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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.
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