Just before Christmas, Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke spoke with a variety of journalists via conference call. Entering his second season in charge of the club, Burke held forth on the Spirit’s new signings, their draft strategy, and his overall recruitment policy in the first NWSL offseason featuring allocation money.
For the second time this offseason, Burke stated that he intends to trade into the first or second round in the upcoming NWSL Draft, which takes place January 16 in Baltimore. “We’re going to try and negotiate to jump up the order,” said Burke. “I don’t have many assets in the football club that I want to give away in terms of player personnel because I am very happy with what we have returning this year, but you know allocation money is a trading tool, future picks, and international roster spots are all methods that we can perhaps convince another club to give us a pick.”
However, Burke noted that the Spirit want to use their picks on players who are ready to contribute in 2020. “We still want to retain our identity of bringing in young players and using the draft to find the gems that can come in and play for us right away. I’m not interested in signing college kids who just sit on the bench or are just around for developmental purposes. We want to bring in players who can come in and contribute immediately and play.”
At the moment, the Spirit have only two picks, in the middle of the 3rd and 4th rounds (23rd and 32nd overall). Burke conceded that “Our draft board looks a little bit scant right now,” but was confident in being able to find players that meet the high standard of being able to meaningfully contribute on a team that is aiming to make the playoffs after just missing out this past season.
Burke, who said that the Spirit have another international signing coming soon, also detailed a common profile among the players Washington has pursued this offseason. “We also looked at bringing in players who were maybe expanding themselves or growing a little bit and developing their game overseas...young players who maybe have done a year with a European club to become more of a rounded player and a little bit more grown up, and then bring them back to play at our football club after that experience overseas.” Burke added that being able to play a specific position naturally was less important to him than “players who play our style and our way and embody our culture and can come into our dressing room and football club and really help us become a better team.”
The Spirit boss elaborated on the sort of player he was talking about. Alluding to both the few job openings for players around the league, and the hesitancy of some NWSL clubs to give their picks an opportunity, Burke said “Some of these kids are out-and-out soccer junkies, and they just don’t have a platform or an opportunity to play professional football in this country yet. So those who really do want to be committed to the process, those who do want to have a career in professional football, they’re the ones that go over into European leagues.”
While the professional playing time undoubtedly provides a major boost to these young players, Burke emphasized that it’s not entirely about what the players can do with the ball at their feet. “[It’s] not just football education, but life education. Some of these teams are community teams and getting that sense of playing for your local club and your local community is great for these young players. I think they come back much more rounded, much more capable, more grown-up human beings and players, who in our training ground, are able to get after it and understand what it’s like to be a pro.”
That description applies to two of his newest recruits, former USA Under-20 Jessie Scarpa and Jenna Hellstrom of the Canadian national team. Both players played in Sweden after their college careers finish, and despite spending the bulk of their time playing up front, both may be looking at new positions this coming season.
“We don’t exactly see Scarpa playing up front,” said Burke of the UNC product. Scarpa had spent time last summer training with the Spirit, who were impressed enough to offer a deal. However, because she hadn’t registered for the NWSL draft after her final year of eligibility — an issue Burke linked with Scarpa’s being injured at the time — Washington were barred from signing her.
Once that plan went awry, Burke said that the Spirit urged Scarpa to play overseas, which she did with Lidköpings FK in the Damallsvenskan. On the topic of Scarpa’s injuries (which include knee and hip surgeries), Burke was bullish on her prospects: “Good players don’t become bad players overnight. Injuries set them back a little bit, but if you manage those injuries well and you have a good performance staff in the football club, and then you can work on their psychology, I think that player is gonna shine. And we’re hoping that that’s where Jess is gonna be this year. She’s a very, very good player.”
Hellstrom, meanwhile, appears to be in Burke’s plans at right back, and as an option to provide tactical flexibility off the bench. “She’s got some wheels so she gives us some flexibility, where she’s gonna penetrate in wide areas and go beyond the back line... In stages last year, we toyed with going to a little back three [when trailing], a 3-4-3 to give us more players in that attacking area.” Burke noted that in that scenario, Tori Huster would likely help make up that back three, while Hellstrom would provide more speed out on the touchline.
Japanese international Kumi Yokoyama, the highest-profile player among the Spirit’s recent moves, will be used as “an out-and-out forward” according to Burke. Despite there being relatively few moves between NWSL and Japan’s Nadeshiko League, Burke said the move for the 26 year old was straightforward. “We didn’t really have an awful lot of difficulty. She’s a player that we’ve tracked, a player that we’ve continued communication with, and when there was a strong indication that ours was the league that she’d like to come play in, then we didn’t really hesitate.”
NWSL’s introduction of allocation money has changed the game on a lot of fronts, and Burke said that Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin is enthusiastic about buying into this new mechanism for player acquisition. “Steve has been fantastic. He came to me, he didn’t say ‘let’s open the check book,’ but he said said ‘let’s talk about what you want.’ He said that everything is manageable, but we just need to do it strategically and intelligently, and not just be throwing money away for players that could come into this league and tank badly. So we have to be cautious, we have to be intelligent, and we have to be strategic.”
While much of the early speculation about allocation money has centered on bringing in international stars, Burke was quick to point out that it can also be used to give raises to existing NWSL players. “I don’t necessarily think that allocation money should just go to international players. There are some fantastic domestic players that also qualify to get some of that allocation money. All it does for us, especially with an owner like Steve Baldwin, is give the opportunity to us to pay some players who have been really instrumental in raising our franchise’s profile last year and improving our standing, both on and off the field.”
Under the newly-introduced rules, the Spirit would in theory be allowed to use allocation money on goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe (due to her spot on the NWSL Best XI in 2019), the club’s longest-tenured player Tori Huster (who has played more than the minimum five full NWSL seasons), and Cheyna Matthews (who, due to her time with the Jamaican national team, would qualify as an international player with more than 3 caps over the past 24 months).
“I’m unabashed in saying that I think there are some fantastic players in this country,” stated Burke. “They’re two-time world champions for a reason. That’s not an accident! To bring an international in and pay above the odds for them, they have to be special.”