Takeaways from Washington Spirit v North Carolina

North Carolina is always an interesting test for NWSL teams in preseason. They’re often missing a couple of players from various national teams (Katie Bowen started for New Zealand against the USA earlier in the day), and the remaining players are athletic and aggressive.

That skillset is especially challenging for midfielders who need to rev up to regular-season playing speed. A little mistake or hesitation, and you’re going to be dispossessed and/or on the ground.

“In the past, they’ve been one of the teams we’ve played first in preseason,” said Tori Huster, one of the few Spirit players with any institutional memory. “I think Mark (Parsons) wanted us to get a game (before the regular-season opener) that was going to be similar to the NWSL with the pressure. They pressed all over when I was in college (ACC rival Florida State), and they did it again today.”

The Washington Spirit passed that test, more or less, against the Tar Heels on Saturday. They’ll regret their lack of scoring against a short-handed college backline, but the Spirit controlled most of the action and got in a good workout. If not for goalkeeper Lindsey Harris and some finishing that might be called “preseason-quality,” the score would’ve been closer to 3-0 than the eventual 1-0.

“We were outbattled last week by (Virginia),” coach Mark Parsons said. “There’s not many tougher teams or faster teams than UNC. We were really strong — very intense, very physical — and that was good to see.”

A few takeaways:

– Estafania Banini has some skill and speed. She seems to be faster with the ball than without. She might frustrate her teammates if she doesn’t get them the ball. A questionable decision to take the ball on her own rather than passing paid off when her 24-yard shot hit the left post and went in, but at other times, she waited far too long to look for a teammate.

– As a whole, the final ball was lacking — a couple of bad touches in open space, a couple of bad decisions to pass or not to pass. “We just need to continue to play together,” Christine Nairn said. “After we look at the video, we can only improve.”

– The passing game is promising. In the first half, the Spirit struggled passing the ball in their own half but did pretty well combining in the attack. Yet the goal came from a 60-yard blast from goalkeeper Kelsey Wys up to Banini, and the second half started with a more direct approach. Perhaps that was a bit of impatience, but it loosened up the UNC defense. The Tar Heels, not playing college substitution rules this time, faded toward the end. Then Huster started to carve them up with clinical through balls, several of which should’ve been finished.

– The center midfielders are interchangeable, with Huster, Nairn, Joanna Lohman and sub Angela Salem switching between attacking and defensive midfield throughout. “With Joanna Lohman and Angela Salem, they’re able to shift down into that No. 6 position and spray balls out,” Huster said. “A couple of times, I got bumped into what you’d call a No. 10 position. We were able to get some combinations together. …

“Mark’s going to be asking (us) to play all these positions because he’s going to ask us to rotate. And that’s just the flow of the game as well.”

Other notes:

– Parsons said he would’ve made some attacking subs if this were a regular-season game, but he wanted to build fitness among his starters. He attributed some of the mistakes to fatigue.

– No surprises on roster cutdown day, Parsons said. The players under contract all made the team. They’re listed on the site, and they include players who haven’t reported yet (looking your way, Mexico) but are expected this summer or after the World Cup. Cuts will be necessary if everyone’s healthy when the latecomers arrive.

– UNC goalkeeper Lindsey Harris was outstanding.

– Parsons is a little worried about his team as they head into the heat next week in Houston. This game wasn’t as frigid as last week’s game against Virginia, but it was still chilly and breezy. Nairn, for one, fought back sniffles as she said she was looking forward to getting into hotter weather.

– The game was well-reffed with one notable exception — Huster was fouled multiple times, and as usual, nothing was called. It’s uncanny.

Update: I had a rough formation and some game highlights written in my notes, and I figured I’d add them here for posterity and future reference:

FW: Del Rio

Wings: Banini left, Da Costa right

Center mids: The fluid Nairn-Lohman-Huster triad

Backs, left to right: Reynolds – Johnson – Oyster – Singer

Keeper: Wys

7′ Reynolds get up from left back, cross to Nairn cut out.

8′ GOAL Wys long ball to Banini in left channel. Cuts inside recovering defender. Has two passes open but rips from 24 yards off the left post and in.

12′ Good work on left Nairn to Del Rio.

13′ Fristenberg strips from Johnson, who’s dawdling with the ball at midfield. Long-range shot with Wys off line goes wide.

22′ Wys a little unsteady on long, looping shot from Fristenberg

23′ Wys lets things bounce, UNC 15-yard shot goes wide

27′ Free kick floats nicely. Huster doesn’t go for it. Lohman doesn’t connect cleanly.

43’ Boyles hits bar. Wys not in comfortable position.

HALFTIME: Dydasco for Da Costa; Brown for Wys

61’ Huster needed more on pass to Dydasco, who made good run

63’ Salem for Nairn; Church for Singer

70’ Del Rio great layback to Banini, who mishandled it and it goes to the keeper

73’ Good sequence – shot, keeper tries to punch it away, Salem nearly puts away rebound

75’ Great sequence from Salem and Lohman at top of D. Del Rio shot, terrific save Harris (maybe not struck as well as it should’ve been)

77’ Banini gets the ball in tons of open space, dithers, lays it back/gets tackled back to Del Rio, another shot straight to keeper.

81’ Through ball finds Dydasco, who rounds keeper but keeper recovers. Dydasco gets a second chance but is too late, and it’s blocked.

86’ Del Rio surges through, caught and fouled but stays on feet and shoots. Another stop for Harris.

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