The NWSL Fall Series kicked off Saturday with Sky Blue FC earning the first victory of the competition after scoring a late game winner over Washington Spirit. The Fall Series will continue through Oct. 17, with all nine NWSL clubs playing four games apiece while being split into three regional "pods." Many Fall Series games are streaming on CBS or CBS All Access.
Here are five things we learned from the opening match.
1. How will the Spirit adjust while missing key players?
At the conclusion of the Challenge Cup, the Spirit traded Rose Lavelle to OL Reign ahead of her move to Manchester City. Team captain Andi Sullivan is also still rehabbing back from surgery after tearing her meniscus in the final match of Challenge Cup group play. The team is heavily reliant on second-year and rookie players for this Fall Series, and looked like a less confident team from the one we witnessed in the Challenge Cup. There is time for the Spirit to turn things around, though head coach Richie Burke knows his team is not where it could be at the moment.
"Miles off, absolutely miles off," Burke said Saturday in postgame comments on the Spirit's current form. "So yeah, asking everybody to be where they need to be to compete at the level that we want to play, is tough. Some of the rookies that got some minutes today, you could see a little bit of their tactical naivety, but you know, they are willing to put in a good shift and work hard, but I think we are quite a ways off and it showed in the work today."
2. Pugh has strong Sky Blue debut
The New Jersey franchise made a big 2020 draft day move to bring Pugh, the 22-year-old World Cup champion, to thier side when they made a first-round trade with Washington Spirit. The USWNT forward was unable to participate in the Challenge Cup as she rehabbed from a minor injury. She played 30 minutes after being subbed on into the second half on Saturday, however, and had an immediate connection with her club as she earned the game-winning assist.
Pugh credited the moment to her teammate Midge Purce.
"Yeah it felt good. I was just excited to be out there playing and thank goodness Midge scored that," Pugh said. "I was like, 'please score.' It was good. I felt good."
3. Purce makes everyone better
During their Challenge Cup run, Sky Blue FC was able to make a semifinals appearance. The team took time to adjust to its new style of play under first-year head coach Freya Coombe. The team grew over the tournament with a possession based style, and used Purce entirely at outside back for the Challenge Cup. She had her most impressive match during the team's semifinal where she spearheaded a near comeback, but the team fell, 3-2 to Chicago Red Stars.
In her Fall Series debut, Purce saw time on each side of the wing, making an immediate impact for the team while playing on the top line. Her movement both on and off the ball made a number of her teammates around her better. Whether that was her link-up play with outside back Sabrina Flores, or her combination play with Onumonu and Pugh.
"I think each of the players in that front three have all got the ability to play on the wing or straight through the middle so it gives us that versatility to have that rotation and make it difficult for players we're playing against in the opposition to make it predictable for them," Coombe said in postgame comments.
4. Will Ashley Sanchez continue impressive rookie year?
During the Challenge Cup, Spirit rookie Ashley Sanchez made her NWSL debut and impressed throughout. Her confidence on the ball and ability to break lines made her stand out amongst so many other first year players making debuts this year. The Fall Series is offering another opportunity for Sanchez to continue her development, but she's currently working around a minor injury. Sanchez played in one half against Sky Blue, and was able to help the Spirit get into dangerous spaces in the final third. Sanchez had to be subbed out due to a painful foot blister.
"Sanchez got a massive blood blister on the ball of her feet that was causing her lots of pain and it really looks ugly and I'm not sure how quickly she's going to recover from that one," Burke said. "She was in absolute agony in halftime and had to come off."
5. A building year
The inconsistent stoppage for sports in light of the coronavirus pandemic has proven difficult to navigate when it comes to establishing chemistry for teams. In some ways, it's a bit of a building year for all clubs involved. Watching the type of performances Spirit and Sky Blue had during their Challenge Cup phase and now a match into the Fall Series, it shows the benefit of the league having more matches this year. The Fall Series allows more time and matches for players to retain their form and develop as more clubs enter the league in 2021.
Watching two growing rosters in teams like Spirit and Sky Blue offers a look both into the present and future state of the league's talent.