The 2018 Washington Spirit are not a team that anyone wants to be reminded of. But until the Spirit score some goals in a professional game, the current season is going to be viewed through the lens of that team’s failures.
So let’s talk about them quickly: Last season, the Spirit scored just 12 goals despite having solid attacking players like Mallory Pugh, Ashley Hatch and Franny Ordega up top. They set the NWSL record for longest spell without a goal. They played slow soccer, almost never making early forward passes into space, and head coach Jim Gabarra was fired before the season ended.
New coach Richie Burke seems to understand that fans want to see a more entertaining team even more than they want to see improved results. After the Spirit’s 5-0 preseason win against James Madison University, he says that fast, attacking soccer “is going to be our DNA.”
The player who most exemplified that philosophy during the game was Jordan DiBiasi, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NWSL College Draft, who made her Spirit debut on Saturday night. She started and played 72 minutes in a No. 10 role, functioning as the team’s primary playmaker.
“I think she’s proven why she was our top draft pick, she’s a special footballer,” Burke says of DiBiasi. He added, “I’ve been impressed with her since the day I first saw her play football. She is somebody that we coveted and wanted to bring to this football club, and tonight you saw why.”
DiBiasi had a goal and an assist against JMU, though the box score of a preseason match against a college opponent that the Spirit expected to beat comfortably isn’t particularly important. What does matter, though, is the way DiBiasi was trying to play.
She was at the heart of what the team was doing going forward, regularly looking to find space between Hatch and the Spirit midfield, running at defenders, and playing early through balls to her forwards. It was DiBiasi’s constant forward-thinking mentality and her footwork, much more than any stats or times that she beat defenders one-on-one, that was particularly impressive about her Spirit debut. Burke called her “a pure footballer” with “lovely feet and a lovely brain.”
And even though goals against college teams don’t really matter, let’s watch DiBiasi’s anyway, just for fun.
DiBiasi’s next challenge will be proving that she can play the same way against professional opponents. The Spirit play French pro side Bordeaux, who sit third in the Division 1 Féminine table, in their next preseason game on March 23. Their final two preseason games are against college teams ahead of their NWSL season opener on April 13, against Sky Blue FC.
She says she’s already noticed a huge difference in the training level between college and professional players. “Already in practice, the physicality of the professional level is a totally different ballgame,” DiBiasi says. “I see it in training every day, they’re bigger, faster, stronger. So learning how to deal with that and still be successful is the next challenge for me.”
Burke agrees that the physicality of the pro game will present the biggest challenge to DiBiasi, and says she is not yet as strong as most pro players. But he also has an interesting theory about how she can overcome this.
“We’ve tried to stick to a mantra of ‘matadors and bulls,’” Burke says. “If she tries to fight the bulls, she’s going to get gored. But if she plays around them like a matador, she’ll be very difficult to play against.”
DiBiasi is currently competing for time against USWNT star Rose Lavelle, but even if Lavelle’s name is written on the lineup card in permanent ink, DiBiasi will still be needed. Lavelle has been injury prone throughout her career, and if she’s healthy, she’ll miss huge chunks of the NWSL season on national team duty. Burke sounds like he will be unwilling to compromise when it comes to his style of play, so DiBiasi will need to step into Lavelle’s shoes when called upon.
It’s also possible that they could play together at times. DiBiasi played some right wing in college, and Burke pushed back a bit when asked if DiBiasi is a true No. 10. “She can play anywhere, 6, 8, 10, wherever she wants to play,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, DiBiasi is also willing to play anywhere. “Any position on the field, I’m just going to do anything I can to help the team win and be successful this year,” she says. Rookies didn’t get a lot of chances to shine in NWSL last season, and fellow first round pick Dorian Bailey, who was a star attacking midfielder at North Carolina, got her run-out at left back on Saturday.
But DiBiasi looks at home in a central attacking midfield role. Her skillset and style of play in the position are exactly what the Spirit were lacking last season. If the Spirit are going to put 2018 behind them and successfully play a completely different style of soccer, DiBiasi looks likely to be a huge part of that.