Washington Spirit 2014 Preview: Catching Up and Season Outlook

Cynthia Hobgood

To summarize the Spirit offseason: CHANGE. And after a last-place finish (3-14-5, 14 points), it was about time.

As the second NWSL season is set to begin Saturday, Washington prepares for a Sunday home opener at the Maryland SoccerPlex against Western New York. But we have a lot to get caught up on first.

After the conclusion of the 2013 season Mark Parsons, who joined the club midway through last season, was officially named Head Coach. Parsons also stepped into the general manager role vacated by Chris Hummer.

Parsons promptly added 12 new players to his roster for the start of the season, with at least one more to come in June. There are 10 returning players listed on the roster, but two are on the injured list.

While he's no Laura "Have you made a trade today?" Harvey, Parsons has done an admirable job at attracting solid talent to a club that couldn't have had the greatest reputation after last season's struggles. The personable and enthusiastic Parsons himself is a major draw. After a disastrous start to last season, Parsons was able to drastically improve the chemistry of the club and finally get some results in the last few games of the season.

The offseason talent search was primarily focused on strengthening the offense, and rightly so. Washington only scored 13 goals last season. Parsons added forwards Jodie Taylor, Renae Cuéllar, Tiffany Weimer and Danesha Adams, along with midfielders Crystal Dunn, Yael Averbuch and Christine Nairn. His patience with Jordan Angeli's knee recovery has paid off as Angeli has returned to fitness and made the roster. Those players join last year's stalwarts in the midfield, Diana Matheson and Lori Lindsey.

Examining the offensive options this season versus last season is really night and day. I'd give Parsons a thumbs up on his offseason moves. One possible misstep was letting forward Stephanie Ochs go, after a strong season in Australia for Canberra United. But it will be hard to judge that move until we see how Adams integrates into the squad. It may be that Adams' current upside outweighs Ochs' potential, at least in the short term.

Depth was also added to the defensive unit, though the holes there were not quite as deep. Parsons was wise to hold on to his goalkeepers (Ashlyn Harris and Chantel Jones) and the core of his backline: Ali Krieger, Robyn Gayle, Tori Huster and Toni Pressley. However, the team did lose Marisa Abegg, a somewhat surprisingly strong late 2013 season addition, to retirement. The defense gained two international players: Bianca Sierra (Mexico) and Cecilie Sandvej (Denmark). Niki Cross, who has played for FC Bayern Munich since 2012, is set to join the team in June after her season concludes in Germany.

On the whole, Washington is a much deeper team compared to last year with the baseline talent seeing giant improvement. No, the team doesn't feature the biggest names at forward or midfield. But Washington is positioned to weather injuries and national team call-ups, I predict as well as any club in the league. Much has been made of the fact Washington's U.S. allocations aren't necessarily marquee players, with the exception of consistent U.S. starter Ali Krieger. But keep in mind what Washington gets is a group of elite international players that will likely be available more often than say, Christen Press or Abby Wambach will be for their clubs.

Overall, this is a savvy group of players with diverse experience. From what I know of their playing style, the vast majority hit the Spirit mold of being hard-working players that never give up, no matter what the circumstances.

The Spirit schedule starts off pretty even with two home games and then two away games. Then after back and forth home/away, Washington gets three home games in a row. Then they must tackle a challenging four-game road trip starting June1 in Boston, then to Chicago, then back to Boston, and concluding with a west coast trip to Portland. Ouch. Another rough patch hits in July traveling to Rochester, then Houston, then back to New Jersey. The good news is once again they conclude the season with a nice spell of home games in late July and August. If they are anywhere near the playoff hunt, that will serve them well.

Everyone is making season predictions. And once again, Washington is oft-listed in the bottom half of the table and out of the playoff picture. As we all know a team is not names on a piece of paper. And there is no accounting for chemistry and desire on that piece of paper either.

Based on what I saw Parsons do last year with far less talent, along with the character of the players on this squad, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility for Washington to challenge for a playoff spot. At the very least, this team will be much more competitive and quite possibly, turn a few heads. Look for this Spirit season to feel quite different from last year's struggle.

Notes:

I'll be following this up Saturday with a rundown of who is back and who the new faces are. Stay tuned!...As for match recap format, I'm going to play around with some new ideas this season so bear with me.

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