The Bad Hombres FC – Episode 15: DCU News, Lavelle leaving? and CONCACAF

Featuring  José Umaña and Mario Amaya

Tune in for The Bad Hombres Podcast every week on Thursdays at 8 p.m. as soccer journalists José Umaña and Mario Amaya talk on the main topics dealing with D.C. United, Washington Spirit and any soccer news in the DMV.

The Bad Hombres FC – Episode 14: United, Spirit eliminated

Featuring  José Umaña and Mario Amaya

Tune in for The Bad Hombres Podcast every week on Thursdays at 8 p.m. as soccer journalists José Umaña and Mario Amaya talk on the main topics dealing with D.C. United, Washington Spirit and any soccer news in the DMV.

Sky Blue FC ends the Spirit’s Challenge Cup dreams in PKs

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor
Photo: Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos

Bayley Feist slowly walked back to the center of the field at Zion Bank Stadium into the waiting arms of her Washington Spirit teammates. Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan saved the midfielder’s penalty kick attempt to end a best-of-five shootout in their NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals match vs. Sky Blue FC.

Sky Blue FC players rushed to celebrate with Sheridan as Feist walked towards head coach Richie Burke. He hugged her immediately, reminding her that she was a good footballer. Despite playing exciting offensive soccer throughout the tournament, Burke said their lack of experience in critical situations proved to be a difference.

“When you get in a situation like that, sometimes nerves take the better of you, and some young players don’t take the same penalties that they take in training for whatever reason, and here we are,” Burke said.

The Spirit remained scoreless by the end of regulation time against Sky Blue FC. Their run came to an end after two missed attempts in a 4-3 loss on penalty kicks Saturday.

Washington was riding high following the primary stage, finishing as the No. 2 ranked team and highest seed remaining in the Challenge Cup following the North Carolina Courage’s loss on Friday.

Against the No. 7 Sky Blue FC, the Spirit were without captain Andi Sullivan due to a meniscus tear injury. U.S. Soccer, who monitored all U.S. Women’s National Team players conditions throughout the tournament, placed a minute’s restriction on midfielder Rose Lavelle, which forced Burke to start her on the bench and bring her in midway through the second half.

Both teams struggled to find an offensive rhythm in the first half. Washington’s best chance came in the 42nd minute came as Tori Huster delivered a cross from the edge of the penalty area to find a diving Ashley Sanchez for a header. Sheridan slapped the attempt down for the save.

Sanchez tired again two minutes before halftime with a one-timer from behind the penalty spot, but it was stopped yet by the Canadian international. Sheridan finished regulation with seven saves.

Eight minutes into the second half, forward Kumi Yokoyama received a pass from fellow striker Ashley Hatch to connect with a volley attempt at the Sky Blue goal. While the shot flew past Sheridan, the ball ricocheted off the goal post, keeping the match scoreless.

“I think that’s something we are going to have to work on, just being clinical on the final third, and not just down to [Hatch] scoring a game-winning goal,” Huster said.

Following a scoreless 90 minutes, the game went to a penalty kick shootout to settle who would go to the semifinals. After both teams scored in the opening first two rounds, Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe dove to her right to save midfielder Dominique Richardson, opening the door for the Spirit to take the lead.

HERRIMAN, UT – JULY 18: Aubrey Bledsoe of Washington Spirit blocks a penalty kick at Zions Bank Stadium on July 18, 2020 in Herriman, Utah. Photo by Rob Gray/ISI Photos.

However, Spirit defender Sam Staab fired her shot over the crossbar, keeping the score tied at 2-2. After another round of converted penalties, Elizabeth Eddy scored for the New Jersey-based side, putting on the pressure on Feist to score to send the game to sudden death.

However, the midfielder’s right-footed attempt was safely handled by Sheridan, eliminating the Spirit.

“We didn’t lose today; we lost in a penalty shootout,” Burke said. “We didn’t lose a game. We dominated it, and one of the things we need to take from this tournament is, and the take away from a lot of [this] game is a little bit more danger.”

Going forward, the Spirit will use the tournament to springboard them as one of the elite teams in the NWSL. Burke said he was proud of the growth all the team’s draft picks made, becoming talented role players to their possessive-based attack. He expects all the players to feel prideful about their success as they transition to the next part of their season.

