?” teammate Tori Huster asked.)
In their worst performances of the season, the Spirit have struggled both to create and finish chances, sometimes seeming stuck on Plan A of getting the ball to Hatch and hoping that’s enough. In their best performances, though, the team shows they can combine to harness individual talent into something greater. This kind of team play is what will carry the Spirit to the playoffs this season, if they can keep it up.
As Parsons said, in this match, “everyone stood up and wanted to be counted.”