Can The Spirit Win A Title? Reasons for Optimism

Over the past three seasons, the North Carolina Courage have been the best team in the NWSL. The only thing standing between them and three years of complete league domination was a 50th minute, Lindsey Horan goal in the 2017 final. Other than that final, the Courage have remained virtually untested. Winning the 2018 title 3-0 against the Portland Thorns and thrashing the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 in last year’s championship game, the question must be asked: can anyone catch this team? While it may come as a surprise, the Washington Spirit should be looked at as a team that can potentially challenge the current NWSL dynasty.

There are several compelling reasons why Spirit fans should be hopeful heading into the 2020 NWSL "season." First, the organization has a strong structure in place. Steve Baldwin is a hands-on owner who wants to build a competitive and positive culture and has brought in key personnel, such as coaches, assistant coaches, equipment managers, and fitness coaches. Baldwin has also emphasized the importance and development of player experiences. Essential to his plan is current head coach Richie Burke. Known for his fast-paced, possession brand of soccer, as well as strong relationships with his players, Burke has spent time coaching in Scotland and in the United States. Burke was also named as a finalist for the 2019 NWSL coach of the year award. Burke is the ideal coach to help lead this young and mostly untested Spirit squad into future seasons.

Not only will Burke bring a strong focus to the team, the Spirit were seen by many as having overachieved during the 2019 season. Ranked eighth out of nine teams in the 2019 preseason rankings, the Spirit finished one spot outside of the playoffs, missing the postseason by just four points. Not bad for a projected bottom half of the league team. With a surprise fifth place finish last season, the pressure will be on the Spirit to make it back to playoffs for the first time since 2016. To make it back to the postseason, the Spirit must build upon last season’s success, in which they scored the fourth most goals in the league, 30, and only conceded 25 goals, tied for second best in the league. In addition to a stingy defense, the team recorded the third most assists in the league.

Yet another reason for optimism heading into the 2020 campaign is the level of support the Spirit have generated in recent seasons. Last season, the Spirit had the third highest attendance in the league, while playing a majority of their games at the Maryland Soccer Plex, capacity 4,000. Last season’s highlights included two games played at Audi field, in which the Spirit had a recorded attendance of 18,644 and 19,871. With four games scheduled at Audi field for the 2020 season, and a move to a permanent switch on the horizon, the Spirit will finally have a venue that will match their strength as a team and reflect their winning attitude. The passion that exudes from the D.C. soccer fanbase will further be showcased and channeled.

While the Spirit may have been in the middle of the pack in terms of goals scored, it is essential to acknowledge the defensive contributions. Behind goalkeeper of the year Aubrey Bledsoe, the team kept 10 clean sheets in 24 games. During her time with Sydney FC in the Australian W-League this past year, Bledsoe had an 81% stop rate and recorded eight shutouts in 12 games while appearing in her second straight W-League Grand Final. Not only do the Spirit have exceptional goalkeeping, they bring back virtually the same back four that were the league’s second best defensive unit last season, which helped the Spirit ride a seven game unbeaten streak from May 4 through July 6. Second year standout Sam Staab will anchor the defense along with partner Paige Nielsen. While stalwart Tori Huster may need to move to the left wing back position, it will be to allow Jenna Hellstrom a chance to move into the right wing back spot. Not only does this back four have experience and chemistry, it also has the pace to counter aggressive offensive opponents. If wing back is a position that Burke sees as a weakness, he can bring on young left back Tegan McGrady who established herself as the team’s go-to left-footed defender last season.

And it isn’t just wing back where Burke has additional options. He can also utilize the talents of newly acquired Brooke Hendrix at center back, whose time in England and Italy have given her several years of top flight experience. The Spirit also have newly drafted center back Kaiya McCullough out of UCLA and 13th overall draft pick Natalie Jacobs out of USC who can come in and play nearly every position. Having expressed a desire to tinker with a 4-3-3 or even a 3-4-3, the defensive depth the Spirit boast will allow Burke to identify his top defensive rotation.

One of the biggest strengths the Spirit can rely on in 2020 is depth. In the middle of the pitch, the team can deploy starting rotations of USWNT players Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan, pairing them with last season’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, Jordan DiBiasi. When Lavelle and Sullivan miss time with the national team, Burke can turn to midfield mainstay Meggie Dougherty Howard, or newly signed Jaye Boissiere.

Then we get to the forward position. In an ideal scenario, Burke would utilize the creative genius of fourth overall pick Ashley Sanchez, from UCLA, in tandem with recently acquired Kumi Yokoyama, who has 43 caps with the Japanese national team. Both players are skilled on the ball and can create on their own. With the playmaking spark provided by Sanchez and Yokoyama, starting center forward Ashley Hatch will look to improve upon her tally of seven goals last season. Outside of the starting forwards, Burke has the luxury of turning to Crystal Thomas, who netted three goals for the Spirit last season, and had two goals and three assists in 10 games with the Perth Glory of the W-League this past season. Burke also has two of the five picks from this year’s draft in Averie Collins, 17th overall out of Washington State,and Katie McClure, 23rd overall out of Kansas to bring into games as attacking options.

With this young core, the average age of the ideal starting XI would be 25 years old and as a team, the average age of the 2020 rendition of the Spirit is around 24 years old. It is tantalizing for Spirit fans to look at a young squad such as this and be hopeful for future seasons. With veteran presences in Bledsoe, Hatch, and Huster, matched with young players such as DiBiasi, Sanchez and Staab, the Spirit have a perfect blend of experience and youthful exuberance. In looking at the upcoming season, the Spirit have many reasons to be excited. 2020 brings with it quality management and an experienced coach, depth on defense, in the midfield and on attack, and young players who will be given ample opportunities to test their mettle in the league. While the Courage sit atop the NWSL throne, the two-time champions should be keeping a close eye on the budding Washington Spirit.

Photo courtesy of Victor Araiza via Flickr Creative Commons