“We’re a young team.,” Bledsoe said. “I know we’ll bounce back. Hopefully, the offseason isn’t too long this year. We’ve got lots of growth ahead for us.”

Spirit defeats Dash in final game of preliminary round of Challenge Cup

Spirit lose Sullivan for rest of NWSL Challenge Cup competition

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Photos courtesy of ISI Photos

WASHINGTON – A 16th-minute goal by midfielder Bayley Feist was enough for the Washington Spirit to capture a 1-0 victory over the Houston Dash in their fourth match in the NWSL’s Challenge Cup.

Washington (2-1-1) ends the preliminary round with seven points. Pending the results of the final three matches in the stage, the Spirit could finish as high as second place in the eight-team tournament before the knockout rounds begin.

It did not take long for the Spirit to start pressing forward with several opportunities on goal against a fatigued Houston side. The Dash (1-2-1) last played on July 8, their fourth game in 12 days, whereas their Washington counterparts had a six-day layoff.

HERRIMAN, UT – JULY 12: Washington Spirit players celebrate during a game between Houston Dash and Washington Spirit at Zions Bank Stadium on July 12, 2020 in Herriman, Utah.

With their opponents unable to wrestle the ball away, Washington bombarded ahead with forwards Kumi Yokoyama and Ashley Sanchez setting up attacks from the flanks. Using their speed, the Spirit fired three shots on goal in the opening 15 minutes.

Yokoyama elected to slow down the pace in the 16th minute and send a lateral pass to striker Ashley Hatch on the top of the penalty area. The former Brigham Young University star elected to pass the ball to an approaching Feist, who took two dribbles before unleashing a right-footed shot for the goal.

“That one felt good; I was due for a goal,” Feist said. “I saw (Hatch) dribbling the ball up the sideline, and she cut it back. I kinda opened my body up a little bit, took a touch, placed it well and it went in.”

Washington continued to dominate as they finished the first half with 69% of the ball possession and outshoot Houston, 8-2, in on-target attempts. One of the Dash’s efforts did almost tie the game as striker Rachel Daly beat defender Tori Huster to a loose ball and hit a shot off the crossbar moments before halftime.

Five minutes into the second half, Washington captain Andi Sullivan came down with a non-contact injury on her left knee. She limped off the field on her own power when subbed out. 

In his postgame press conference, Washington Spirit Head Coach Ritchie Burke said team doctors believed that she reaggravated a previous injury on her meniscus and will have an MRI performed after the game.

“Hopefully, she is ready to go 90 minutes next week in the next round,” Burke said.

However, today, the team announced that Sullivan suffered a torn meniscus and will miss the NWSL Challenge Cup. 

“The team is rallying around our captain and incredible leader, and we are now highly motivated to play extra hard in her honor,” Burke said. “It’s amazing how many well-wishes I’ve received from everyone in football about Andi, and it’s a testimony to her popularity as well as the amount of respect she has from people at the highest levels of the game.”

Sanchez looked poised to help Washington add a second goal when she ran down the left flank and cut inside into the penalty area, sending in a low pass to Hatch. However, goalkeeper Jane Campbell denied her attempt to score with a quick save.

Houston continued to struggle until forward Katie Stengel’s left-footed shot in the 67th minute flew over goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe’s head towards Washington’s goal. However, defender Paige Nielsen headed the ball out of danger for the Spirit’s first shutout of the tournament.

While being seeded high for the knockout stage is important, health is a more significant concern going forward, Burke said. Star midfielder Rose Lavelle missed the Houston game due to a reported ankle injury. 

“They are well bought-in to our tactics and methodology, and we are well unified,” Burke said. “I think we are in a good place.”

Set-piece magic helps Spirit post draw against Thorns

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Photo by ISI Photos

WASHINGTON – A simple corner kick turned into a magical moment for the Washington Spirit against the Portland Thorns in the NWSL Challenge Cup on Sunday.

Midfielder Dorian Bailey fired off a short-lobbed pass to striker Ashley Sanchez standing on the edge of the penalty area. The former UCLA starter flicked a backheel in the air, keeping the ball in play and floated it over a sea of defenders, before finding teammate Samantha Staab.

The Spirit center back connected with a snapping header that beat a save attempt by Meghan Klingenberg for a surprising goal.

