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After missing out on the postseason in 2023 on the last day of the season, the Washington Spirit are off to a blazing start in the 2024 regular season. The Spirit defeated reigning 2023 NWSL Champions NJ/NY Gotham FC on Saturday, 2-0, with goals by rookie Croix Bethune and Ashley Hatch. It’s the Spirit’s fourth consecutive win and third at home.

Here are some takeaways from the game:

An early candidate for Rookie of the Year

Bethune, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2024 NWSL draft has gotten an early start on her resume for Rookie of the Year. The 23-year-old midfielder scored the opening goal and won the penalty to help secure a victory over Gotham. She has three goals over in five games with the Spirit.

Bethune isn’t playing the game like a first-year professional, with her vision and creativity, she’s found early chemistry playing alongside her teammates.

“I mean, she sees the game. And I think for us, having midfielders that are able to turn and face forward … having the confidence to hold the ball and see things I think is really important,” said Trinity Rodman after the match.

“I think sometimes we’re trying to go forward too quickly, and sometimes we’re holding on to the ball too long. So I think she sees the game really well. I think she’s confident on the ball, it’s what we need in the middle. At the end of the day execution is everything and she’s doing that too.” 

Audi field fortress

The Spirit are now on a four-game win streak with three of their victories at home in Audi Field. It’s only the second year the squad is playing at the MLS stadium full-time, and the upgrade has been a factor in their success, along with added investment and resources by owner Michele Kang. Over 15,000 fans attended Saturday’s match, the fourth-highest attended regular season game.

Having a home-field advantage can go a long way but for the Spirit, it’s about tactics. For Bethune, it was about sticking to the game plan to take down Gotham. 

“I feel like it’s a little bit of both,” Bethune said on frustrating Gotham with their style. “But more so our game plan and I feel like we executed it perfectly. With training, we knew what we wanted to do. When the game came, we executed, found the weaknesses, and put the ball back in the net. So I feel like we did what we wanted to do.” 

It’s only week five of a 26-match regular season, and interim head coach Adrian Gonzalez is trying to implement early ideas with incoming manager Jonatan Giraldez set to arrive in June. Giraldez will join the Spirit as the new Spirit head coach after FC Barcelona’s season and Gonzalez will stay on as a full-time assistant. Gonzalez is happy for the wins but knows the is just scratching the surface of their ceiling. 

“Far away. They have no limits,” Gonzalez joked in postgame on how far the team has to go. “So, I’m gonna push them every day because they want to be better. They want to improve. We still have a lot of things to improve, a lot of talent to show, but we are building that already. I think now we are starting [to] build something really, really, powerful. But our mindset is like ‘every day we can we can improve’ and they are humbled too. We are all ready to improve and I hope the team can improve much more in the future.”

Super team stress

Gotham FC made big headlines in the offseason for all the players they were able to sign via free agency. Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson, Rose Lavelle, and Emily Sonnett were all introduced as Gotham’s”Class of 2024.” The moves were largely praised and appeared to set up the squad for a long season but the quartet of marquee signings have yet to start a game together. 

Lavelle has been rehabbing a lower leg injury to start the year and has yet to debut for the East Coast side, while Davidson, Sonnett, and Dunn have balanced minutes for both club and country. The club’s newest signings aren’t the only players carrying injuries, and General Manager Yael Averbuch West has said the organization is working on long-term solutions for their players.

Still, there’s been plenty of talent available to them to pick up points, but they have only one win through four games to start the season. Head coach Juan Carlos Amoros has been vocal about minute management for players, but the tactics and game plan fall on the coaching staff, and the home side was quick to target Gotham’s gaps.

“I think no matter what team we play, I think we’re trying to obviously look to see which side we can expose them on,” Rodman said on breaking down Gotham’s high line after the game.

“For me and Croix [Bethune], that was the left side. We started on the right and we weren’t as successful and then as soon as we moved to the left, Casey Krueger played a ball in and we got that opportunity, then it was just like back to back-to-back. For us, I think it’s just tactics and seeing who’s playing where and how they’re defending and their right back was going very high, so that left a lot of room for us to attack,” she explained.

Olympic concerns on the horizon

Gotham FC and U.S. women’s national team centerback Tierna Davidson exited the match during the 21st minute after she pulled up on a recovery run. The Spirit’s early attempts at playing in behind Gotham were a problem all game, and as Davidson made a covering run she grabbed the back of her thigh and called for a trainer. She was able to walk off on her own and was later sitting on Gotham’s bench.

The potential hamstring issue comes with the Olympics just a few months away, and fellow USWNT centerback Naomi Girma only recently returned to play on Friday from a “thigh strain.” Gotham FC head coach Amoros didn’t have an immediate update on Davidson postgame.

“Obviously she had to come off which is never a good sign. We will have to evaluate, wait for the medical testing we need to do and then go from there,” he explained. “We are looking internally on how we can do better in that aspect because at the moment, it is no secret that we have a lot of injuries. We are analyzing everything as club to make sure that we can do better.”

Davidson’s injury comes a day after Wave FC and USWNT forward Alex Morgan injured her ankle during Friday’s game against Orlando Pride. Morgan sustained the injury during the late stage of the game and the Wave were out of substitutions and ended the match with 10 players. There is no official update on Morgan’s status at this time. 

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