The story of the Washington Spirit this winter has entirely been about the departures. It’s fair to say that, since coming one clearance short of winning the NWSL final, Washington has more or less been rebuilt. That is especially true up front, where the Spirit lost game-breakers Crystal Dunn and Estefania Banini to European moves and traded veteran attacker Diana Matheson to Seattle. On top of that, promising youngster Cali Farquharson is going to miss a big chunk of the season due to last year’s ACL tear.
It’s a lot to deal with. Losing Dunn alone would be an enormous blow for any club on the planet. Her skillset - the skill, the audacity, the speed and balance - make her literally irreplaceable; there is no player on the planet who can do what she does at her level. Banini may not have Dunn’s reputation, but her creativity between the lines and ability to conjure up goals from nowhere was huge for Washington last season.
Matheson, meanwhile, is only the team’s all-time leading goalscorer who brought energy and cleverness every time she stepped onto the field (not to mention being a huge personality in the locker room). Farquharson wasn’t a fundamental part of the way the Spirit played last year, but her work rate and ability to stretch the field vertically opened up space for players like Dunn and Banini to do their thing.
Essentially, losing all of these players will mean Washington has to change how they go about attacking, whether they play the 433 we saw 21 times in 2016, or if the 352 from the final and half of this year’s preseason becomes more common. There will be a redistribution of roles, with players taking on more complicated jobs and the Spirit likely adopting new tactics going forward.
Early signs point towards the 433 being the favored formation once again, so let’s focus on how the roster fits with a front three:
Last year, this was often Dunn, who had total positional freedom. This year, that probably won’t be the case; expect to see a somewhat more traditional approach from just about anyone that lines up as Washington’s right forward. Most likely, the starting job for most of the season in both wide forward roles will go to Cheyna Williams and Francisca Ordega. Head coach Jim Gabarra will probably have them swap sides from week to week, and even within games.
Williams was something of a super-sub in 2016, but this season it appears that she’ll be a major part of the Spirit’s gameplan. Between her speed in the open field and her growing ability to break defenders down on the dribble, Williams can be a nightmare to defend. Look for Washington to try to feed her the ball on a regular basis regardless of what flank she plays on.
Ordega, meanwhile, is at her best creating chaos with her rambunctious style of play and her overall athleticism. While I personally think she’s at her best as a center forward, she’s frequently played wide for the Spirit, for Nigeria, and did so this winter with Sydney FC. Ordega’s unpredictable nature can be a bit of a double-edged sword - opposing defenses don’t know what’s coming, but sometimes her teammates have the same thing happen to them - but she has a knack for making things happen. For a team that wants to high press, Ordega’s energy will be vital.
Ordega might not be fully fit to start the year due to a quad injury that limited her preseason minutes, which will probably open up a spot on the forward line for a rookie. Arielle Ship, a versatile attacker out of Cal-Berkely, seems to have the edge right now. Ship didn’t score in the preseason, but she was often heavily involved in Spirit goals, and like Ordega is a real battler who often forces turnovers in the opposing half.
The other possibility is Canadian international Lindsay Agnew. Agnew, like Williams, is tall and fast, making her a difficult match-up for most NWSL fullbacks. She’ll be an option when Gabarra wants to emphasize attacking width, as she seems to have the skill set of a winger more than a striker.
Cameron Castleberry is being looked at mostly as a right back, but she was a winger in college and could be deployed either to add real width to the attack or if the Spirit are taking a conservative approach. Finally, Farquharson will see plenty of time here once she’s fit. She’ll look to make runs in behind, both down the wing and slashing into the box.
Last year, Stengel and Ordega traded this role off repeatedly, and were rarely on the field at the same time. In the 14 games that both appeared in, one subbed in for the other on eight occasions. Outside of a 2-0 loss in Seattle (where both went the full 90), the longest Gabarra used both players at the same time was during the final 24 minutes of August’s 2-1 win at Orlando.
