Tonight the Washington Spirit kick off their 2018 NWSL season with a season opener at Seattle. While the starting lineup is still up in the air, here is an evaluation of the Spirit at each position. The strongest area for the Spirit is the midfield, where they added a bevy of talent this offseason and have depth players that could start on other NWSL teams.
In a pretty unusual move for the NWSL, the Washington Spirit currently carry three goalkeepers on the roster: Aubrey Bledsoe, DiDi Haracic, and Kelsey Wys. Part of this is because the Spirit have free roster spots for former Boston Breakers Rose Lavelle and Tiffany Weimer due to dispersal draft rules.
Another factor has been a lack of time to evaluate all three. With only two preseason games, it’s been hard to glean much insight about the goalkeeping situation, but it seems certain that Bledsoe (acquired from the Orlando Pride this offseason) will start in goal on Saturday night. Bledsoe was the backup goalkeeper for Orlando last year and had success filling in during a long stretch while Ashlyn Harris was injured. Haracic was the backup keeper for the Spirit in 2017 but started the final few games of the season for the Spirit after Stephanie Labbe was granted medical leave. Wys didn’t play in 2017 due to an ACL injury, but in 2016 emerged as the starter for Washington down the stretch.
This is the thinnest part of the Spirit’s roster. Washington has just four full-time defenders, while Rebecca Quinn can play center back or defensive midfield. Midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard may see some minutes at right back this season to add some depth. The first option for the backline is (right to left) Taylor Smith, Quinn, Estelle Johnson, and Caprice Dydasco. Whitney Church would come in at center back if Quinn ends up playing more as a midfielder.
When Smith is out on national team duty (and this year is a World Cup qualifying year) then Dougherty Howard could fill in at right back. Dougherty Howard played there during the first preseason game and has also been practicing there during training sessions a bit. Tori Huster can also play at center back if the need arises. However Huster, while not on the injury report, hasn’t played a minute of preseason action. USWNT midfielder Andi Sullivan has played center back in the past as well, though it seems that Washington sees her as a midfielder only.
The main concern is a serious early-season injury to a defender that would force the Spirit into playing a non-natural defender and having very few options for substitutions. Washington hasn’t had much time to gel, and losing a defender for a month or two would complicate matters significantly.
This is the Spirit’s strongest area and the main dilemma is how to fit all the talent they have into one midfield. It’s a pretty good problem to have. The players competing for a starting spot are Andi Sullivan, Estefania Banini, Havana Solaun, Dougherty Howard, and Quinn. Joanna Lohman will be a contender for a starting spot after she is fully fit and completely recovered from her ACL tear. She played a strong 45 minutes in the first preseason game, but did not appear in last weekend’s game in Richmond. Huster didn’t play in a preseason match because she is resting after 2 straight years of NWSL and W-League play, according to Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra.
Sullivan, who sees regular minutes for the USWNT these days, is a hugely important addition. The northern Virginia native is versatile, able to play either at the base of the midfield or as in a box-to-box role, and she figures to add plenty in terms of passing ability and soccer IQ. Sullivan’s ability to read the game and make it easy on her teammates could make her a fundamental piece of the puzzle for years to come.
Rose Lavelle could be the centerpiece of this midfield, but she’s out for Saturday’s game as she continues to rehab her hamstring (there’s no timetable on her return). The Spirit are hoping that a fully fit Lavelle will bring the level of play that catapulted her into a starting role for the USWNT.
Yanara Aedo and Morgan Proffitt will likely be used as depth or subs. Proffitt could possibly play some defense if needed. Eventually the Spirit’s midfield will likely feature Lavelle, Sullivan and then one of Dougherty Howard, Quinn, Huster, or Lohman.
Washington’s attack will be missing Cheyna Matthews (formerly Williams), who is pregnant, but they have enough depth to still be dangerous. In the offseason the Spirit added 2017 Rookie of the Year Ashley Hatch, who scored 7 goals with North Carolina last year. Hatch looks like she’ll be the starting center forward, and she’s starting to get more regular USWNT call-ups.
The biggest name, though, is Mallory Pugh. A written-in-ink starter for Jill Ellis these days, Pugh’s mix of speed, vision, and dribbling ability make her a consistent threat to score herself or set up others for Washington. Pugh also showed a knack for staying fresh and energetic as games wore on last season, frequently becoming more dangerous as opposing defenders got tired. If the Spirit are going to push into the playoffs, Pugh is going to have to be one of the best players on the field week in and week out.
The final starting forward spot appears to be headed to either Banini or Solaun. Both are players who can play attacking midfield, and Gabarra likes to have someone of that profile to play up front in his 4-3-3. The idea is having a creative player who can drift inside find pockets to break defenses down centrally. In the opener, it seems likely that both will play, with one up front and the other as the team’s playmaker.
Nigerian international Francisca Ordega played for Spanish side Atletico Madrid this offseason and remains one of the best forwards to come off an NWSL bench. She brings a tremendous burst of energy and creativity to the field which are a particular challenge for tired legs. She has alternated between a starter and super-sub role for the Spirit, and could in fact end up forcing her way into a starting role either on the right or in the middle (with Hatch moving right in the latter case).
Cali Faruqharson (left tibial stress injury) and Arielle Ship (ACL recovery) start the season on the injury report, but both are good options to have as depth. Farquharson has largely played on the left side for Gabarra, while Ship can play any of the forward positions. Aedo could see time on the left wing, while Tiffany Weimer is an option on either flank.