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How the Washington Spirit are playing tricks on the rest of the NWSL

If you thought the Spirit hiring the coach of the world’s top possession team meant they would dominate the ball, you thought wrong.

7 min read

When the Washington Spirit announced FC Barcelona manager Jonatan Giraldez as their new head coach upon the completion of his work in Spain, the assumption was that he would bring a Barca-inspired style of play with him. The Spirit’s coaching appointment served as a continuation of the Spanish influence within the NWSL, following Gotham’s hiring of Juan Carlos Amoros and Houston’s hiring of Fran Alonso

So far, however, it appears that the joke is on the rest of the league.

For Barcelona and Spanish soccer, a combination game with short passing and dizzying one-touch play has been the default attacking approach for some time now. Given Spain’s success at last year’s World Cup, it makes sense that others would try to import that style.

Except, Washington – under the interim authority of Giraldez’s assistant, Adrian Gonzalez – has leaned hard in the other direction. Gonzalez is stewarding the team until Giraldez arrives later this season. At that point, he’ll become an assistant on staff.

The Spirit hired the coach of Spain and Europe’s finest possession team. And yet, prior to Giraldez’s arrival, they’ve become one of the most dangerous counter attacking teams in a typically transition-heavy league.

The Spirit’s president of soccer operations, Mark Krikorian, has had a subtle but significant impact in American women’s soccer. 

He hired Pia Sundhage as assistant coach at the Philadelphia Charge in the WUSA (a predecessor of the NWSL). Sundhage then took over the Boston Breakers, won Coach of the Year in 2003, and a few years later accepted the U.S. women’s national team job, adding greater nuance to the team’s attacking play. 

While with Florida State University, at a time when Japan’s women’s team was on the rise, Kirkorian also hired Morinao Imaizumi, formerly a youth coach within the Japanese football association. Imaizumi currently works as Washington’s player development coach. 

It’s fair to say that Krikorian is open-minded when it comes to bringing in coaches, and their ideas, from other parts of the world. And he hinted at that when Giraldez’s appointment was announced, saying: “Jona…will bring a beautiful style of play to the Spirit that we know our fans will enjoy”.

There’s no doubt, sitting third in the table with the second-most goals in the league, that Washington fans are enjoying what they’re seeing. And the Spirit’s soccer is beautiful, just not in the way many initially thought it would be. They have taken the basic idea of NWSL chaos and harnessed it to their own end under Gonzalez, with Giraldez pulling an Emma Hayes and surely doing a bit of shadow-coaching from abroad.

The result? Beautiful counter attacking soccer.

Based on Wyscout’s data, the Spirit sit pretty comfortably at the top of the league’s counter attack rankings. According to Wyscout, which defines counter attacks as a moment “where the team is transitioning quickly from defensive to attacking phase, trying to catch the opponent out of their shape”, Washington average 2.67 counter attacks per game, followed by Chicago (2.25), Kansas City (2.17) and Orlando (1.58).

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