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Washington Spirit Roundtable: We look at the offseason so far, and what’s left to do before the 2023 NWSL season

A few key pieces added, plenty more to go. We look at the long road back to a championship.

Washington Spirit v North Carolina Courage: Final - NWSL Challenge Cup

In the past two seasons the Washington Spirit have seen both ends of the final table. With this being new owner Y. Michele Kang’s first full offseason, as well as the first NWSL offseason with free agency, the Spirit have a lengthy checklist ahead of the 2023 NWSL season. Some moves have already happened, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

So Annie Elliott, Jo Dabney and André Carlisle and a disembodied question asker are going to walk you through some analysis, and look ahead to the rest of the offseason.

Despite having won an NWSL Championship just a season ago, the Spirit have a lot of work to do in the offseason to get back to that standard — this time hopefully with the consistency. Given the task, players and staff required, are we in a dreaded “rebuilding” phase?

Annie: I think I called this an “overhaul” in a headline recently, so maybe not a full rebuild. The Spirit still have a lot of really strong players under contract to build around, and I don’t see them dismantling that group to completely start over at this point. Given the team’s need for depth, particularly on defense, I do think we could see one or two big trades shaking up the core this offseason.

Jo: I don’t feel that this is exactly a rebuild. This upcoming season will definitely decide the fate of a lot of people, from front office staff to current players, but I don’t think it’s a rebuild. If the necessary steps to get better are taken, then there’s no reason to believe that this a rebuilding phase or that the past season will define them much longer.

André: I choose to think of it as renovation more than rebuild. There’s already a strong core that’s either currently in their prime or rocketing towards it, and typically rebuilding teams are scrounging for that foundation. However, from front office and team infrastructure to player personnel, the studs might be showing, but if HGTV has taught us anything it’s that the end result is only a couple commercial breaks away.

Before the Spirit could get to work on filling out their squad, it was important to find a new head coach They addressed that by bringing back Mark Parsons, who coached the team from 2013-15. We know about his previous success in the league, what do you think of the hire and what can he achieve with the Spirit?

Annie: This is definitely a safe pick, but I’m not entirely mad about that. After the past two coaches the team has had, my number one priority, which I suspect the front office shared, is a coach who will treat the players with the respect they deserve. If they trust Mark Parsons to do that, that’s fine by me. I also think his reputation for building strong team culture could be a good fit with Y. Michele Kang’s vision for the team as an entity.

Jo: Repetitive and uncreative would sound like an understatement, but their choice definitely brings more questions than answers. I don’t think Parsons could use the (current) roster in a way that would be best but regardless I’m hoping this works out well.

André: Predictable, slightly unimaginative, but entirely understandable. Due to the way 2022 went, the Spirit’s margin for error shrunk to the size of approximately three molecules in a single file line. Parsons has specific league, and squad building, experience that was likely too necessary to pass up.

Having said that, it would have been good if a more comprehensive hiring process was implemented, and no matter what happens during Parsons’ second reign, let’s hope those processes are in place, and utilized, when it’s time to identify his successor.

On the player side, there’s unfortunately already a big name to replace after free agent Kelley O’Hara announced that she’s signing for Gotham FC. Since, the Spirit have signed Canadian international Gabrielle Carle and re-signed fullback Camryn Biegalski. Is that enough to replace O’Hara?

Annie: They’re off to a good start, but I’d like to see the Spirit sign a few more defensive players this offseason. A lack of depth on defense was a big problem in 2022, especially when injuries and absences began to pile up later in the season.

O’Hara also filled a leadership role on the team, and I do have some concerns about short-term impact on morale following her departure (along with those of so many others from the championship team). Luckily, the team has retained three strong leaders in co-captains Andi Sullivan, Tori Huster, and Aubrey Kingsbury.

Jo: Even with O’Hara being gone for many of the Spirit’s games, you could always feel her absence. It’s always sad seeing players who helped the team win a championship leave, but at the same time the Spirit struggled all season, so hopefully her leaving will better the team’s chances of finding a player who can be a longer term solution.

André: O’Hara will be a big miss, when healthy she’s still a quality experienced fullback and, as we found out, necessary for keeping team intensity high. However, it’s the ‘when healthy’ part that had become an issue for O’Hara yet again. A season after cracking double digit appearances en route to a championship — and for the first time since 2017 — O’Hara started just three games in 2022.

New signing Gabrielle Carle, who should slot in at left back, is an intriguing prospect and potentially perfect signing. Her comfort with both feet makes her a threat to cut in or stay wide in attack, and helps her maintain balance when defending 1v1. Biegalski, and possibly Anna Heilferty, on the right are effective, but neither have staked a claim to the position. As such, another versatile fullback might be needed to help solidify the position.

This is the first free agency period in the NWSL. Who are potential free agent signings that you’d like to see the Spirit target?

Annie: Washington are really running out of time to make a big free agency signing, which is a shame because they could use some more veteran talent. The team is pretty well-stocked on midfielders at the present, but if they’re looking for a well-known World Cup winner to bring in new fans now that O’Hara’s gone, I hear Tobin Heath is available. (Spirit, please don’t do this. If you’re going to spend big on another middie, it’s Debinha all day.)

