Spirit rookie Ashley Sanchez
Spirit rookie Ashley Sanchez Credit: Hannah Wagner/Xavi Dussaq

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Reducing a full season to a month-long tournament creates a number of difficult situations and impossible choices for any team, let alone one whose roster is filled with new players.

That’s the scenario that Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke must navigate ahead of the NWSL Challenge Cup, which his side kicks off on Saturday night against the Chicago Red Stars. Burke is looking to maintain a delicate balance: evaluating new faces while seeking to maintain enough continuity to win matches.

“This is a real baptism of fire for those [new] players,” Burke said on a conference call Thursday. “If I had a 24-game season, I would have been able to do an awful lot more things developmentally with these players.”

Due to the pandemic, the NWSL won’t have a 24-game season. Though the league has left the possibility open to return in the fall, it appears likely that the Challenge Cup in Utah will be it for a 2020 campaign that was originally scheduled to begin in April

It’s a disappointing prospect for the league and for the Spirit especially after they put together a vastly improved 2019 campaign. The team looked to take another step forward ahead of the 2020 season, bringing in a host of new faces and jettisoned a number of contributors, including World Cup player Mallory Pugh, as they continued to search for a championship alchemy. 

Of the 26 players in Utah for the Challenge Cup, half are newcomers. The roster turnover has intensified a frenzied atmosphere created by an event so quickly thrown together.

“We’ve got a lot of new players that we have to quickly integrate into the group, so if anything it kind of speeds up the process just having the shortened preseason and knowing that we don’t have a full season to develop,” goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe told reporters earlier this month.

Of the 13 new faces, seven are rookies and six are players with professional experience from abroad. Burke spoke glowingly of two players expected to slot in immediatelyone rookie and one with a host of pro games under her belt already.

Ashley Sanchez has looked fantastic in preseason, she’s going to start on Saturday,” Burke said of the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NWSL Draft. 

The Spirit acquired that pick in a trade that saw it move Pugh to Sky Blue FC and the team’s subsequent selection of Sanchez was no coincidence. The UCLA product is expected to be a direct replacement for the U.S. national team winger. Burke was not shy in lavishing praise on the 21-year-old.

“That is an incredibly talented kid,” Burke said. “Our job is to make sure we keep moving her forward because she’s a prodigious talent.”

Kumi Yokoyama is expected to be another key element of the Spirit’s attack in the Challenge Cup. Burke has been especially impressed with how the Japan international has slotted in alongside one of the Spirit’s returning stars.

“She and Rose Lavelle look like they’ve been playing with each other for the last five years,” Burke said. “[Yokoyama has] got a lot of guile and a lot of creativity and her technical ability to receive the ball and maneuver it in tight spaces are what really set her aside.”

Burke also mentioned rookie Natalie Jacobs and Tegan McGrady, who is almost in the newcomer category after playing just six games in her 2019 rookie season due to injury, as players he expects to make an impact. 

The Challenge Cup is taking place in a precarious time in the country’s fight against the coronavirus, which was underlined earlier in the week when the Orlando Pride were forced to withdraw at the last minute due to positive COVID-19 tests among players and staff. 

Reports later emerged that the infection came from multiple Pride members who went to a bar. Aside from the disappointment of missing the tournament, the incident undoubtedly caused a rift in the Pride locker room between the offending players and those who opted out of risky activities. 

As bars and restaurants across the D.C. area reopened, Burke said his team’s strong leadership helped mitigate any chance of a similar situation. 

“[The players] quickly realized that could have been any team in this league,” Burke said. “We have a very strong leadership group within the players themselves that enforced and demanded, ‘Let’s stay switched on, let’s stay committed to this, let’s not be stupid and even if we are going to attend any protests let’s make sure we maintain social distance,’ because it would be a real travesty if we put all this time and effort into going to this only to have one infection lock the whole thing down.”

One of the Spirit’s key leaders, captain Andi Sullivan, is hoping that she and other veterans can help the team’s newcomers adapt to a situation that, even for vastly experienced players, is unprecedented. 

“No two experiences are the same, but there are tips that you can take from here and there and apply them and help show the newer, younger players how to be a professional,” Sullivan said earlier this month. “I think how to be a professional is knowing how to deal with everything that comes your way.”