Ashley Hatch came on as a sub during USA’s SheBelieves Cup match against New Zealand last month. Just six minutes later, she found the back of the net. It was her third goal in three appearances and, strikingly, it was the longest she had taken to score.
The other two goals, both in games against Australia, came in the first and fourth minutes. Hatch says she is always keen to make an impact as quickly as possible.
“I’m just trying to take advantage of whatever opportunity I get to step on the field, whether that’s during a game or during practice,” she tells the Guardian. “We learn a lot here about the style of game that the United States wants to master, and so I make sure that I understand that and can perform the correct role that I’m given, and am able to add my own individual talents to help the team in attack.”
Her goal against New Zealand illustrates her ability to do just that. Alana Cook built the play out from the back and found Sofia Huerta racing down the right. Five USWNT players were in the box when Huerta’s cross arrived and it was Hatch who finished with a strong header.
The play exemplified the best of Hatch’s abilities, the distinct style of the US women, and coach Vlatko Andonovski’s plan for his team to play aggressively.
“Every game, from the minute the whistle blows, we want to be super overwhelming for the other team,” she says. “Not let them have any chance on the ball. Quick regains, quick counterattack, quick transition. Just an in-your-face style of soccer that is really fun to be a part of.”
Hatch’s ability to get shots off quickly have helped her become an important part of Andonovski’s scheme, and those skills have also brought Hatch success at club level: she won NWSL Rookie of the Year in 2017 and the league’s Golden Boot in 2021. Hatch has also taken time to test herself abroad. In 2017 she travelled to Australia to play for Melbourne City in what she calls “a once in a lifetime opportunity”, helping the team to the title. She returned to the US in 2018, where she has played for the Washington Spirit ever since. She did, however, have a chance to go back to Australia in November, when she made her debut as a starter for the USWNT against the Matildas. The 26-year-old says she was racked with nerves before scoring in the first minute in front of a familiar crowd. “It was such a surreal experience,” she reflects.
Back home in the NWSL, Hatch’s 10 goals for the Spirit in 2021 came in a season beset with controversy. Spirit head coach Richie Burke was fired midseason as the Washington Post broke report after report detailing a toxic work culture at the club.
Burke’s behavior wasn’t news to the team, but the reports in the Post were.
“None of us knew about the articles that were coming out, so we weren’t really prepared for that,” says Hatch. “I think we found out through a text right before it came out, or the day before.”
Hatch said the Spirit players came together as the news broke: “We were all living this same harsh reality, and we’d gotten used to a certain coach … Once it came out in the media we took a step back and said: ‘This is wrong. We shouldn’t be led this way, treated this way.’”
Hatch says that the cascade of headlines couldn’t hold back the team from a successful season. “It was like this huge domino effect,” she says. “One thing happened and then another thing happened. Things kept happening and the only thing that was consistent for us was soccer, being able to play together, and what we did on the field together as a team.”
The Spirit finished third in the regular season and went on to lift the championship trophy in November. “So that’s what we held onto,” says Hatch. “It helped us come together as a team and find that’s where our power was, playing on the field, performing and playing the game that we all loved together.”
Despite last season’s trials, changes in the offseason have NWSL players excited for the future. For one thing, they have a new collective bargaining agreement.
“Getting our CBA finalized is huge. We’ll see a lot of changes now that we have that structure,” says Hatch. “It gives us a lot more freedom, a lot more rights, a lot more ability to choose where we play.”
The NWSL has added two new teams this offseason, the LA-based Angel City FC and San Diego Wave, while the Spirit have a new owner in entrepreneur and business leader Michele Kang.
“Michele is an awesome lady,” says Hatch, impressed by Kang’s business acumen and her clear vision for the club.
Hatch, meanwhile, has a vision of her own. “I’m focusing on the things that are in my sphere of influence and that I can directly impact,” she says. That includes setting up a nonprofit to donate used boots to young footballers.
“It’s really cool to be a part of a league that’s trying to constantly improve,” Hatch says. “My hopes and dreams are to be able to add to that, just leave the game better for the future generation.”
As for the future with the USWNT, Hatch describes a supportive, positive atmosphere in camp, but an extremely competitive one.
“It’s a good atmosphere. It’s very serious, because we all take our jobs and camp and playing for the national team very seriously,” she says. But players share a camaraderie too. “Whenever we do have any free time, you usually hear lots of laughs”.
Carli Lloyd has retired, and Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan were absent from the most recent roster. That has led to speculation about who will become the team’s future leaders after a period that has seen the USWNT win parity with their male counterparts thanks to players’ activism.
“We’re all leaders, by the way we play,” says Hatch. “We have some time to see who will step up and play that [more vocal] role.”