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‘I think we’re close’: Are Washington Spirit on the brink of a win?

Trinity Rodman of the Washington Spirit marches onto the field before the NWSL Challenge Cup Final between the Spirit and North Carolina Courage on May 7 in Cary, N.C. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

On the evening of May 4, 2021 Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Kingsbury stood on the goal line for the Washington Spirit, spreading her arms out above her head and tapping her toes on the grass in front of an excited home crowd at Audi Field. Setting up for the last kick of the 2022 Challenge Cup penalty shootout was 2021 MVP Jess Fishlock.

The whistle blew. Fishlock exhaled and shot to her left. Kingsbury chose right and threw her left hand high to make a single-armed save.

The defending NWSL champions had just earned a ticket to their second straight championship game.

Kingsbury sprinted up the field and into the arms of her screaming teammates, in front of a world-wide audience that had watched the Spirit go undefeated throughout the Challenge Cup tournament. For a moment, it seemed like Washington was going to remain the team to beat in 2022.

For a moment.

The 2022 Challenge Cup finalists have not won a game since that day.

Three months into the regular season, they’re 11th — second to last — in the league standings, with a record of 1-5-8.

Washington has faced a series of unfortunate events since the week of that semifinal game. During May and June they dealt with a tight schedule that packed in five games a month, many of the matches just three or four days apart. The officiating was questionable. Injuries happened.

As misfortunes eased off slightly in July, it was defensive errors and the lack of finishing their chances that kept the Spirit from climbing the table. Otherwise, they dominated their competition, finally had games seven days apart and were given a week off to rejuvenate.

These days, a win feels right around the corner.

“I think we’re close,” said defender Kelley O’Hara. “I hope we’re close. We need to be close. Because we don’t have that many games left. And we’ve got to start getting wins if we want to be in playoff contention.”

The second-best team in the league at possession, Washington has controlled the ball more than their opponents for five straight games, recording an average of 80.25 percent passing accuracy across their four matches in July.

They outshot their opponents in their last three games, too, going 17-4 against Orlando Pride, 13-9 over the Kansas City Current and 19-13 against the North Carolina Courage. Overall, they’re ranked fifth in the league when it comes to shots on target.

Despite all the shots, they didn’t get a goal in the other two matches, but on Friday, they found their finishing abilities against the Courage, where the Spirit scored three times.

The players also showed their ability to adapt to a new, attack-heavy formation of 3-4-2-1 after having just four days to prepare. They conceded one goal from systematic issues. The other two goals against in the 3-3 draw were from a bad pass and a questionable call by the referee that resulted in a penalty kick.

The Spirit’s next match is Friday against Racing Louisville FC, with whom they tied 2-2 earlier this season. Racing are in a similar situation coming into the game, having not won since May 22.

In their first meeting on June 17, the Spirit dominated the game in the first half but, even with a 2-0 lead, shut down midway through the second after captain Andi Sullivan stepped out with an injury. Their efforts were still enough to finish the game with 53.2 percent of the possession and 26 shots, eight of those on goal.

“There were a lot of positives from the last time that we played them,” head coach Kris Ward said. “We want to continue to build on those. I think that we’ve solidified a lot of the places where we broke down in the last game against them. And so, you know, we’re looking forward to it.”

A couple of injuries still linger as Emily Sonnett and Julia Roddar remain out for Friday’s game. Last year’s Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch is available to play again for the first time since sustaining a muscle strain during the Concacaf W Championship at the beginning of July.

“I will say that I don’t think that we’re necessarily at full strength,” O’Hara said after the 3-3 draw against North Carolina. “But that’s no excuse because we have a really deep and strong team.”

Even when seven of the Spirit’s players are gone on international duty with the U.S. women’s national team, including O’Hara, they have players like Sam Staab, who is one of the best passers in the league with 85 percent accuracy and is able to consistently set up scoring opportunities just with her passing and long balls out of the back.

On Friday, Washington will be looking to add more patience to their game. Against the Courage, the Spirit engaged in the highly transitional, attack-minded game, sometimes leaving their defenders exposed. Ward felt there was a need “to be a little bit more controlled and not be willing to take so many punches on the defensive side.”