“I saw the ball going out and tried to get something on it to keep it in the mix,” Sanchez said about her surprise assist. “We were down one, so I was doing whatever I could.”

“That was not a rehearsed play,” Washington head coach Richie Burke said. “That was not something that we expected; I don’t think she expected it. It was more like a kung-fu move, but we will take it under the circumstances.”

The corner kick magic capped off multiple attempts Washington failed to capitalize on. Staab’s goal helped the Spirit earn a 1-1 draw over the Portland Thorns.

With the result, the Spirit (1-1-1) regained some of its momentum back it had lost after losing to the North Carolina Courage in their second tournament match. Washington sits in fourth place (four points) heading into their final non-knockout game.

Washington tested its depth once again, starting the match without striker Ashley Hatch and midfielder Rose Lavelle. Ashley Sanchez and Kumi Yokoyama returned to the starting lineup, and rookie Averie Collins made her first professional start in the midfield.

The squad rotation allowed Portland to have most of the ball possession and scoring opportunities in the first half. The Spirit regained its composure after the hydration break midway through the half with two of its three shots going on target.

After halftime, Hatch was subbed on and immediately impact the game as Washington pushed the ball onto Portland’s half. In the 63rd minute, Hatch almost equalized with a left-footed crossbody shot that goalkeeper Bella Bixby saved.

Portland opened the scoring six minutes later as Klingenberg floated a midfield free kick to a diving Lindsey Horan into the penalty area for a header goal.

Despite the goal, Washington continued its offensive push, subbing on Lavelle to add more attacking firepower that paid off with Staab’s goal.

In the 88th minute, Horan attempted one more shot for Portland, a right-footed attempt from outside the penalty area. However, Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe made a diving save to smack the ball away from the far post to keep the game leveled.

The Spirit faces the Houston Dash in their final fixture before the knockout rounds on Sunday at 12:30 p.m.

North Carolina shuts out Spirit in Challenge Cup

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Photo courtesy of ISI Photos

WASHINGTON – Striker Lynn Williams scored two second half goals to lead the North Carolina Courage past the Washington Spirit, 2-0, in their second match of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup on Wednesday in Utah.

Williams, the Courage’s leading goal scorer last year, found the back of the net five minutes after halftime when she collected the ball down the right sideline, driving past a diving Sam Stabb and ran towards the penalty area unmarked.

The 27-year-old capped off her long sprint toward the net with a left-footed shot past Arbury Bledsoe to give the reigning NWSL champions a one-goal advantage.

Less than 12 minutes later, Courage midfielder Debhina launched a cross from the right flank into the penalty area to find Williams. The striker stuck her right foot out, connecting with the ball and drove it to the far post for her second goal. Williams leads the Challenge Cup with three goals in two matches.

North Carolina started the second half making two key substitutions, bringing on U.S. Women’s National Team midfielders Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis. The change brought on more stability in their play and created extra space for passing lanes for new attacks.

“I thought the first half it was relatively competitive,” Washington Head Coach Richie Burke said. “But we ran into a bit of a buzzsaw in the second half where they offloaded their bench with international players and came after us with a buzzsaw.”

The Spirit, who defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in their opening match of the tournament, made multiple lineup changes before kickoff to combat North Carolina’s potent offense while testing its depth.

Forward Bayley Feist paired up top with striker Ashley Hatch while a formation change brought in midfielders Dorian Bailey and Meggie Dougherty-Howard.

Three minutes into the contest, Washington gathered momentum offensively as midfielder Andi Sullivan fired a 30-yard shot towards the North Carolina goal. Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe smacked the ball away to keep the match tied early.

Debinha quickly responded with a right-footed shot of her own from the left side of the penalty area towards the Spirit goal. The ball crashed off the far side goalpost as both teams were unable to break the deadlock in the first half.

Washington was unable to replicate their offensive success from the Chicago match, finishing the game with only five shots and only one, Sullivan’s early strike, going on target. 

Defender Paige Nielsen credits North Carolina’s ability to cancel out their gameplan of aggressive possession and attack the Spirit backline as they experienced fatigue as the match wore on.

“We thought our midfielders could press high, but they stretched us out too much,” Nielsen said. “Our midfielders got super tired, and our [defensive] line kept dropping, and they were able to move the ball well. We did not stay compact, and they were able to go through us.”

