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Four questions that will define the Washington Spirit’s 2018 season

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Ahead of the start of the NWSL season, let’s ponder the issues that will determine whether the Spirit return to the playoffs or not

Andy Mead/isiphotos.com

After finishing at the bottom of the NWSL table last season, the Washington Spirit were expected to make some significant changes. Some of them, like using the #1 overall college draft pick to add USWNT midfielder Andi Sullivan, were expected. Others were more surprising: Washington made three separate big trades that ended up resulting in the acquisitions of Rose Lavelle, Rebecca Quinn, Taylor Smith, and Ashley Hatch.

With so much high-end talent coming in and a far shorter list of injured players coming into this season as compared to last year, expectations have been significantly raised. How far can they go? It probably depends on the answers to these four questions:

How long will it take for this group to gel?

There has been very little continuity for the Spirit over the last 18 months. The 2017 roster was dramatically changed after coming so close to winning the 2016 NWSL championship, and then this offseason has seen a major influx of talent. Just about one-third of Washington’s roster was not on the team last season, including as many as six likely starters once everyone is healthy. On top of that, three more players (Yanara Aedo, Joanna Lohman, and Morgan Proffitt) barely played at all in 2017, with Aedo and Lohman dealing with injury while Proffitt only came aboard late last season.

In a normal offseason, a team with this much turnover would enter a season as a work in progress. The Spirit aren’t getting a normal offseason, though, with the FIFA international window depriving them of eight players for the first half of the preseason. The NWSL has also moved the start of the season up two weeks, eating into the amount of time the team has had to train together and schedule preseason games. As a result, Washington will face the Seattle Reign this Saturday having just two rehearsals, and only one with their full compliment of national team players.

Following their preseason loss against the North Carolina Courage, head coach Jim Gabarra said he’d have preferred to have more time to train, noting that between fitness testing for the national team players and various other obligations, Washington had just two training sessions last week with everyone in camp before the game. This week, a snowstorm has further disrupted plans in a week that was already shortened due to having to fly out to the west coast.

There is no doubt that Washington is much improved, but in a league with only four playoff spots and a season that lasts just 24 games, a slow start could easily derail postseason hopes. Building the kind of understanding that playoff teams tend to have takes a lot of time, and time is a luxury Washington hasn’t had this winter.

Is there enough defensive depth?

Washington is entering the season with five players listed as defenders: Whitney Church, Caprice Dydasco, Estelle Johnson, Rebecca Quinn, and Taylor Smith. The latter duo are new to the team, and both are strongly expected to figure in with their national teams during what is a World Cup qualifying year.

NWSL teams are all too familiar with having to cycle versatile players into their less-preferred positions; that’s reality in a league that grants teams just 20 roster spots. The Spirit have players like Andi Sullivan and Tori Huster who can play center back, and midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard has spent a decent chunk of the preseason working as a right back just to add to Gabarra’s options. Washington has also retained the rights to three promising draft picks (Schuyler DeBree, Elizabeth Wenger, and Brittany Basinger) who could all bolster the back line.

A single game played with Smith and Quinn away with their national teams will force Gabarra to either move Dougherty Howard to right back or try Huster as the third member of a three-back. Even if the roster changes down the road (DeBree, for example, is completing her studies before vying for a spot on the team), a single defensive injury is going to put the Spirit in a very tricky position.

Will all the attacking pieces fit together?

On paper, Washington’s attack looks like one of the most talented in the entire league. Mallory Pugh is a consistent USWNT starter, Ashley Hatch is the reigning Rookie of the Year, Francisca Ordega is dangerous whenever she’s healthy, and there’s enough midfield creativity from Estefania Banini, Havana Solaun, and Dougherty Howard that Rose Lavelle’s early-season absence is not even that big of a deal.

This group has creativity, speed, power, and technical ability spread throughout the group. There’s also the attack-minded play from fullbacks Smith and Dydasco, and the infectious energy that Lohman brings no matter her role. Gabarra’s emphasis on a high-pressure, possession-heavy style of play means his teams tend to play more open games. If you’re a neutral reading this and want a team to look out for regularly, the Spirit are probably going to be involved in more than their fair share of 3-2 or 4-3 scorelines.

The question here is whether all the talent will actually work well as a unit. So far in two preseason games, Washington has had their moments, but often they’ve been relying on players to create in isolation, with attacks coming with a high degree of difficulty rather than a more cohesive attempt to make the game easy.

After last week’s game, Gabarra said the attack “is the last part” to get up to speed, and it’s easy to understand for the time being if the offense is not extremely fluid after 5-10 training sessions. However, there are a few questions within this overall issue: is Ordega a super-sub, a starting striker, or a wide forward? Is Pugh better on the right or the left? What about Banini, both before and after Lavelle is able to get into the swing of things? Is Sullivan a deep-lying playmaker, or a box-to-box presence? Is there room in the lineup for Dougherty Howard, who was the team leader in key passes last year?

The Spirit have so many strong attacking players, which is a great problem to have, but it will take some time for them to develop partnerships and that ability to play on memory that is so vital for attacking teams.

What’s going on in goal?

NWSL teams very rarely carry more than two goalkeepers without having one on the 45 day disabled list. Right now, Washington has Aubrey Bledsoe, DiDi Haracic, and Kelsey Wys, and all three are healthy. Part of this choice is the benefit of having two extra field players due to Lavelle and Tiffany Weimer essentially coming with extra roster spots due to the Boston Breakers dispersal draft rules, but it seems likely that at some point, the Spirit will make a move so that the last roster spot can go towards defensive depth.

At this point, Bledsoe appears to be first choice, but that’s not an absolute certainty. It’s also entirely unclear where Haracic and Wys are in terms of a hierarchy, and that may be an ongoing battle that we know little of since it will be decided at training. Wys managed to push Stephanie Labbe out of the starting eleven in 2016, but was never quite 100% last year after tearing her ACL early in the 2016-2017 Australian season. Last year, Haracic emerged as the starter when Labbe took medical leave for the final few games on the schedule.

A healthy competition for the starting job appears to be a point of emphasis for Gabarra, so Bledsoe — who stood out with Orlando last season while Ashlyn Harris missed a couple of months due to injury — will have to be at her very best to maintain her apparent edge. With the possibility of adding another defender also appealing, the battle to be in the top two may well be a de facto fight for one roster spot.