Coming off of a horrific 2018 season and without a full-time head coach, the Washington Spirit already had enough on their plate before finding out today that wingback Taylor Smith will be out for several months after tearing her ACL. On loan with Newcastle Jets FC in Australia’s W-League, Smith was injured late in a 2-2 draw — a game that saw her notch two assists — with Perth Glory over the weekend.
Smith was having a strong season with Newcastle, and was recently named the team’s Player of the Month for November while playing a more attacking role than she’s often been seen in during her time in the NWSL.
Recovery times for ACL tears are generally seen as lasting 6-9 months, but there can be a wide range of variables that can extend that. Spirit forward Arielle Ship, for example, was out for essentially an entire year after tearing her ACL at the end of the 2017 season, only coming back to play in Washington’s final two games of 2018. The Spirit saw no fewer than six players tear their ACL between September 2016 and August 2017, but finally had everyone back to close the 2018 season.
Losing Smith will test Washington’s defensive depth, which was already the shallowest portion of the roster. Last year, former coach Jim Gabarra largely made do with four out-and-out defenders (Smith, Whitney Church, Estelle Johnson, and Caprice Dydasco) and one midfielder/defender (Rebecca Quinn). As the season wore on, midfielders Tori Huster and Meggie Dougherty Howard had to fill in, and rookie forward Mallory Eubanks was converted to a wingback role by the end of the year.
While Eubanks may end up being a wingback or fullback going forward, most of her time was spent on the left side. Smith has played almost exclusively on the right flank, and it’s unclear whether Eubanks or Dydasco (who has significant experience on the right) would be preferred. Johnson spent the 2017 season largely playing right back, but appears to be the club’s top central defender. Without a head coach in place, speculation on formation or player usage is pretty much impossible.
We may also see the Spirit use a draft pick, sign a player whose rights they hold, or make a trade to solve the problem at right back. The final option in that list is the least likely; NWSL observers largely agree that nearly every team in the league is in need of defenders. In the draft, Washington currently holds the 4th, 8th, 20th, 29th, and 31st picks, opening an avenue to strengthen their defense.
There are also multiple draft picks from last year that could factor in. Schuyler DeBree (a current U.S. under-23 regular) spent 2018 playing in the Czech Republic, while Brittany Basinger did the same in Iceland. NWSL managing director of operations Amanda Duffy has previously stated that the league will be expanding rosters, though it is unclear how many additional spots are on the way.