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The best and worst of the Washington Spirit’s 2016

A look back on a very eventful NWSL season for the Spirit

Stephanie Yang

It’s been a tumultuous year for the Washington Spirit who posted a franchise-best regular season record in addition to advancing to the NWSL final. Yet the offseason hasn’t been as kind, with Washington losing several key players in trades and even more to injury. With 2016 drawing to a close, here is a look at the club’s best and worst moments of the year.

Good: Home Playoff Game

The Spirit’s best-ever record culminated in the club’s first-ever home playoff game. After two consecutive years of losing to the Seattle Reign in the semifinals, the Spirit beat the Chicago Red Stars in front of over 4,000 fans.

Washington controlled play in the first half but only got one goal: a header from Ali Krieger. Chicago came back in the second half, leaving the Spirit just trying to hang on. Christen Press equalized in the 81st minute and in stoppage time found herself with an empty net to shoot at, only to hit the crossbar.

In extra time, a fantastic build-up led to a goal in the 111st minute from Francesca Ordega to deliver the win and send the Spirit to the NWSL Championship. Off the field, it was a well-attended occasion, and a great atmosphere to close off the Spirit’s season.

Good: Great Goals

One key improvement for the Spirit was a wider pool of goalscorers. In 2015, Crystal Dunn carried the team on her back, scoring 15 of Washington’s 31 goals. This year Dunn scored only two goals in the regular season, and yet the team’s offense didn’t suffer. Estefania Banini and Joanna Lohman each had their best-ever NWSL season- especially impressive for 34-year-old Lohman who scored four goals.

Lohman scored a bicycle kick in the opening minutes of the season, one of many great goals the Spirit scored this year.

Goals that stand out include this 45-yard rocket from Christine Nairn at Houston:

Then there’s Crystal Dunn’s goal against the Reign, a win that sealed that home playoff game:

During a run of form that saw her win the NWSL’s player of the month award for July, Banini produced this volley at FC Kansas City:

And let’s not forget this great assist from Dunn, picking out Diana Matheson with an outside-of-the-foot, diagonal crossfield ball at Western New York:

Good: Standing with Orlando

A week after the mass shooting at Pulse, an Orlando nightclub popular with that city’s LGBTQ community, the Spirit hosted the Pride in their first game following the tragedy. The Spirit organization painted a rainbow ribbon on the field and both the club and fans organized several moving tributes.

In the 49th minute, a sell-out crowd rose to its feet and clapped in honor of the 49 victims. Play stopped as well in a powerful act of unity, a theme felt throughout the night.

"Today, if you look in the crowd, there's not Washington Spirit fans versus Orlando Pride fans," Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris said after the game. "Today we were just one collective group coming together to celebrate the lives of the people who didn't make it out of Pulse and the victims' families. Today was just about honoring them and taking a few moments out of our game to pay respect and be grateful that we are still here, getting to do what we love every day. It was more than just about us. It was about bringing this entire place together."

Spirit goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe echoed Harris’ sentiments, saying "It was extremely emotional, I think. In those moments, you just took a breath and your heart went to all those people whose lives were affected, families, friends, the whole LGBTQ community.”

Good and Bad: NWSL Final

It’s hard to reach a verdict on the NWSL final. The Spirit were thirty seconds away from winning the NWSL championship. Considering the Spirit’s last-place inaugural season, making it to the final this year was a huge accomplishment. Dunn and several players gave stellar performances against Western New York and were frequently the dominant team, while head coach Jim Gabarra’s switch to a 3412 confounded the Flash.

Yet after the club’s best season and facing the lowest seed in the playoff field in the final, seeing a lead in extra time slip away with just seconds to go and then finally losing the final on penalty kicks is a disappointment. The final was a great showcase of what the NWSL has to offer and the experience will be useful in seasons to come.

Bad: Megan Rapinoe debacle

A low point for the Spirit organization was the home game against Seattle Reign FC in September (ironically, the same night the Spirit guaranteed themselves a home playoff game). Megan Rapinoe was planning to take a knee during the national anthem in solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but Spirit owner Bill Lynch decided to play the anthem with both teams in the locker room.

While Lynch’s decision sparked intense backlash against the Spirit both within the NWSL and even from national outlets, some of it could have been avoided if the club had handled the decision better. Washington’s players were not included in the decision, something the squad addressed in a collective statement released on the Spirit’s website. The language of the press release explaining Lynch’s decision was also unnecessarily inflammatory, particularly the repeated use of the word “hijacking.”

According to NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, the Spirit also neglected to tell the NWSL in advance. While the controversy could have been avoided if the anthem was played and Rapinoe knelt, the Spirit could have prevented much of the backlash if the organization handled Lynch’s decision better. The controversy overshadowed the Spirit clinching a home semifinal - a historic event for the franchise - over a Seattle team that had knocked them out of the playoffs in 2014 and 2015.

Bad: Offseason departures

Despite a second place regular season finish and missing out on the NWSL title by the slimmest of margins, many Spirit veterans and key players won’t be returning next year. After the season, the Spirit traded Ali Krieger to the Orlando Pride in exchange for a higher spot in the Distribution Ranking order (the mechanism used to distribute newly allocated players, which comes with no guarantees). Christine Nairn was traded to Seattle in exchange for midfielder Havana Solaun and three draft picks.

The Spirit also sent defender Megan Oyster and two first round picks to the Boston Breakers in exchange for Kristie Mewis, Kassey Kallman, and the No. 1 spot in the Distribution Ranking Order. Estefania Banini signed with Valencia CF, whose season overlaps partially with the Spirit. She has not yet re-signed with the Spirit. There are also rumors of more departures and widespread reports of players’ dissatisfaction with ownership. Crystal Dunn has openly considered a move to France, a move partially influenced by the ongoing battle between US Soccer and the USWNT over their collective bargaining agreement.

Bad: Injuries

Since September, three Spirit players have suffered a torn ACL. Cali Farquharson tore her left ACL in early September, moments into the win over Seattle. Caprice Dydasco tore her left ACL early in the NWSL Final, while goalkeeper Kelsey Wys tore her right ACL in November while playing on loan in Australia.

The standard timetable for return from an ACL tear is 6-9 months, making it likely each of them will miss part of the 2017 season. Losing Wys could be particularly damaging if the Spirit can’t retain Labbe, another player rumored to be considering a move elsewhere.