Last year, the Washington Spirit finished in last place, which is pretty much where they spent the whole NWSL season. The year before that, the club was seconds away from winning the championship. So how will this season be? Somewhere between the two. Here’s what you should know about the 2018 Washington Spirit.
Last year was bad. Why won’t this season be more of the same?
Mostly because the Spirit acquired some great players. Through the Boston Breakers dispersal draft, the Spirit signed USWNT midfielder Rose Lavelle. She won’t be available at the start of the season though since she is rehabbing her hamstring. With the number one pick in the college draft, the Spirit selected U.S. national team midfielder Andi Sullivan, and then just two picks later added Canadian international and Duke midfielder/defender Rebecca Quinn.
On top of that, the Spirit traded the rights to Crystal Dunn (who wasn’t going to come back) to get USWNT right back Taylor Smith star forward Ashley Hatch from North Carolina, and also got goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe from Orlando. You get the idea.
This sounds pretty swell. Why aren’t they title favorites?
The two main hurdles are with the backline and the sheer number of newcomers on the team. While the Spirit have plenty of midfielder and forwards, the backline is thin. We’re talking four true defenders, a center back/defensive midfielder, and a second-year midfielder (Meggie Dougherty Howard) who has played some right back in preseason.
Any serious injury early in the season would be a huge blow to the Spirit. They could call up a draft pick who didn’t make the team (they have the rights to three defenders who aren’t currently on the roster) and can convert Dougherty Howard to a full-time defender, but having their depth tested long-term would be a pretty bad scenario for Washington.
The second issue is that a lot of the newcomers haven’t been able to spend much time with the team so far because of national team call-ups. When the Spirit kick off this Saturday the team will have only had a five or so training sessions with their full squad. This is a somewhat common situation across the NWSL, but for the Spirit it’s a bit worse since most of the national team players are new to the team. With all the turnover this offseason, Washington has less familiarity to start the season than a lot of other teams.
All these new players seem cool, but who left the Spirit?
Most notably, Canadian goalkeeper Steph Labbe who is now playing with a men’s under-23 semi-pro team in Calgary. That was expected (the leaving part, not the men’s semi-pro team part), but more unexpected was the trade of her national team counterpart Shelina Zadorsky. Zadorsky was a standout center back for the Spirit and captained the team last year, but was traded to Orlando in exchange for Bledsoe, the projected starting goalkeeper.
Other departures include outside back Alyssa Kleiner, defender Kassey Kallman, and Danish midfielder Line Sigvardsen Jensen. Cheyna Matthews (formerly Cheyna Williams) is pregnant and will miss the season.
What players in particular should I watch?
The great thing about watching the Spirit this season is that there will certainly be a lot of emphasis on the attack. Mallory Pugh is always fun to watch. She’s creative, always has something up her sleeve, and is dangerous with the ball at her feet. This season she’ll have Hatch (the 2017 NWSL Rookie of the Year) up top so she’ll be a little less isolated.
In terms of new players, Quinn is pretty entertaining to watch whether at holding mid or at center back. She pulled off a couple of moves in a recent preseason game that really showed her ability to think faster than most players. Dougherty Howard is a player you could spend the whole game watching.
What happened in the NWSL this winter?
A LOT. First off, the Boston Breakers folded at the end of January and as a result the NWSL will play with nine teams this season. Boston’s players landed at other NWSL teams via the dispersal draft (that’s how Washington got Lavelle) and won’t count towards the roster or salary cap.
FC Kansas City dissolved and their players and draft picks were transferred to the new Utah Royals FC (under Real Salt Lake ownership). A coaching carousel led to former FCKC coach Vlatko Andonovski to Seattle, former Seattle coach Laura Harvey to Utah, and former Spirit assistant coach Denise Reddy moved to take over the head coaching position at Sky Blue FC in New Jersey.
This all sounds great. How do I watch?
Here is the Spirit’s schedule. When the Spirit aren’t at home you can usually watch them on Go90 or on Lifetime if they’re the game of the week. The home opener is on March 31 against the Orlando Pride at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
SoccerPlex? Isn’t that pretty far?
Yep, it’s pretty far from D.C., but the atmosphere and stadium are great once you’re up there. If you want to see pro soccer and don’t want to wait until July, a trip up 270 is your best bet. It looks like the Spirit will play a game at Audi Field on August 25 against the Portland Thorns so while that’s not confirmed, keep that date in mind.