clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Washington Spirit preview 2017: Defenders

Offseason departures and injuries have hit the defense the hardest

Wilf Thorne

The Washington Spirit’s backline hasn’t been exempt from the gutting the rest of the team has undergone. Veteran right back Ali Krieger was traded to the Orlando Pride, while Megan Oyster was traded to the Boston Breakers. On top of that, defender Caprice Dydasco and goalkeeper Kelsey Wys each tore their ACL in the fall.

The Spirit’s backline did gain Kassey Kallman, a former Boston Breakers defender who the Spirit acquired in the trade that dealt Oyster. Kallman will likely start at left back this season. In addition, the Spirit drafted and signed UNC product Cameron Castleberry, who can play on the backline as well.


For the first two preseason games, the Spirit played in a three-back and with two wingbacks. Defensively, this system helped the Spirit keep possession but the team struggled with creating attacks from the central midfield. Castleberry excelled at driving forward from her right wingback role due to her her skillset as a natural winger helped the Spirit create attacks through the flanks instead of struggling in the center. Yet the three center backs were often exposed in transition and a quick counter-attack turned incredibly dangerous. Gabarra indicated that a three-back will be the team’s secondary system and; most of the time, the team will play a 4-3-3.


In addition to a roster gutting, three Spirit players suffered torn ACLs last fall, including Wys and Dydasco. ACL injuries usually require a 6-9 month recovery. Dydasco has been participating in some team warmups and Gabarra said her recovery is going faster than expected. She’ll likely resume play in the next month or so, though Gabarra has stressed he doesn’t want to risk re-injury. She and Wys, who is in Florida rehabbing her injury, are both on the 45-day disabled list to start the season.

Due to Wys’ injury, the Spirit signed goalkeeper Didi Haracic, who after playing for the Western New York Flash was a member of the Spirit Reserves in 2016. Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe will be the team’s starting goalkeeper. Canada has two friendlies in Canada on June 8th and June 11th, and Haracic will be called on then if Wys isn’t fit

Right back

Right back is one of the Spirit’s weakest points. On Saturday, Cameron Castleberry will likely start. Castleberry mainly played attacking midfielder and winger for UNC but with the Spirit she has played wingback in a 3-5-2 and right back in a 4-3-3. Castleberry is fast and good at closing down forwards, but she is often a bit rushed once she wins the ball and opts for clearances rather than building from the back. Still, for someone who only recently started playing outside back, she is impressive.

Once Dydasco is healthy, she will probably start at right back. Dydasco started in 14 games including the NWSL title game, when she tore her ACL. Dydasco is more imposing than her slight build would suggest. She would be a substitute on most teams but she isn’t a significant liability on the backline. She’s fairly athletic and is good at connecting with the outside forwards.

Whitney Church started at right back when Ali Krieger was at the 2015 World Cup. With Gabarra she has mainly played at center back, but she did spend a few minutes at right back at the end of last Saturday’s preseason game.

Center Back

The Spirit have three main options at center back: Shelina Zadorsky, Whitney Church, and Estelle Johnson. The likely starters are Zadorsky and Church. Zadorsky is the Spirit’s best center back. She is solid, calm under pressure, and an adept organizer. Her short-range passing is pretty good. She isn’t super athletic but compensates for that with smart positioning. Zadorsky is a good leader, and has been named captain for the season.

Johnson only started 11 games last year but boasts a great mix of athleticism and defensive IQ. She often compensates for weaker players around her. This preseason there have been a couple times where she and another defender have had a communication lapse, but she is nonetheless a good option at center back.

However, Gabarra prefers starting Church over Johnson, having cited her tactical awareness more than once. Church is the slowest of the three center backs on the roster, and that’s something opposing teams have tried to target in the past. Nevertheless, Gabarra usually started Church over Johnson and Megan Oyster last year. Defensive midfielders Tori Huster and Line Sigvardsen Jensen can both play center back if necessary, but will likely only see time there in emergencies.

Left Back

This offseason, the Spirit acquired Kassey Kallman from the Breakers. Kallman mainly played center back for the Breakers, but was pretty attack-minded for a center back. In 2014, Kallman played on the left and even scored a goal as a member of FC Kansas City. Kallman has played left wing back in the 3-3-2 and left back in the 4-3-3. She’s dominant aerially and pretty aggressive, yet doesn’t draw reckless fouls.

The other option is Alyssa Kleiner who nursed a slight injury for most of preseason. Kleiner played twenty minutes in the last preseason game but even when she is fit, Kallman will likely start. However, if the Spirit play 3-5-2, the attack-minded Kleiner might be preferred.

Dydasco moved to left back once Krieger returned from last year’s Olympics, and could also be an option here if Castleberry is a quick study.


Due to Wys’ injury, Labbe will be the starter for at least the first couple of months of the season. Labbe was with Canada for the Spirit’s two final preseason games, but played for most of the game against Penn State and went 90 minutes against UNC. Last year, following the Olympics, she fell out of Gabarra’s favor despite being first choice during the first half of the season. Labbe’s positioning can be questionable and she isn’t great at claiming crosses in the air. However, she is fast off her line and has made some big saves in 1-v-1 situations.

Haracic is very familiar with the Spirit and is an adequate backup goalkeeper given the Spirit’s predicament. Sometimes she comes off her line a bit too early or in situations that don’t require it.

Wys, when she returns, will certainly push to win her starting role back. However, that may come far enough into the season that Gabarra opts not to destabilize his team by making a change.

Overall, the Spirit’s defense is struggling as a result of the two ACL injuries and Krieger and Oyster’s departures. For the most part, the Spirit defenders are okay individually, but there are no standouts in the group. If the Spirit backline organizes well and plays as a unit, the team could perform better than a club with one great player surrounded by poor defenders. The backline is also helped by a a midfield that is usually very strong defensively.