“Made some mistakes that I wish I could get back, but live and learn,” said O’Hara.

Her words are an example of the team’s mentality — a characteristic that has impressed Ward the most about his team so far this season, and one that put them on a 12-game undefeated streak last year to win the championship after being closer to the bottom of the standings midseason.

“All of our players come in, they want to work hard and they want to get better. And they know what they need to improve on,” Ward said on Thursday. “Being just very honest about it. It’s not getting too high or too low. It’s just looking at it and saying, ‘Okay, yep, I messed this one up,’ or ‘We could have communicated more and done better here.’ Whatever it is, they’ve been extremely professional about it.”

One of the Spirit players told Ward this week she had been on teams where if the match results had been like Washington’s, training would be an unpleasant time.

The coach had an unenjoyable experience of his own in 2013, the inaugural NWSL season, when Washington hadn’t won a game in a few months.

“That was bad,” said Ward, who was an assistant coach at the time. “That was not fun to be a part of. You saw some of the lowest parts of humanity during that run. And that’s just not the case here. Everyone has been just united and really together and just like, ‘This is what we’re doing. We’re going forward. This is what we want to achieve, and that doesn’t change.’

“The team knows how dangerous they are. It’s just getting into the playoffs and then making a run, and they know that we are certainly capable from that standpoint.”

It was around this time last year that the Spirit began their run to the 2021 final. Technically, hope isn’t lost. If they want to finish this season the way they started it — qualifying for a consecutive championship, where they would play once again in front of that excited Audi Field crowd like in the 2022 Challenge Cup semifinal — the time to start winning is right now.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Costa Rica Holds USWNT to 0-0 Draw in Frustrating Olympic Send-Off

USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan dribbles the ball by Costa Rica forward Melissa Herrera and midfielder Gloriana Villalobos
The USWNT had 12 shots on goal on Tuesday despite failing to find the back of the net. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The USWNT didn't quite get the going away party they were hoping for, settling for a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday in their final tune-up match before the 2024 Olympics kick off next week.

The US produced 26 shots — 12 on target — alongside 67 touches in the box, the most in any match where they failed to convert a single goal since at least 2015, per Opta. Yet they also faced a heroic performance from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermúdez, who tallied 12 saves on the night.

USWNT starters remained mostly intact

After Saturday's win over Mexico, USWNT manager Emma Hayes opted for a very similar starting XI, only swapping Crystal Dunn in for Jenna Nighswonger due to load management.

Named starter Rose Lavelle was a late scratch from the lineup after team warmups, with US Soccer attributing her last-minute absence to "leg tightness." Lavelle was replaced by midfielder Korbin Albert, giving the US a slightly less aggressive attacking edge throughout the match.

Casey Krueger, Lynn Williams, Jaedyn Shaw, Emily Sonnett, and rookie Croix Bethune all got minutes in the second half, coming off the bench to contend with Washington, DC's brutally hot conditions.

USWNT forward Sophia Smith and Costa Rica midfielder Gloriana Villalobos battle for the ball
Costa Rica managed to fend off the USWNT with a strong defensive low-block. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY)

Costa Rica's low-block spelled trouble

"Listen, if you play a game of percentages or law of averages, we're creating more and more high-quality chances, and we're getting numbers into key areas — we're getting touches in the key areas," Hayes told reporters after the match, calling attention to Costa Rica's strong defensive low-block.

"The last part's the hardest part. And I'm really patient, because I've coached teams that have to break blocks down, and it's the hardest thing to do in coaching," she continued.

Hayes also noted the team's lack of training time under her management: The decorated coach officially joined the US in early June after finishing the WSL season with her previous club, league champs Chelsea FC.

USWNT pose for a picture after their send-off friendly against costa rica at Audi Field
The USWNT's Olympic group stage run kicks off on July 25th. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Where to watch the USWNT's Olympic games

Tuesday's draw is just the second time the USWNT has entered a major tournament off a non-win. Back in 2015, the US embarked on their legendary World Cup campaign after a 0-0 send-off draw with South Korea.

