It has been a typically eventful offseason in the NWSL, and most of that activity - for better or for worse - has centered around the Washington Spirit. USWNT stars Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn have both found new clubs, as have key midfielder Christine Nairn and highly-rated center back Megan Oyster. Rumors have swirled relentlessly, while Washington enters 2017 with three different players in various stages of recovery from serious knee injuries. Oh, and their leading scorer in 2016 may or may not be back.
It’s a lot to keep in mind, so with the 2017 NWSL draft just over 24 hours away, it’s time to take stock of what the Spirit’s roster really looks like. For clarity, the presumed starter will be listed in bold, while players that will enter the year injured will be in italics.
Natural: Kelsey Wys, Stephanie Labbe
The Spirit have issues in goal, as Wys tore her ACL while on loan with the Newcastle Jets just before Thanksgiving. A normal ACL recovery would see her returning no earlier than May, and could even keep her out into August. Wys stepped in as the starter when Labbe was starting for Canadaduring their bronze medal run at last summer’s Olympics, and kept the gig when Labbe returned.
Rumors have swirled throughout the offseason that Labbe could be looking to find another team - after all, it will be hard to remain first choice for Canada without starting at the club level - but as of today she’s still a Spirit player and would start if the season opener were tomorrow. Truth be told, the gap between the two is very narrow.
With Wys injured, the Spirit will still need to do something about finding a back-up. DiDi Haracic was an amateur call-up while Labbe was in Brazil, and she’s a known quantity within the organization due to her play with the Washington Spirit Reserves (who gave up just 3 goals in 10 WPSL games last year). She seems like a strong bet to end up being signed to a professional contract.
Natural: Caprice Dydasco
Capable: Whitney Church, Alyssa Kleiner
Emergency: Kassey Kallman
Sadly, we’re starting off with two straight bad situations. Dydasco tore her ACL during the NWSL final, which makes April the absolute earliest she could return. The Spirit will probably not be able to throw her in to a starting role on opening day even with a perfect recovery, so at least to start the year, they’ll have to look elsewhere.
Church will probably be the favorite to start here. Her defensive instincts and passing are pretty solid, but the question here is speed. Teams tried to target Church as a center back by playing balls over the top, and speed in wide positions is even more vital. Kleiner played some right back last year during the Olympics, and was seen as an option there with the Portland Thorns in 2015, but is left-footed. We could well see Church at center back, Kleiner on the right, and newcomer Kallman at left back.
Speaking of Kallman, she can play right back in theory, but is far more of a center back who can also play on the left. She’s on this list primarily because the Spirit will be thin at right back until Dydasco is fit again.
Natural: Shelina Zadorsky, Estelle Johnson, Whitney Church, Kassey Kallman
Capable: Line Sigvardsen Jensen, Tori Huster
Even after trading Megan Oyster to the Boston Breakers, the Spirit are deep at center back (thanks in part to Kallman coming south as part of that deal). Zadorsky, a starter for Canada, will be solidly first choice as the left-center back.
Johnson and Church would be in a battle to start alongside her if everyone were fit, but with Dydasco’s injury opening up a spot at right back, it seems probable that Church will start there and Johnson will enter the season paired with Zadorsky in the middle. However, Kallman is good enough to make a strong challenge for time there as well. If Zadorsky were unavailable, Johnson and Kallman would be battling to step in (head coach Jim Gabarra generally prefers to keep Church right of center).
Sigvardsen Jensen has plenty of experience at center back in Europe and with Denmark’s national team, while Huster played as a center back during her rookie year in Washington.
Natural: Caprice Dydasco, Alyssa Kleiner
Capable: Kassey Kallman
Emergency: Whitney Church, Kristie Mewis
Dydasco played a lot of left back in 2016 when Krieger came back from the Olympics, so it seems safe to assume she’s still at the top of the depth chart right now. However, due to her injury the job seems to be Kleiner’s to lose entering 2017. She brings a good attacking presence down the left side, and her defending got better as 2016 wore on.
Kallman has left back experience, but is primarily a center back. Still, her comfort on the ball would help at left back if she’s needed there, and Gabarra - who referred to her as “one of the best defenders in the country” when she was acquired - seems set to find her playing time one way or another.
Church started at left back once last season (July 31st’s 3-1 win over Sky Blue FC), but realistically is far more of a central or right-sided player. Mewis is an attacker Tom Sermanni tried to convert to left back while he was coach of the USWNT, but that experiment didn’t take. We could see her shifting to left back if the Spirit trailed late in a game, though.
Linking midfield (a.k.a. the #8)
Natural: Joanna Lohman
Capable: Diana Matheson, Tori Huster, Havana Solaun
Emergency: Whitney Church, Caprice Dydasco, Line Sigvardsen Jensen
Lohman, at 34, had arguably a career year for the Spirit last season, and is a safe bet to remain in the starting lineup. Her ball-winning ability, combined with an energetic presence that seems to lift the team, will be needed more than ever due to Washington’s losses in terms of leadership in the offseason.
She’s also the only natural for this sort of job on the roster. Matheson has all the skills required to play this role, but her attacking abilities make her more valuable elsewhere on the field. Huster took this role over late in the year when Gabarra played her and Sigvardsen Jensen at the same time, and that’s a look we may see more of in 2017. Solaun could play here as well, but her reputation as a passer probably means she’d fit better with more of an attacking midfield role.