This year, at least for now, the job appears to be Stengel’s. Ordega will see plenty of time wide, for one thing, but Stengel has also made big strides since midway through last season. During this preseason, she’s looked like a more well-rounded target forward who is just as likely to get an assist as she is a goal. The Spirit are most likely going to make her back-to-goal play a key element of how they attack, and her burgeoning relationship with attacking midfielder Kristie Mewis will probably be built on the idea that Stengel’s first touch and physical strength will allow her to receive the ball, hold off collapsing defenders, and find someone moving into the gaps that opens up.
Ordega will remain a factor here, particularly if the Spirit find themselves in a game they want to turn into a track meet. Ordega is much faster than Stengel, so if Washington thinks being more direct will help, you can bet we’ll see Ordega playing through the middle. This is the role she played during last year’s playoffs, and she’s more than capable of making life difficult for opposing defenders.
When Ordega wasn’t available at the start of last season, Gabarra used Williams as a sub in this role. While she’s probably better wide, Williams can still use her footwork to open up spaces, and her speed will stretch the field vertically. Gabarra loves to move his forwards around, so don’t be surprised if Williams moves into a central role as a change-up of sorts for the Spirit on occasion.
Ship saw time as a center forward during the preseason, and her knack for making things happen will keep her involved as an option here as well. Farquharson mostly ended up wide last year, but she could still end up playing in the middle if Washington is looking for more of a goal poacher who can break an offside trap.
What applied with Williams and Ordega before applies here as well, though currently it seems likely that Williams will end up here with Ordega on the right on more occasions than the opposite scenario. In both cases, the two right-footers will look to slash in from the left, and should often pop up with aggressive runs towards the goalmouth as a result.
Ship will be used similarly, and this may be the role she plays most often this season. She’s probably better ghosting in at the back post than she is staying wide and crossing. That description definitely fits for Farquharson, who played on the left more than anywhere else last year before her injury.
Newcomer Havana Solaun has seen some time wide left in the preseason, and she would bring something different. Solaun is predominantly a midfielder known for her passing ability, but Gabarra has used players in that style as wide forwards on a regular basis (just ask Banini and Matheson). It looked like a work in progress over the weekend, but don’t be surprised if we see her get time here in situations where the Spirit are trying to keep possession and control the tempo.
Overall, there’s plenty of depth. Washington doesn’t lose a lot up front even when they rotate in their fifth- or sixth-choice forward, which suits Gabarra’s tendency to rotate forwards based on opposing strengths and weaknesses just fine. While there appears to be a clear top trio (Stengel, Williams, and Ordega), players like Ship, Agnew, and Farquharson are still going to get plenty of minutes.
Depth is vital for teams over the long grind of a season, but Spirit fans have to be a bit concerned about the lack of an obvious top-tier attacker like Dunn who can break down even the best NWSL defenses. Every other NWSL playoff team from 2016 has a Lynn Williams, or Tobin Heath, or Christen Press to call on. Williams could become that player, but it’s asking for her to take a major leap forward from “dangerous player” to “potential Best 11 attacker” so quickly.
Furthermore, this set of Washington forwards doesn’t really have a true schemer who can break teams open via creativity or clever movement. Stengel has shown some good anticipation and an eye for a pass, but she’s not quite Dunn or Banini in that department, at least in terms of conjuring up the spectacular when it’s needed.
Nonetheless, it must be said that the Spirit front line may be a pleasant surprise when one considers the dour predictions floating around out there. Stengel looks primed to take on a bigger role, as does Williams, and players like Ordega and Ship are so relentless that Washington will be able to generate turnovers and reduce their reliance on individual brilliance.
If the pieces all fit together, we could well see a group that works better than the sum of its parts. Remember, the Spirit were the third-highest scoring team in the NWSL last year despite having no one score more than 5 goals. Gabarra wants his team to be balanced enough that shutting one player down doesn’t spoil the entire attack. However, if that balance can’t be developed, Washington may rue their lack of a world class X factor.