Opposition Outlook aims to bring you insight into an upcoming Fire or Red Stars opponent through the eyes of the people that follow the opponent the closest.
Today's edition features Craig Hoffman, host of Catch the Spirit and The Richie Burke show.
I spoke with Craig via email to ask him about his journey, the Spirit's season thus far, and the upcoming match:
SECOND CITY SOCCER: I'm always interested in hearing how people in media got into their current career path and how they got to where they are. Can you elaborate on that story briefly and talk about how you got into rooting for the Spirit?
CH: My media career started in college at Middle Tennessee State University when I went with a friend to the college radio station and shadowed the station's sports talk show. I wound up transferring and graduating from Syracuse with a broadcast journalism degree in 2012 and have been in the business ever since.
My relationship with the Spirit started just after the 2019 World Cup when I had the owner, Steve Baldwin on a radio show. We started emailing back and forth following the interview and ultimately became friends. I really believed in what he was building and I eventually proposed a formal role with the club to him.
He was on board and I worked full-time for the Spirit from February 2020 to February of this year. Ultimately the pandemic meant the org needed to restructure and I'm now a contractor with the team, but I'm thrilled to have had the full-time experience and to still be telling the stories of these amazing women who wow us on the pitch.
SECOND CITY SOCCER: Women's sports are becoming more popular by the day, with fans, viewership and, in turn, investment coming into the sport in droves. Soccer is one of the more popular female sports given the success of the Women's National Team. I'm wondering if you can comment on how that growth in interest and popularity has been felt throughout the DMV area for the Spirit?
CH: DC is an event town and there's no doubt Spirit games have become big events. In 2019, following the USWNT's win at the WWC, the team sold out Audi Field twice in a row with crowds around 19,000. The stadium was electric and it was unquestionably the kind of night you got to say "I was there" for.
It's also an extremely progressive city, so there's an added layer of activism that goes into supporting women's sports. Not only are the Spirit fun to watch and a place to be seen, but people enjoy getting to make that political statement that they support women and support equality.
SECOND CITY SOCCER: What were the expectations this season for the club and given the solid performance of the team through this point in the season, have those expectations risen?
CH: Internally the club expects to make the playoffs and compete for a championship. Anything less would be a disappointment. Objectively, they should make the playoffs even if a championship feels lofty just because they are SO young. It seemed like there were just too many young players in important roles to be able to compete with a team like Portland, but the way the young players have played it might not be so unrealistic after all.
SECOND CITY SOCCER: Speaking of the good start to the Spirit's season, what do you think have been the main reasons for the good performances?
CH: Trinity Rodman has been a revelation. She's a really, really good NWSL player. Not a really, really good 19-year-old NWSL player. She's a really, really good and maybe even great NWSL player right now. Her control, strength, and speed on the ball are exceptional and her decision-making is far beyond her years.
She's definitely still learning and the more tape that teams get on her, the more veteran defenders will be able to force her into weaknesses, and there's always the possibility that she slams into a rookie wall, but for now she's been incredible and is creative enough to keep defenders guessing.
Ashley Sanchez has also taken a big step and she's started to show signs of an expanding repertoire. After a year of always going right, she's started to fire with her left foot more which is nightmarish for defenders if she can start to produce goals going that way.
Those two have combined with Ashley Hatch to fix some of the final third issues that plagued Washington in the Challenge Cup and they should continue to get better as they play together more.
The other player I'll mention is Tori Huster. Everyone knows the talking points with Tori: she's been with the team since it started in 2013. She's just so solid. Etc etc. This year we've seen her go to a whole new level. She's always had pristine ball placement, but she's been magical on the ball this year. She's displaying creativity we're not used to seeing, in part because she's been more empowered than ever to come forward playing next to Emily Sonnett and opposite of Kelley O'Hara.
Both of those players have been great and the Spirit's depth has been on display as well. It's just a really well-built team and barring major injury (though they've already had a few), they are built for the long haul.
SECOND CITY SOCCER: This Red Stars team is missing some key players such as Julie Ertz and, potentially, Tierna Davidson and Alyssa Naeher. However, the team has played well of late, winning two of their last three. What worries you about this Red Stars side?
CH: While there are the holes you mentioned defensively, the Red Stars attack is filthy good and the Spirit's back line has had some lapses this year.
Mal Pugh barely played for Sky Blue after her trade from Washington last year, but in the minutes she played against Washington in the fall she wreaked absolute havoc. The possible personal vendetta for trading her plus her current form against a defense that could be missing Sonnett, O'Hara, and Andi Sullivan (all returning from USWNT duty) in the defensive midfield is terrifying.
Add to that even more firepower for Chicago in Kealia Watt and the unclear status of veteran defender Paige Nielsen, who will either miss the game with a hamstring injury or be returning for her first action of the regular season, and I'm now sweating writing this post.
SECOND CITY SOCCER: How pumped is the club for the full capacity announcementat Audi?
CH: Indescribably pumped. The nights I described above at Audi in the fall of '19 are truly some of my favorite sports memories and will be until the day I die and the same is true for so many of the players who were on the field that night. They still get goosebumps talking about it. The club has been waiting to get back to that since then and the pandemic obviously derailed that (and so much more). Now that we can all safely return, it should be pretty magical.
SECOND CITY SOCCER: Match predictions?
CH: While my analysis above is objective, I cannot help but be an optimist (aka homer) when making predictions. Washington is due for a breakout game offensively and I'll say with no Naeher, Davidson, and Ertz it comes here. 3-2 Washington, but I do think Pugh gets at least one for the home team.