Jo: If we’re thinking logically, the answer was Jasmyne Spencer, but she’s opted to re-sign with Angel City. If we’re daydreaming, Tobin Heath. Veteran players are always a bonus, from their knowledge of the game to simply being able to give younger players advice only veterans could give. That shouldn’t be overlooked when considering who to go for.

André: Debinha, because every team in the league should be trying their hardest to sign Debinha. Please, I beg of you, sign Debinha. And another free agent they should definitely consider signing is Debinha.

Midfielder/defender Julia Roddar opted to return to Sweden rather than sign a new contract with the Spirit. This means the Spirit now have all five international spots available, so let’s have some fun. Give me two players you would love to see in a Spirit shirt in 2023.

Annie: We saw so many talented players in the CONCAF W Championship this year, and I’d really like to see Washington bring in someone from the region. I’d be shocked if they were able to tempt Bunny Shaw away from Manchester City to fill out their forward line, but you did say fun and that would be fun! Another option is the breakout star of that tournament, Melchie Dumornay, who is a proven goal-scorer for Stade de Reims Féminines as well as the Haitian national team.

Jo: I think my answer is a bit unrealistic, but if anything were possible I’d love to see the Spirit sign Marta da Silva or Bunny Shaw. Unfortunately Marta re-signed with Orlando, so now it’s all up to Shaw to let us live our dreams. Shaw is a fast, skillful player that could fit well with Trinity Rodman in our attack.

André: Now this is my kinda question! Though she recently signed an extension with Wolfsburg, I truly think the best thing for Sveindis Jane Jónsdóttir’s development would be a couple seasons in the NWSL. Plus, simply try to imagine Jónsdóttir and Rodman in transition on opposite flanks — apologies for the nightmares if you’re a defender.

Ok fine, since that move surely isn’t happening, let’s throw in a more realistic scenario. While Mark Krikorian is collecting former Florida State personnel, the Spirit should try to pry Deyna Castellanos from Manchester City. Castellanos has the requisite amount of audacity to fit into an attack with Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman.

In the past, the Spirit have wriggled their way into the first round of drafts to secure superstar talent. But as of right now, they don’t have a first round pick in 2023. Should they consider forcing their way into the first round?

Annie: This is a no from me. The Spirit have tried this in the past, and it hasn’t always worked out well for them. Last year, the team traded $200,000 in allocation money for three draft picks. Only have one of those draftees, Maddie Elwell, remains on the roster for 2023, so it’s time for a new strategy.

The Spirit should use their draft picks wisely, but save their money to secure veteran talent. I see more value for them in bringing in players who already have professional experience and can immediately slot into the team on opening day.

Jo: I don’t think a first round pick would be worth it considering what the Spirit would have to give up to get one. Instead, I think they should consider trade opportunities to get higher and/or more late round picks.

André: I watched the College Cup and am extremely hype about the potential of lots of players who might enter the draft, but as of right now, the Spirit only have two draft picks (26th overall, 3rd round; 37th overall, 4th round). While it might hurt to lose out on a top-10 talent, finding ways to add picks in what’s expected to be a deeply talented class is probably the smartest approach.

Although I reserve the right to change my mind if Michelle Cooper registers for the draft.

Ok, last question. Goalscoring is becoming a requisite for success in the NWSL. In 2021 only three teams scored 30 or more goals, in 2022 that number grew to six. Can the current Spirit attack rise to that challenge, or should they consider shaking things up?

Annie: This is absolutely an achievable goal for the Spirit. In 2022, the Spirit were number five in the league in shots but only had an 11.5% conversion rate. The problem often seemed to be a lack of confidence among many on this young squad in knowing when to take the shot, and when to pass to a teammate for a higher percentage shot.

Hopefully having an experienced coach can help build confidence and skill to increase the number of players who can reliably score. Adding veteran depth pieces wouldn’t hurt.

Jo: Despite the underwhelming results of last season, I think this goal for upcoming season isn't unreachable. For the 2022 season, the Spirit averaged 1.18 goals per game, with many players being out (from being called up to the National team or with injury). There were games after player absences where the team just wasn’t clicking, which resulted in fewer attack-heavy games, in turn decreasing scoring chances.

There were games where the team was struggling offensively but still managed to create good goalscoring opportunities. With a veteran coach and new signings, hopefully more of those moments will end with the ball in the net. With a few tweaks I could see the team hitting the 30 goal mark this season.

André: Playing exclusively at Audi will have a major impact on the consistency of the team and their performances. However, I’m not sold on that being enough to remedy their goal output, even under Parsons. Though the Spirit sought possession, they were at their best in transition. Sullivan’s long ball distribution is excellent, we know what Sanchez can do to panicked and backpedaling defenders, and the only defender alive who can stay with Rodman in a sprint is a healthy Sarah Gorden.

However, the team’s primary goalscorer, Ashley Hatch, is a traditional forward who’s good in the air and most dangerous between the keeper and penalty spot. A center forward who’s a threat in transition, and even outside of the box, would give the Spirit routes to goal that they don’t presently have.