The next time the USWNT takes the pitch will be at the Paris Olympics, where they'll play Zambia on Thursday, July 25th at 3 PM ET. The match will be broadcast live on USA, with streaming options available on Peacock.

The Late Sub Podcast: This Is Sophia Smith’s USWNT Attack Now

Sophia Smith dribbles during the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico on Saturday.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico last Saturday. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins breaks down the days leading up to the first USWNT Olympic send-off friendly, discussing player performances, things that worked well on the pitch, and what still needs developing as coach Emma Hayes's team moves towards a crucial Olympic competition set to will dictate the future of the team.

She then sets her sights on the WNBA, previewing WNBA All-Star Weekend and chatting with Gatorade Women’s Basketball Player of the Year Joyce Edwards alongside Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally.

Subscribe to The Late Sub to never miss an episode.

USWNT Looks to Extend Winning Streak in Final Olympic Send-Off

USWNT striker Sophia Smith dribbles through Costa Rican defenders during a 2022 Concacaf W Championship game.
The USWNT last took on Costa Rica at the 2022 Concacaf Championship semifinal. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The USWNT’s last tune-up match before the Olympics has arrived, with the FIFA world No. 5 US looking for an 18th-straight all-time win over No. 44 Costa Rica tonight at Washington, DC's Audi Field.

Just three days after a redemptive 1-0 victory over No. 29 Mexico, head coach Emma Hayes’s Paris-bound roster appears to be finding its stride. Calling Saturday’s win "a step in the right direction," Hayes went on to say, "I think we’re only scratching the surface. I think there’s a lot of layers to go from everyone."

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 13: USWNT coach Emma Hayes stands on the field before a game between Mexico and USWNT
The new-look USWNT is looking to hit its stride after several matches under Hayes. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes's USWNT is still finding its footing

With their first Olympic group stage game against No. 64 Zambia slated for July 25th, the new-look USWNT — which features the youngest roster in 16 years — is working to define its style of play.

While the USWNT’s signature ability to score in transition remains a strong point, the team also acknowledged their shaky first half on Saturday, with midfielder Rose Lavelle commenting that they're "working on being a little more tactically flexible... We’re trying to, as a group, learn how to adjust on the fly and be a little smarter with our adjustments during the games."

The patience required to choose their moments, along with the team’s ability to read and anticipate each other's movements, is clutch to increasing effectiveness in the areas where the USWNT appeared most disjointed against Mexico.

At stake is an Olympic podium finish, where the US hopes to improve on their bronze medal performance in Tokyo — but the team also aims to make a splash amidst their increasingly sophisticated opponents.

Costa Rica captain Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez chases the ball during a match against Panama in 2020.
Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez, Costa Rica's captain, is the only NWSL on their Olympic roster. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

Rodriguez leads a rising Costa Rica team

If improving offensive unity and production is tonight’s goal, Las Ticas could provide the ideal matchup: In their 17 previous meetings, the USWNT has outscored Costa Rica 90-2 overall.

That said, Costa Rica has switched things up since the sides last met in July 2022, with the US defeating the Central American squad 3-0 in the Concacaf Championship semifinal. Las Ticas competed in the 2023 World Cup and reached the Gold Cup quarterfinals earlier this year, where they narrowly fell to No. 8 Canada in extra time.

Costa Rica is captained by 30-year-old Angel City midfielder Rocky Rodriguez, the lone NWSL player on their roster and, in 2015, the first Costa Rica national to ever score in a Women's World Cup.

In addition to maintaining a perfect record against Costa Rica, the USWNT will look to extend their current unbeaten streak to nine, which includes three shutouts in Hayes’s first three matches at the helm.

Lindsay Horan drinks water before the USWNT's match against Ireland in April 2023.
An excessive heat warning is in effect for Washington, DC today. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

Where to watch the USWNT vs. Costa Rica friendly

Expect some hydration breaks due to DC's scorching temperatures during tonight’s 7:30 PM ET match, airing live on TNT and streaming on Peacock.

