FanPost

Spirit Starting XI

For the Washington Spirit, the 2020 season is scheduled to begin on June 30 versus the Utah Royals. This new month-long tournament format brings promise and optimism for a Spirit team that is looking to build upon a strong 2019 season. Despite trading national team player Mal Pugh on draft night, the Spirit look poised to build on a fifth place finish from last season. A mix of highly rated rookies, second year players who are coming into their own, consistent and productive veteran players, and a few new additions will make for a strong starting XI. While the unpredictability of this new format makes it difficult to have a consistent roster, assuming everyone is healthy and willing to participate, this is how the Spirit should line up when play resumes.

Goalkeeper: Aubrey Bledsoe. Not much needs to be said here. The reigning goalkeeper of the year was spectacular during the 2019 campaign. She recorded nine clean sheets, was voted in the NWSL XI of the year and is still only 28. To say the Spirit are blessed between the sticks is a tremendous understatement.

Left Back: Tori Huster. Despite spending last season as the team’s incumbent right back, Huster’s versatile skillset should make for a smooth transition to the left side of the pitch. Huster played in 22 of the Spirit’s 24 games last season while contributing three assists. At 30 years old and one of the veterans on the Spirit, the team needs her steady presence in the defensive end and will rely on her leadership and experience to help improve upon last season’s fifth place finish.

Center Back: Sam Staab. Staab finished third in Rookie of the Year voting last season while anchoring one of the top defensive units in the league (the Spirit only gave up 25 goals, which was tied for second best in the league). Twice voted to the NWSL team of the month (May, June), she played in all 24 games for the Spirit last season. Also spending time in the Australian W-League with the Western Sydney Wanderers this past season, Staab was named to the team of the week three times. At only 23 years old, Spirit fans can look forward to years of Staab leading the defensive corps.

Center Back: Paige Nielsen. While she faces competition from newly acquired Brooke Hendrix, it is Nielsen’s job to lose. Despite Hendrix boasting an impressive resume having spent time in England and Italy, Nielsen’s 90.9 percent passing accuracy in the defensive half of the field, as well as the partnership and chemistry she established playing with Staab last season, is vital to the success of the team. Continuity is key here.

Right Back: Jenna Hellstrom. Don’t think Hellstrom is a proper defender? Team Canada sure seems to think so. Listed as a defender on Canada’s 2019 World Cup Roster, it is worth putting the career forward/midfielder as the team’s right back. Seems like head coach Richie Burke is thinking of making a similar adjustment with Hellstrom to the one Jill Ellis made with Crystal Dunn for the national team, moving her from forward to wing back. Hellstrom’s attacking prowess, 37 goals and 33 assists in a standout collegiate career at Kent State, will make her a dangerous player on the wing, while her pace will allow her to get back and defend the opposition’s speedier wings.

Left Mid: Jordan DiBiasi. With four goals in 22 games last season, DiBiasi was recognized for her contributions with a second place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. Capable of playing on the wing or in a more central role, DiBiasi gives Burke a utility type attacking player. Included in the NWSL team of the month in May, at 24 years old, DiBiasi is looking like one of the brightest young players in the league.

Central Defensive Mid: Andi Sullivan. Sullivan has been capped 16 times by the national team and was selected to the NWSL team of the month last June. As team captain and CDM, she paces the midfield with her prodigious passing, incredible vision, and tireless defensive work. Recording two goals in 23 games last season, Sullivan’s contributions do not often show up on the stat sheet. With 21 interceptions and a 82.3% pass success rate, she acts as the bridge between the defense and the attack. Sullivan is an easy selection for this XI.

Right Mid: Rose Lavelle. Firmly cement yourself as a starter on the best national team in the world. Check. Score in a World Cup Final. Check. Receive the bronze ball award. Check. All this and Lavelle is still only 24 years old. She was also voted to the NWSL XI of the year last season despite only playing in six games. Imagine what she could do in a full season. The sky’s the limit with Lavelle.

Left Wing: Kumi Yokoyama. Signing from AC Nagano Parceiro, Yokoyama brings creativity and a bit of flare up top to the Spirit. Looking to add goals, the team has done just that. In 43 appearances for Japan, she has netted 17 times. Even more impressive, throughout her career with AC Nagano, she netted an astounding 99 times in 144 games. Yokoyama certainly adds another level of imagination and ingenuity to this Spirit squad.

Center Forward: Ashley Hatch. In her three seasons with the Spirit, Hatch has netted 18 times for the red and navy. Not only can she find the back of the net, she also added two assists last season. In addition to her durability, playing all 24 games last season, Hatch has two international caps with the United States, and was named to the NWSL team of month last May. She will again be tasked with pacing the attack for the Spirit, looking to add more goals to an already productive career.

Right Wing: Ashley Sanchez. Drafted fourth overall out of UCLA in this year’s entry draft, Sanchez should not only be in the Spirit’s opening day roster, she also should be an early candidate for Rookie of the Year. Yes, she’s that talented. In three years and 69 games at UCLA, Sanchez recorded an astonishing 23 goals, but was most lauded as a brilliant facilitator, registering a staggering 42 career assists, and placing second in the country in assists in 2018 with 15. She should seamlessly fit into what is an already impressive Spirit attack.

Reserves

GK: Katie Lund. Standing at 6’1", Lund will look to establish herself as Bledsoe’s backup following a senior season at Arkansas that saw her record nine shutouts and earn All-SEC Second Team honors.

CB: Brooke Hendrix. While Hendrix will give Nielsen a challenge for starting minutes at center back, the chemistry between Nielsen and Staab is too much to ignore. That being said, having proven herself abroad and standing at 5’11", Hendrix provides excellent depth and set piece ability off the bench.

LB: Tegan McGrady. While many presume McGrady to be the opening day left back, it is hard to ignore the offense that Hellstrom brings to the table. While she may start the season on the bench, it is easy to foresee McGrady getting game time if the Hellstrom project falters, or to help cover the minutes of Huster.

MD: Natalie Jacobs. Drafted 13th overall in this year’s entry draft, Jacobs is a classic "jack of all trades" player. Throughout her career at USC, she accrued 26 goals and 23 assists in 87 games. Listed as a defender/midfielder/forward, coach Richie Burke will be able to utilize her talents all over the field.

MD: Meggie Dougherty Howard. A stalwart in the Spirit side that finished fifth last season, MDH is a hard-working, reliable player who can come off the bench to both defend and distribute.

FW: Bayley Feist. Despite only seeing 470 minutes of game time last season, Feist managed to secure one goal and two assists. Bringing her off the bench could spark the Spirit offense late in games.

FW: Crystal Thomas. Playing in just over half of the team’s games last season, Thomas contributed three goals and one assist in 13 games. She was also voted as the NWSL week 20 player of week.