Seven games into the regular season and the Washington Spirit are the only team yet to lose a match. Last year’s team finished second from the bottom with only three wins all season. This year they’ve already won four.
While the Spirit have a core that won the NWSL Championship in 2021, this season they’re relying on new players in new positions, a new formation, and a new style of play.
The backline of the Spirit’s defense is all new except for center back Sam Staab. A recent injury to right back Dorian Bailey has brought Amber Brooks, a frequent starter at center back last season, into the fold to fill the position. To the left of Staab is new signing Gabrielle Carle, who’s settled into the team and league nicely.
However, the most surprising addition has been the conversion of former forward Tara McKeown into Staab’s central defensive partner. This was a completely unexpected move, but McKeown is proving the coaching staff right through her performances.
She’s started all seven league matches and has already racked up 14 interceptions and 39(!) clearances. McKeown’s physicality has also helped her matchup favorably against some dangerous forwards, including limiting Alex Morgan to a single shot all match.
The Spirit are not a fun team to play against. Not only do they have conceded the fewest goals in the league (five), they also lead the league in interceptions (89). For the mathematically inclined, that’s an average of 12.7 interceptions PER GAME!
Before the season, Parsons and every member of the team spoke about how they wanted to attack the opponent with and without the ball, and all over the pitch. It sounds exhausting, but they’re doing it, and it’s working.
One of the Spirit’s key offseason hires was Dawn Scott, a legend in women’s football performance, having previously worked with the U.S. and England women’s national teams. With the Spirit, she is Director of Performance, Medical and Innovation, and has been empowered to hire and build a staff to support the performance of the players from injury recovery, to tracking data and analytics, to nutritional information, women-specific health, and personalized plans for each player.
All of this gave Andi Sullivan the confidence to answer a halftime question about whether the Spirit could keep up their frantic pace all game with an all-time quote: “Yeah we’re fit as hell, so we can do it.”
However, as good and surprising as the Spirit’s newly crafted defense has been, a familiar player between the posts has taken them from good to outperforming-their-metrics great. Post shot expected goals takes into account a number of factors about the shot, making it a decent way to assess a goalkeeper’s shot stopping ability.
The Spirit have conceded five goals with a post shot expected goals (PSxG) tally of 7.3. Given the shots they’ve faced, the Spirit were expected to have given up seven goals. Instead, Kingsbury’s elite shot-stopping ability has allowed them to outperform this metric.
The season may be less than a third complete (and there’s a massive World Cup coming up this summer in which multiple Spirit players are expected to participate), but the Spirit have already shown that they’re fit as hell, and hell to play against.