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Washington Spirit 2017 preview: Midfielders

Despite the offseason departures, the Spirit midfield remains the club’s biggest strength

Stephanie Yang

When your roster has seen the amount of turnover the Washington Spirit’s has this offseason, it’s safe to expect that every section of the starting lineup will feature some significant changes. The Spirit midfield is no exception, as playmaker Christine Nairn will now suit up for the Seattle Reign. Diana Matheson (also with Seattle) and Estefania Banini (Valencia CF) both played more as wide forwards than as midfielders in 2016, but both were still options as attacking midfielders.

That would be a lot of talent for any team to lose. Typically, one would expect the Spirit to have midfield problems as a result of seeing those players depart. However, it must be said that between the players that were retained and some promising new faces, Washington’s midfield will once again be the club’s strong suit. While the type of player involved has changed - there’s no one on the roster that plays the game like Nairn, or with Matheson’s international experience, or Banini’s technical mastery - the components are there for the Spirit to win the midfield battle on a regular basis.

Let’s break down who we’ll be seeing playing through the middle this season.

Defensive midfield (a.k.a. the #6)

Head coach Jim Gabarra generally prefers to play a deep defensive midfielder, with the other two midfield roles lining up further ahead and right/left of center. That’s ideal for this group because the midfield conversation has to start with Tori Huster. The only remaining player to suit up for the Spirit in each of their seasons is arguably the best player on the team’s roster. Huster’s positional sense, balance, and her consistency as a passer are all vital for the deepest midfield role. She’s also showing a growing knack for making herself more of a goalscoring threat on set pieces and on shots from outside the box. Frankly, she belongs in any USWNT defensive midfield conversation that players like Danielle Colaprico and Sarah Killion are in.

Based on the preseason, it appears that Gabarra’s fourth choice central midfielder is Danish international Line Sigvardsen Jensen. When she plays, Huster will most likely take up a ball-winning role (we’ll get to that shortly). While the Spirit would lose a bit of dynamism in their #6 in those instances, Sigvardsen Jensen has significant experience in the European Champions League and is well-equipped for the Spirit’s focus on keeping possession.

Late in the preseason, Gabarra experimented with rookie Meggie Dougherty Howard in this role (while moving Huster to center back). That would be an undoubtedly aggressive tactical move, but it’s good to have a way to boost your team’s attacking ability while staying in a familiar formation. Dougherty Howard has an eye for a through ball, and is certainly physically strong enough to win her fair share of tackles.

Finally, defender Whitney Church has appeared as a defensive midfielder a few times. The presence of Sigvardsen Jensen and Church’s rise as a probable starter at center back under Gabarra likely means this will be a rarity in 2017, but it is an option. For example, if a team is bombarding the Spirit box in the late stages of a game looking for an equalizer, he could add height at center back via Estelle Johnson, and move Church up into the midfield.

Ball-winner (a.k.a. the #8)

Coming off of a career year, Joanna Lohman will remain a critical part of everything the Spirit do. Aside from unexpectedly scoring 4 goals last year, Lohman changes the terms of how games are played by making it very difficult for opponents to move the ball through central midfield. Between her and Huster, it became very common last season to watch Washington’s opponents look to play wide and bring the ball up the flank rather than even bother testing moves up the middle.

Lohman isn’t just valuable from a defensive perspective. Her work rate often sees her join the Spirit attack, and those late runs might be more important than ever given the loss of inventive players like Banini and Crystal Dunn. If Washington’s approach is going to work, they need clever movement from everyone in the attack, and the Silver Spring native is a big part of that.

Huster could also see time here, particularly when Gabarra wants to take a more conservative approach. It’s not her natural position, but the ball-winning aspect of the role won’t trouble Huster a bit. With Lohman turning 35 later this season, it may be important for Gabarra to find occasions in which to give her a rest. Most likely, adding Sigvardsen Jensen and moving Huster forward will be the solution when those moments arrive.

Dougherty Howard will also factor in here, and could even become a frequently-used sub in this role. She may not be quite as mobile as Lohman on the attacking side of things, but her passing ability will help mitigate that. While experience may be a question for the rookie, she certainly has the ability to be an important contributor on both sides of the ball this season.

Attacking midfield (a.k.a. the #10)

With Nairn, Matheson, and Banini gone, the Spirit addressed their need for a new attacking midfielder in the blockbuster trade that saw the Spirit send Megan Oyster and two first round picks to Boston for defender Kassey Kallman, a swap in the Distribution Ranking Order, and Kristie Mewis.

Mewis spent much of her earlier years wide on the left, but during 2015 and 2016 she mostly played a central role. While 2016 was a struggle - as it was for anyone in a Breakers shirt - she scored 6 goals in 2015, and Mewis was a regular goalscorer throughout the Spirit preseason. Her long-range shooting is a major factor here, and it seems likely that Mewis will end up with a roughly even number goals and assists rather than the more traditional playmaker’s tendency towards having a bunch of assists and only a handful of goals. It’s also worth noting that Mewis has already played alongside Kallman, Lohman, and striker Katie Stengel, which should help her succeed with her new club.

Gabarra has also shown a willingness to play Lohman in this role during the preseason, but her version of it is very different from what Mewis does. In the attacking midfield role - whether Gabarra sticks with one defensive midfielder deep, or inverts that to push one player higher up the field - Lohman’s first focus is on disrupting the other team’s ability to play out of the back. There will certainly be games where that’s an important tactical card to play, but it must be said that without Mewis in the midfield, Washington looked a little short creatively throughout the preseason.

Havana Solaun might see time in this role as well. Injuries and the presence of stars like Kim Little and Jess Fishlock kept her off the field in Seattle, but Reign fans have consistently had good things to say about her passing ability. It will be interesting to see how she meshes with the Spirit’s first choice attack, as most of her preseason minutes came while numerous offensive subs were being made.

Another possible option is attacker Arielle Ship. There is more than a little of Matheson’s style of play to Ship, and her combination of smart movement, technical ability, feisty defensive play, and work rate might see Gabarra look to deploy her as a midfielder from time to time (particularly with the Spirit front line featuring so many options). Finally, Dougherty Howard is flexible enough to step in here as well, though she will be far more of a playmaking attacking midfielder than a goal threat. That’s still useful, though, particularly against teams that are vulnerable to through balls.

It’s not a reach to say that the Spirit will be heavily reliant on their midfield this season, particularly in the early weeks. The connection between Huster and Lohman is as valuable defensively as it is in possession, and the early signs point to Mewis returning to the sort of productive form that had become the norm for her up until last season. Sigvardsen Jensen, Dougherty Howard, and Ship all look like solid depth, and a team as good as Seattle wouldn’t have maintained their faith in Solaun for two years if she didn’t have the ability to help them out.

While the Washington midfield is going to be key all year long, there remain questions about whether they can create enough chances if Mewis is unavailable or out of form. The Huster-Sigvardsen Jensen-Lohman combination will be extremely difficult for any team to break down, but they also had trouble carving out opportunities against college sides.

In other words, while the Spirit will be consistently good as a possession team, and it will be tough to test their back four, it remains to be seen whether they can create enough if/when Mewis can’t help. We may see Washington have to adapt a strategy of grinding games out in those instances, which will only work against certain teams (for instance, it might be hard to set up a battle of attrition against the high-scoring North Carolina Courage, or a Portland Thorns side stocked with world-class creative midfielders).

On the other hand, if Mewis finds her best form while fitting in alongside Huster and Lohman, the Spirit midfield could be good enough to allow Washington to dictate the terms in both directions on a regular basis. Should that come to pass, we could well see the Spirit exceed league-wide expectations.