Washington Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra, in his first year with the club, is up for the NWSL’s Coach of the Year award for 2016. Gabarra is joined by Portland Thorns boss Mark Parsons, the man he replaced at the Soccerplex, and Western New York Flash coach Paul Riley. After moving from Sky Blue FC to the Spirit this offseason, Gabarra has seen his side contend for the NWSL Shield all season long, putting together a 12W-3D-5L record. As a result of their performance, the Spirit will host a playoff game for the first time ever this Friday night.
The case for Gabarra is fairly strong. The Spirit were the NWSL’s top team for most of the season, exceeding initial expectations of a third- or fourth-place finish. Washington has never posted a better record, and the Spirit achieved that despite losing five starters to the US and Canadian Olympic teams. Younger players like Estefania Banini, Caprice Dydasco, and rookie Cheyna Williams have shown tremendous progress over the course of just a few months. Gabarra has also managed to maintain an attacking style of play that produces goals despite seeing every forward save Katie Stengel miss multiple games due to injury or national team duty.
Perhaps most importantly, Gabarra appears to have improved on an already healthy culture within the locker room. Any interview with Spirit players ends up touching on how every player - from national team stars to role players who don’t see much time - genuinely enjoys the atmosphere around the team. A major part of a head coach’s job is managing personalities while keeping everyone unified, and on that front the Spirit appear to be doing extremely well.
Gabarra has drawn some criticism for often changing his line-ups, but that has had the positive effect of keeping everyone on the roster feeling truly involved. Players like Estelle Johnson and Kelsey Wys had to wait for months to make their first appearances, and now appear to be locked-in starters. Despite not having anyone even close to the Golden Boot race, the Spirit finished third league-wide in goals scored, with six different players chipping in three or more goals. Nineteen different players managed to play at least 540 minutes (which is 30% of the 1,800 possible minutes an NWSL player could play).
There are knocks against his competition as well. Parsons inherited a roster that is almost preposterously loaded with talent, and the Thorns have what is clearly the league’s best home atmosphere helping them as well. Riley, meanwhile, rubbed some folks the wrong way with his ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ reaction to the Flash’s field debacle. He also drew two separate suspensions for remarks and gestures towards referees during the year.
All that said, Gabarra is far from a lock to win the award. The Spirit entered the stretch run looking close to a sure thing to win the NWSL Shield, but ended the season with a 1W-1D-2L record in their final four outings. Fans and pundits throughout the league were often surprised by the lineup rotation, which might best be summed up in one tweet from B&RU’s own Caitlin Buckley:
Spirit have had a ton of variety up front. Three games this season with the same trio as the last game. pic.twitter.com/ft3CaQGler— Caitlin Buckley (@caitlinbuckley2) September 12, 2016
The midfield has been very stable - Christine Nairn and Joanna Lohman played in every game this season, while Tori Huster started in all of her 19 appearances - but the back four has left fans and media asking some questions. In particular, the status of Megan Oyster, who has just one appearance in the last six games after previously starting 34 straight games, has confused both local observers and pundits from around the league.
Still, the biggest obstacle for Gabarra might just be the higher profile that Parsons has with the Thorns. Portland is, on just about every front, seen as the NWSL’s “biggest” club. There was also the odd phenomenon coming into the season that saw many predict that Portland would miss the playoffs despite a roster that isn’t far removed from being an NWSL all-star team. That perception - based on similarly star-studded rosters coming up short in years past - means that Portland winning the Shield may be seen in some quarters as a significantly larger achievement than the Spirit going from a mere probable playoff team to a contender.
And then there’s the argument for Riley, who made the playoffs with a Flash side most predicted would finish no higher than sixth. Western New York came into this season with two straight seventh place finishes, and are generally known to be the team with the lowest budget around the league. Riley himself entered the year marked by an inability to get Portland into the playoffs in 2014 or 2015. The Flash don’t have a prominent USWNT or international star anywhere on their roster, but ended up leading the NWSL in goals scored.
Interestingly, Gabarra may have an ace up his sleeve here. Parsons has two MVP candidates (Tobin Heath and Allie Long) with the Thorns, and Riley has one in Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams. The Thorns also have players nominated for Defender of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and Goalkeeper of the Year. Washington, meanwhile, has no one else nominated in any category. Gabarra is the only person attached to the NWSL’s second best team on this awards ballot, and he may end up netting a lot of votes as a result.
The full ballot for fans to vote is available here, with the deadline for votes at 11:59pm on Thursday.