For the defending NWSL Champions, the past few weeks have not been smooth sailing. After getting all the way to the Challenge Cup final, the Washington Spirit were tasked with nearly two matches for the last three weeks, and have not won a regular-season contest since its first against OL Reign on the first day of May. Eight contests in 28 days for a Spirit side that simply did without a doubt needed some time after a draining Challenge Cup run. The Spirit have played in two matches in a single week for the past three and a half weeks, drawing four in a row, and having to rest some of its most influential players due to player management.
Following its loss in what was a home game at the infamous Segra Field against the North Carolina Courage, Washington stood as the only team in the NWSL with fewer than two total wins. There is no question how talented this team is from top to bottom, but the lack of training time combined with the condensed schedule in May and the beginning of June along with some injuries made snatching all three points an insurmountable task. The road is finally over for Washington as it has six days before its next match against new-look Racing Louisville. It is the most days in between contests the Spirit have had since the beginning of May, but with the stretch finally over, Kris Ward can now look to regroup.
After the demoralizing defeat in the final minutes of the game, Kris Ward spoke on the thoughts of his players, stating, "There is not even an attempt to sugarcoat it...They’re not happy... there are some questionable things that happened at the end there that ultimately lead to the last goal,” referring to the free-kick awarded to the Courage, he also pointed to places where the Spirit was outplayed...North Carolina won a majority of the tackles and that’s a factor. If you’re going to lose tackles, you’re out of the play and they are going to continue on down the field."
The good thing for the Spirit is that while they have been dropping points left and right, the competitiveness of the league keeps them within striking distance of a playoff spot. A win against Racing Louisville at Segra Field would not only give the team momentum moving into the international break, but put Washington into the last playoff spot for the time being. Two new expansion teams have played to the favor of the Spirit despite the schedule being so cruel to a team that had already found some success at the beginning of the season tournament.
Watching the teams that did not make it to the semifinals of the Challenge Cup have more success than the ones that did begs the question of if the pre-season competition is even necessary. If the players coming off of it are going to be even more tired, and a more creative player rotation has to be used, the NWSL has to take a deep look at the competition, especially with what it did to Washington early on in the season. The league is essentially punishing them for the success they had in the Challenge Cup with a boatload of condensed matches at the beginning of the season.
Since May 15, Washington averages a game every 3.3 days with its longest amount of rest at only five days. A professional soccer team needs time to train, gameplan, and travel. The Spirit have had limited time to analyze the opponent that is in front of them, giving them a disadvantage from the start. The maximum roster rule of just 24 players along with injuries to players like Kelley O'Hara, and a brutal schedule due to the Challenge Cup rescheduling.
The Spirit have played one-third of their season's contests in less than a quarter of the season. Audrey Kingsbury and Sam Staab have played all 990 minutes in the 11 matches of the regular season along with six other players accounting for 800+ minutes during the same span. Washington has already had four-midweek matches in less than two months. Four contests during the mid-week usually account for the amount for the entire NWSL season.
With the challenging run finally coming to an end, the Spirit have some time to plan for what Racing Louisville possesses. Going into the international break, Washington needs to grab all three points in order to shift its season into a direction that could lead the defending champions into a position to defend the title. Trinity Rodman receiving a record contract placed pressure on not only her, but the entire club to perform at an elite level. The chemistry of Ashley Sanchez, Rodman, and Hatch is some of the best in the league, and with some time to rest, the trio can get themselves right before a match that has to be looked at as a must-win.
Looking into the future of the NWSL, there has to be something done in order for this not to happen once again. Whether it is giving the teams that make the Challenge Cup final some time before their next regular season match or even eliminating the Challenge Cup due to the demand it requires on the players participating. It is inconsiderate of the league to have a team like this try to accumulate as many points as they can with eight matches in just 28 days. The Spirit have been released from its prison cell, and can now spread their wings to the fullest potential. It is a gut check for the NWSL to realize what it has done to the team that hoisted the NWSL title last season. If this does not wake up the league to the reality that it is in, players could decide enough is enough.
The new CBA is a massive step forward for the NWSL, but it is not time to rest. The league still has many things to improve on, and as the run for Washington ends, the scheduling issue has to be put into the foreground. From lack of quality refereeing to player safety not being the No. 1 priority, the NWSL has more work to do than it thinks. It is the third iteration of a professional women's soccer league in the United States, and while it looks like it is going to live, doing what it did to the Washington Spirit is not something that is going to fly a second time.