With the result, Washington (1-1-0, 3 points) drops to second place in the eight-team tournament. Coming up, the Spirit will face the Portland Thorns on Sunday at 10 p.m.

Spirit wins opening match of Challenge Cup, 2-1

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor 

Photo by Rob Gray/ISI Photos

WASHINGTON – Goals by midfielder Rose Lavelle and striker Ashley Hatch led the Washington Spirit to a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Red Stars Saturday in their opening game in the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup.

Under the new tournament format in Utah, a “recalibrated” Washington Spirit looks to continue the upward trajectory it ended the 2019 season. It only took seven minutes into the contest before Lavelle, a U.S. Women’s National Team starter, crushed a loose rebound into the top left corner of the net to give the Spirit a one-goal lead.

Twenty seconds into the second half, Hatch, who led the team in scoring last season, pounced on an extra touch by Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to steal the loose ball and score in the open net.

“We have players that can provide magical moments at any time during the game, and they are chopping at the bit to play,” Head Coach Richie Burke said Thursday.

Ashely Sanchez, the No. 4 pick of the 2020 NWSL College Draft and a U.S. Women’s National Team prospect, excelled in her first start in a Spirit uniform. The former UCLA striker joined Lavelle and Hatch in multiple attacks as Washington finished with six of its 10 shots on target.

“That kid is an incredibly talented kid,” Burke said. “Our job is to keep her moving forward because she is a prestigious talent…She is small and slight but tricky and fast. She is going to take her lumps at this level, but she is a very talented kid. She is someone you’re going to enjoy watching because she will run at you and take you on.”

Midfielder Kumi Yokoyama, one of the Spirit’s five new international players, struggled to adjust the play’s speed by both teams. Burke said he expects her to add more flair in the attack once she adjusts to his press-based offense and the league’s pace of play.

Despite Chicago midfielder Morgan Gautrat’s goal in the 51st minute, the Spirit remained in control of the contest. A last-ditch effort by Chicago’s striker Bianca St. Georges in the Spirit’s six-yard box was denied by goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe’s one-handed save to secure the win for Washington.

Before the contest, Burke said this year’s squad is ready to exceed expectations after an eventful offseason. The Spirit began training in Florida in March before being called back home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Washington returned to training in May in Virginia because they had no access to their practice facilities at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

The lack of preseason friendlies meant for the Spirit did not test possible starting lineups outside of practice or acquire intel on their future opponents. Without the usual warm-up games, the team’s endurance was quickly tested against Chicago, with Washington using three of its five substitutions before the 70th minute.

Washington has three more games remaining before the knockout round, two of which are with playoff teams from last season. For Burke, the rest of the Challenge Cup will be like its namesake, challenging but believes the Spirit are up for the task.

“We have had to recalibrate at every single turn,” Burke said. “This is another opportunity to do so, but I believe in the players, and I believe that we have a talented squad.”

The Spirit will face the reigning NWSL Champion North Carolina Courage on Wednesday at 10 p.m., with the game broadcast live on CBS All-Access.

During Saturday’s match, the club unveiled its 2020 new home kit. The navy blue jersey features grey horizontal stripes and paired with red shorts. CVS Health, the team’s latest sponsor, is prominently displayed in the front of the new jersey.

Sandy Spring, the team’s first-ever official banking partner, will on the jersey sleeve. On the back of the jersey, Progressive Insurance will be featured on the yoke while founding sponsor, the Women and Girls in Soccer (WAGS) returns to occupy the space beneath the players’ numbers.

The Bad Hombres FC – Episode 10: D.C. United and Washington Spirit Tournament Previews

Featuring  José Umaña and Mario Amaya

Tune in for The Bad Hombres Podcast every week on Thursdays at 8 p.m. as soccer journalists José Umaña and Mario Amaya talk on the main topics dealing with D.C. United, Washington Spirit and any soccer news in the DMV.

Washington Spirit sign forward Meghan McCool

By The Sports Pulse Staff

Courtesy Photo

WASHINGTON – The Washington Spirit have signed forward Meghan McCool to a one year contract with an option for an additional year.

McCool joins the Spirit after being named to the Spirit’s 31-player preseason roster as a non-roster invitee back in March and will wear No. 26 for the Spirit.

