Washington’s USWNT players return to Spirit

Less than a minute after her return to the Washington Spirit last Saturday, Ashley Sanchez showed no sign of the huge disappointment that followed her return from the United States women’s national soccer team at the World Cup.

The 24-year-old midfielder, who came on as a second-half substitute in a goalless game, combined with Ouleymata Sarr and whistled a 12-yard shot into the short side of the net.

The Houston Dash is not the Sweden national team and a National Women’s Soccer League game is not a World Cup knockout game. But for those who also watched as the US team faltered during the group stage and failed to capitalize on the myriad chances in the round of 16, Sanchez’s instant influence last weekend once again raised questions about coach Vlatko Andonovski’s decision-making on.

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On Wednesday, after the Spirit’s practice session ahead of Sunday’s showdown against the Portland Thorns at Audi Field, Sanchez was reluctant to discuss her lack of playing time in New Zealand and Australia.

“Let’s just say the role [she was told by Andonovski she would fill at the tournament] wasn’t what I played,” she said, declining to elaborate.

For much of the past 18 months, Sanchez has been Rose Lavelle’s main replacement in attacking midfield. With Lavelle out for months through injury before the World Cup, Sanchez expected her to play significant minutes at the tournament, even if she didn’t start every game.

However, in the group stage, new signing Savannah DeMelo replaced Lavelle in the lineup for the first two games. In the third game — the US team’s worst in the tournament — Lavelle started and neither Sanchez nor DeMelo played.

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With Lavelle serving a yellow card suspension from the round of 16 loss to Sweden, Andonovski fielded two defensive midfielders, leaving Sanchez and DeMelo on the bench throughout the game.

As the World Cup drew closer, Sánchez had started five games and made three more substitutions. During the tournament, Andonovski did not elaborate on Sanchez’s absence, although his praise for DeMelo earlier in the visit suggested that Sanchez had slipped down the depth chart at training camp before flying to Oceania.

Last week, Andonovski retired after the worst performance at the US World Cup in history.

Spirit coach Mark Parsons said Wednesday he was surprised Sanchez wasn’t even used as a substitute in a side that has scored in their last three games and none in their last two. (He has not been suspended in consecutive games since March 2017.) But as a longtime NWSL coach and former coach of the Netherlands national team, he also understands the complexities of the squad.

“There were at least a couple of games, tactically, that’s Sanchez,” Parsons said. “And some games would have been more difficult for Sanchez.”

Sanchez was among the four Spirit players on the US roster. Forward Trinity Rodman started three times and came off the bench once. Midfielder Andi Sullivan played every minute. Aubrey Kingsbury, the third-row goalkeeper, did not play.

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Given their workloads, the Ghost gave Rodman and Sullivan additional time off. Kingsbury returned to Washington’s lineup in Houston and was perfect until Dash’s late equalizer. Sanchez came on in the 62nd minute and scored in the 63rd.

“Yeah, it felt really good,” she said. “Honestly, that’s what I needed.”

Rodman, Sanchez’s best friend on the team, was at home watching.

“I jumped off the couch and started screaming,” Rodman said. “It was so sick. I saw it coming from a mile away. Once she started dribbling across the field. I thought, “Yeah, she’s back.”

When Sanchez scored, Sullivan jumped into the Spirit group chat.

“I had a crazy laugh” with emojis, she said. “It was just amazing.”

Parsons said, “Revenge mode came along. It came really fast and I think that helps. Since she’s there, she’s fine now.”

Despite being passed over at the World Cup, Sanchez remained optimistic in US circles, Sullivan said.

“There is so much stress and tension [at a major tournament]”And she laughed the loudest and made jokes in the dining room,” Sullivan said. “I was just more impressed with her for that [amid the frustration] she still gave.”

Kingsbury added: “I felt for her because I know her skill and ability and I know she can really be a game changer. She handled it the best she could.”

With expectations of a third consecutive title, Spirit players weren’t surprised that Andonovski won’t continue.

“To be eliminated as quickly as we were … I guess it’s easy for people to say it’s the coach’s fault,” Rodman said. “I really think he was a great coach. He helped me a lot to improve.”

Kingsbury said: “I like Vlatko. He’s a good coach. And I felt like we were prepared for the games, but there was clearly a disconnect between how we prepared and what actually happened in the game. That’s not good enough for the US women’s national team. So you have to make changes and hopefully we can fix things before the Olympics.”

Led by caretaker coach Twila Kilgore, a World Cup assistant, the United States will regroup for friendlies against South Africa on September 21 in Cincinnati and September 24 in Chicago. The US Soccer Association aims to hire a permanent substitute in the fall to begin preparations for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Meanwhile, US players will try to overcome the emotional toll of losing the World Cup.

“I accepted that it’s going to be a long process,” Sullivan said. “It’s probably going to remain emotional for me, but I feel like I have a lot of support. The best way to get away from this is to move forward. And coming back here in the team has definitely helped my feelings.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2023/08/23/washington-spirit-uswnt-players-return/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_homepage Washington’s USWNT players return to Spirit

Ian Walker

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