Church played this spot early in 2016 before spending nearly all of the final two-thirds of the season as a defender. Gabarra could still move her into this spot if need be, though, as he values her positional sense and soccer IQ. Dydasco had this sort of role while on loan in Australia during the 2015-2016 offseason, but realistically she’s a fullback who was helping the Newcastle Jets out at a thin position. Sigvardsen Jensen would fit in here as well, but as we established, Gabarra kept her deep and moved Huster into the #8 role when both played at the same time.
Defensive midfield (a.k.a. the #6)
Natural: Tori Huster, Line Sigvardsen Jensen
Capable: Whitney Church
Emergency: Joanna Lohman
Huster is as good a #6 as you can find in the NWSL, and signing her to a contract extension is one of the few universally praised things Washington has pulled off during the offseason. And if Huster is unavailable, Sigvardsen Jensen only happens to be a starter for Denmark with extensive Champions League experience in this spot. So yeah, the Spirit are good here.
Church could also play this role comfortably, and in fact it may be the best spot for her in the Spirit’s system. Lohman could drop back here in an emergency, but in the 433 the defensive midfielder can’t roam around hunting the ball. That would take away Lohman’s best skill, so it’s probably not something we’ll see much at all (if ever).
Attacking midfield (a.k.a. the #10)
Natural: Diana Matheson, Havana Solaun
Capable: Kristie Mewis
The Spirit are thin here now that Christine Nairn - who never misses a game - will be suiting up for the Reign. Matheson, provided she stays with the team, would be the best bet to start as the fulcrum of Washington’s attack. However, if Gabarra wants to play her as a wide forward (where she’s appeared most often in the past two seasons), he’ll have to turn the attack over to Solaun.
We got some help in discussing what Solaun brings to the table after she came over in the trade that sent Nairn west. This is probably the position Gabarra envisions her playing, and to be fair her lack of time in the past has been down to injury and the fact that Seattle had the world’s best #10, Kim Little, starting ahead of her. If she can stay healthy, she’ll probably see plenty of minutes as the Spirit’s playmaker.
Mewis was used here by the Breakers last year, but it wasn’t a good fit; she’s far more comfortable as a winger. Since she’ll probably be playing as Washington’s left forward, it’s doubtful we’ll see much of her in the midfield.
It’s also worth noting that the Spirit still have Estefania Banini listed on their roster. As it stands today, the Spirit offered Banini a contract for the 2017 season, which she neither signed nor rejected. That means it’s possible she could re-sign with the Spirit after her season in Spain (she’s playing for Valencia at the moment) ends. If she were to re-sign, she would be heavily involved in this role as well as both right and left forward.
Natural: Diana Matheson, Cheyna Williams, Cali Farquharson
Capable: Francisca Ordega
Emergency: Katie Stengel, Alyssa Kleiner
With Matheson currently seeming like the starting attacking midfielder, I’m listing Williams as the starter at right forward. However, Gabarra is very flexible about how he uses his starting attackers. Matheson will see time here, and Williams will start games at all three forward positions. Here, though, is where she seems to fit best, and based on her growth curve as 2016 wore on, Spirit fans should expect some big things.
Cali Farquharson will also be in the mix here once she recovers from tearing her ACL at the beginning of September; ideally, she could even be in the mix when the season kicks off. Ordega has been used wide right throughout her career, and is in fact playing wide with Sydney FC during the current W-League season. However, she is more effective in the middle, where her physicality and knack for creating chaos for opposing defenses are more useful.
Stengel appeared wide a few times in 2016 as something of a target winger, while Crystal Dunn - now playing for Chelsea Ladies in England - was used as a false #9. With that option gone, we probably won’t see Stengel wide very often at all. Kleiner was used as a late-game defensive substitute on both sides of the front line last year, and we could see that repeated again if the Spirit are protecting a lead.
Natural: Francisca Ordega, Katie Stengel, Cheyna Williams
Capable: Cali Farquharson
Ordega had the edge here by the time the playoffs came around, but Gabarra loves to rotate up front. It seems safe to expect her and Stengel to both get plenty of starts as the Spirit’s #9. Ordega gives Washington a threat to get in behind and press higher, while Stengel’s back-to-goal play and aerial ability are also valuable.
Down the road, Williams may end up being the starter here, but in 2017 at least, she will probably be wide more often than she lines up in the middle. However, she has the raw tools - speed, height, and technical ability - to be a complete center forward. Farquharson can also play here, but is more of a poacher suited to a two-forward system if used in a central role. She’ll be more of a wide forward for Washington unless the 352 used in the NWSL final makes a return.
Natural: Kristie Mewis, Cheyna Williams, Cali Farquharson
Capable: Diana Matheson
Emergency: Francisca Ordega, Alyssa Kleiner
This is most likely where Gabarra envisions Mewis lining up, and it’s also easily her best position. Look for the attack to lean heavily towards her side in possession, with the former (and future?) USWNT hopeful serving in crosses while the rest of the front line crashes the goalmouth. Mewis will also be taking plenty of set pieces for Washington.
Williams is also very good on the left, though I will note that she has looked her best on the right. Farquharson played her best soccer for the Spirit in this role, though there might not be many opportunities to try it again in 2017 depending on how successful Mewis is. Matheson, as in other positions, is very dangerous in this spot, and the Spirit prefer a fluid style in the attack. That means someone like Matheson could start on the left only to pop up all over the place.
Ordega could end up on the left, but it’s definitely the forward role she’s least comfortable in. Kleiner scored a ridiculous goal playing as a left forward last season against Sky Blue, but that was after being brought in to help close the game out.