TruTV and Max will simultaneously air the first-ever USWNT altcast, hosted by retired USWNT star Sam Mewis, former USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn, and Men in Blazers founder Roger Bennett.

Sizing Up USWNT’s 2024 Olympic Competition

Germany's Giulia Gwinn steps to the ball while Iceland's Sandra Jessen slides in during Friday's UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match.
Germany lost their Euros qualifier against Iceland 3-0 on Friday, less than two weeks before Olympic football begins. (Hulda Margret/Getty Images)

With Olympic soccer kicking off in just over a week, the USWNT isn't the only national squad prepping for the podium with a series of pre-Paris matchups. Both international friendlies and important qualifiers are on the docket, with several European teams competing for a spot in the UEFA Women's EURO 2025.

Regardless of the stakes, these performances might provide some insight into what the USWNT can expect once the Summer Games begin.

Czechia national soccer team celebrates as Spain women's national soccer team defender Laia Aleixandri leaves the pitch
FIFA World No. 1 Spain fell to Czechia on Friday in a 2025 Euros qualifier. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Pre-Olympic matches expose problems for top teams

Of the 12 Olympic teams, recent outings from FIFA world No. 1 Spain and No. 4 Germany featured the most shocking outcomes.

Despite dominating possession behind an opening goal from 2023 Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí, the 2023 World Cup winners fell 2-1 to No. 30 Czechia in Friday's Euros qualifier — their first loss of 2024. They managed to bounce back on Tuesday, however, beating Belgium 2-0 to finish out the league stage on top with 15 points.

Spain heads into the Summer Games aiming to become the first women’s team to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back-to-back, though they’ll need to reclaim their composure to achieve that feat in the face of an Olympic group that includes Japan, Nigeria, and Brazil.

France defender Sakina Karchaoui celebrates her opening goal during Friday's 2-1 win over Sweden.
Defender Sakina Karchaoui scored the opening goal in France's 2-1 win over Sweden on Friday. (ARNAUD FINISTRE/AFP via Getty Images)

No. 2 France took down No. 6 Sweden 2-1 in Friday's Euro qualifier, but flipped the script on Tuesday with a 3-1 loss to last-place No. 25 Republic of Ireland, who notched their first win. However, thanks to England's 0-0 draw with Sweden — also on Tuesday — France still topped their qualifying group with 12 points. Les Bleus will look for more consistent results going into the Olympics, where they're set to face Colombia, New Zealand, and Guinea in the group stage.

But it was Germany who stumbled the hardest, losing out 3-0 to No. 14 Iceland in their own Friday qualifier. After the match, Germany's head coach Horst Hrubesch didn’t mince words.

"We have to assert ourselves from the start in the individual battles. The way we played just wasn’t good," Hrubesch told reporters. "We deserved to lose. We handed them all three goals on a plate."

Tuesday also saw improvement for Germany, as they routed Austria 4-0 to claim first place in the group standings with 15 points.

But the earlier loss was still foreboding for this German squad. The two-time world champions fell to 3-2 to Zambia just weeks before the 2023 World Cup, before failing to advance past the World Cup group stage for the first time in the tournament’s history. Germany also faces some tough Olympic group stage competition, battling Australia and the USWNT before crossing paths with Zambia once again.  

Team Canada celebrate their victory in the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Match with Sweden
Team Canada has their work cut out for them if they want to repeat their Tokyo gold medal run. (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Friendlies rally Olympic teams outside Europe

Defending Olympic champs FIFA World No. 8 Canada defeated No. 12 Australia 2-1 on Saturday, with KC Current forward Nichelle Prince and ex-Gotham striker Evelyne Viens both scoring in the friendly. Canada will play world No. 36 Nigeria in a closed-door friendly on Wednesday before kicking off their Olympic campaign against New Zealand on July 25th. 

For their part, No. 28 New Zealand drew 1-1 in a friendly with No. 64 Zambia on Saturday, while non-Olympic-bound Ecuador handed No. 22 Colombia a 2-1 send-off loss.

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