McCool played a four years of collegiate soccer at the University of Virginia, playing in 88 games as a Cavalier, racking up 3,857 minutes of game time. McCool started 46 games in Charlottesville, with 44 starts coming in her junior and senior years.

The forward netted 27 goals over her collegiate career, with 15 coming during her senior season, tied for the most in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

McCool finished her senior year with a 0.68 goals per game percentage, second-best in the conference. She also scored six game-winning goals in 2019, including the deciding goal against No. 9 Duke in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.

McCool enjoyed a star-studded senior season at UVA, being named to the All-America Third Team and All-Region First Team by United Soccer Coaches, as well as being named to the All-ACC First Team. The Glenside, PA. native also served as team captain in 2019, leading the Cavaliers to a 17-2-3 record and an appearance in the ACC Finals.

McCool played for Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in high-school, where she scored 136 goals over a four-year varsity career. McCool played at the club level for Penn Fusion, where she was selected for the 2015 High-School All-American game.

The UVA Alum also has experience with the United States Women’s National Team at the youth level, as she has been called into camp at the U-20 level on two occasions. McCool has also been called up at the U-18 and U-19 levels.

McCool has also played against the Spirit in the past, as the forward saw game time in UVA’s 2-0 loss to Washington during the 2017 preseason.

Spirit, Captials set to play soon amid pandemic

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

WASHINGTON – The Washington Spirit and the Washington Capitals are the first two professional sports teams (representing the metropolitan region) preparing to restart their seasons as their respective leagues announce their plans following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most notable of the two is the Spirit as the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced a 25-game tournament called the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.

It will take place between June 27-July 26 with all of the matches taking place in Utah. Fans will not be allowed to attend games, but can watch them via CBS All Access with the opening and championship games airing on CBS.

Barring changes in the schedule, the NWSL would become the first U.S. professional team sports league to return following the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams were starting their preseasons when cities were forced to shut down and implement social distancing rules.

“As our country begins to reopen and adjust to our collective new reality safely, and with the enthusiastic support of our players, owners, as well as our new and current commercial partners, the NWSL is thrilled to bring professional soccer back to the United States,” Commissioner Lisa Baird said.

Washington Spirit Owner Steve Baldwin said on the “Catch the Spirit” podcast on May 26 that Utah’s experience of hosting large-scale events, like the 2000 Winter Olympics, and the facilities being provided by the Utah Royals ownership made the tournament possible.

“We considered playing full league seasons at various junctures,” Baldwin said. “As things progressed and we saw what the situation was going to be in terms of being able to bring fans into games in the near terms and things like that, we settled around this tournament concept that we are very excited about.”

The Spirit finished the 2019 season in fifth place (34 points), four points outside a playoff spot. Washington traded U.S. Women’s National Team striker Mallory Pugh for three draft picks, including the No. 4 pick during the 2020 NWSL Draft in January.

However, they were able to re-sign team captain Andy Sullivan and 2019 National Women’s Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe. The Spirit also expects the return of midfielder Rose Lavelle, who was named to the 2019 FIFA FIFPro World XI following her World Cup performance for the U.S. last year.

Meanwhile, the NHL announced its return on the ice by announcing the end of the regular season and starting an expanded playoff format with 24 teams, 12 for each conference.

The top four seeds based on point percentage will play a round-robin playoff for conference seeding while the remaining eight teams will face off in a best of five “play-in” round.

The playoffs will take place in two “hub cities” where each conference will play their playoff games. Cities in the running include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver.

No set date has been announced, but Commissioner Gary Bettman said on May 26 that it’s conceivable to play games at the end of July or early August.

“We are hopeful the Return To Play Plan will allow us to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup in a manner in which the health and safety of our players, on-ice officials, team staff and associated individuals involved are paramount,” Bettman said.

Once teams are allowed back into their facilities, practices will be limited, including a maximum of six players on the ice at a time, no contact, and no coaches for voluntary workouts. There would be a rigorous schedule of COVID-19 testing to ensure player safety, Bettman said.

The Capitals (41-20-8, 90 points) finish the regular season one point ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, clinching their fifth-straight Metropolitan Division title and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They will have a first-round bye and play for seeding in the new playoff structure.