Sky Blue FC defeated the Washington Spirit on penalties to advance to the semi-finals of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Here are three things we learned.
Ashley Sanchez was the main bright spark for the Spirit was Ashley Sanchez, who had her best chance in the 42nd minute, while Kailen Sheridan performed heroics at times to keep the scores level and take the match to penalties. She wasn’t done there, however.
Both teams converted their the first two attempts before Washington defender Sam Staab missed her attempt and Sheridan saved the final shot to clinch a birth in the semifinals, winning 4-3 on penalties.
Here are three things we learned.
3. Only the beginning for Washington
The Washington Spirit came into this competition with a good deal of expectation. They ended 2019 in fifth place after being at the top of the table at one point. And it looked like earning the second seed behind the North Carolina Courage was the first step to proving their readiness to compete for the title, especially with the Courage losing to the Portland Thorns.
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But soccer is a cruel game and Washington learned that in the hardest way possible, penalties. They were the better side for 90 minutes but couldn’t convert their chances into goals and that cost them a semi-final birth and a chance at silverware.
Looking forward, however, the Spirit’s prospects are bright. They have a young core group of stars that impressed on the field in the Challenge Cup. Players like Ashley Sanchez, Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan have incredibly bright futures ahead of them and will compete for championships for a long while. Losing on penalties is cruel, yes, but the Spirit have the young talent to be competitive for years to come.
2. Get Ashley Sanchez the ball
One of the biggest questions going into the Challenge Cup for the Washington Spirit was the play of rookie Ashley Sanchez. She was drafted fourth overall in the 2019 NWSL College Draft and immediately began producing on the field for Washington in 2020.
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She ended the Challenge Cup having appeared in five games. She started in four of those and earned one assist. Although she didn’t get on the scoresheet, Sanchez’s play showed signs of a very good player and an even better one in years to come. She worked her way into good positions in the box and was often just a final touch away from scoring. If she can figure out that final step, which often comes with experience, she will be a menace.
In this match against Sky Blue, she ended with three shots, all of which were on target. She also came inches away from heading in the match-winner. She had a total of eight touches in the box. They resulted in three shots on target, three successful passes, one loss of possession and one unsuccessful pass.
When the Spirit gave Sanchez the ball, the offense was more effective in creating chances. It is a positive sign for what is to come, then, as the rookie continues to progress.