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Washington Spirit 2019 NWSL preview

A rebuilt Spirit squad is putting a ton of trust in youth and newcomers

Kelley Piper

The Washington Spirit have effectively hit the reset button over the winter. On and off the field, you can’t swing a Spirit Squadron scarf without hitting something new. Players and coaches are gone, the front office has changed dramatically, and there are a ton of new additions on and off the field. It’s a makeover that was probably overdue, but will it be enough to let this team march back up the NWSL standings?

How did they finish in 2018?

Do we have to talk about 2018?


Ugh, fine. The Spirit finished in 8th place on a 2W-5D-17L record. They had a horrific -23 goal difference, and broke the NWSL record for fewest goals in a season with 12. And this doesn’t even begin to contextualize how bad it was. Ashley Hatch’s stoppage-time goal in a 3-2 loss in Houston on May 27 was the Spirit’s 10th goal of the season, and it came in their 10th game. There are 24 games in a season. I’ll let you take a second to do the math...

...right. The Spirit didn’t score in the next 476 minutes (that’s over 5 games!), got a goal from Hatch in their 16th game of the season, and then went 765 minutes (that’s over 7 games!!!) before Arielle Ship scored in the season finale.

If it weren’t for Sky Blue FC only winning once all year, it would have been the worst season in NWSL history. And now you know why we didn’t want to talk about it.

What’s new in 2019?

Just about everything. The roster has undergone a full-on overhaul, with some of the most popular players in club history departing in the process. Jim Gabarra has been replaced as head coach by Richie Burke, the existing ownership has added a partner, and there are signs that real improvements are being made to the club’s overall infrastructure.

Maybe the biggest story on that front: a local broadcast deal with NBC Sports Washington and Monumental Sports Network that will provide fans in the area with more dedicated coverage and visibility than the team has ever gotten in the region.

Who’s out?

Aside from Gabarra, a whopping 12 players. Caprice Dydasco, Rebecca Quinn, Whitney Church, Taylor Smith, Havana Solaun, Estefania Banini, Francisca Ordega, Kelsey Wys, DiDi Haracic, Estelle Johnson, and Tiffany Weimer are all playing elsewhere, while Joanna Lohman just announced her retirement on Monday (though she’ll be taking up a position within the club’s front office).

Who’s in?

The big names are Australian internationals Chloe Logarzo and Amy Harrison. The Spirit also made a major emphasis on the draft this year, and signed all of their 2019 draft picks (Jordan DiBiasi, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady, Dorian Bailey, and Bayley Feist), plus undrafted rookie goalkeeper Shae Yanez. They’ve also added globetrotting former NWSL players Paige Nielsen, Megan Crosson, and Tiffany McCarty, and three players from elsewhere in NWSL (McKenzie Berryhill, Sammy Jo Prudhomme, and Carlin Hudson).

Who’s the player fans will learn to love?

This is an important question, as Washington’s fanbase has lost a lot of favorites in the offseason. Lohman, Johnson, Dydasco, and Ordega were arguably the four most popular players on the team among diehard fans, and while Lohman is still going to be a presence at the Maryland SoccerPlex, there’s certainly an opportunity for new players to become crowd favorites.

DiBiasi might draw plenty of attention thanks to her creativity and a knack for turning seemingly unremarkable situations into threatening attacks. She’s not necessarily going to score a ton of goals, but the Spirit will be looking for her to pick apart opposing defenses, and players like that are always going to get cheers and attention. If she can replace Banini’s clever play from the midfield, there will be plenty of folks getting a #4 on the back of their Spirit shirt.

What’s the new jersey?

Kelley Piper

Last year’s home jersey is back, though the Spirit have changed to blue shorts after wearing red in 2018. The away jersey has changed, though not by much. Nike handed the Spirit a very white jersey in 2018 that had a navy blue collar and a thin stripe down each side. This year, those minor design elements have been replaced by even more white, as you can see to the right of these words.

Let’s go back a second. Who’s the new coach?

Burke, a long-time figure in local soccer, has taken over for Gabarra (who, interestingly enough, once coached Burke on the Washington Warthogs indoor soccer team back in the 90s). Burke has been around the region’s soccer scene forever, coaching elite youth teams and D.C. United’s Under-23 squad for a time, but his signing was greeted with skepticism due to this being his first job in women’s soccer.

There have been allegations from Burke’s past of abusive and homophobic language, but so far the vibe around the team is very positive. Burke has differentiated himself by building his players up and emphasizing their qualities rather than the “feet on the ground” approach Gabarra preferred.

Assuming everyone is available, what is the lineup?

Burke has encouraged his team to be fluid and flexible in an effort to play an attractive brand of soccer. There will be a major emphasis placed on Lavelle, Pugh, and DiBiasi, while Sullivan will see a ton of the ball as the midfield fulcrum. Don’t expect this team to come out and play a very rigid formation any time soon.

The real question marks are at right back and the no. 8. Logarzo, who hasn’t been able to train yet due to an injury picked up while her Sydney FC team was winning the W-League’s Grand Final, seems like a sure bet to start, but she hasn’t had any time to train, and there’s a chance she might not have time to get 90 minutes fit before Australia sets off for the World Cup. For now, the door is open for Huster or Harrison to take the job in the early weeks of the season.

Those two could also end up playing right back, though Huster has just 25 preseason minutes there in what both she and Burke admitted was something of an experiment more than anything else. Harrison has more experience as an outside back and was listed as a defender on early Spirit preseason rosters, but on the final squad list was back among the midfielders. Meanwhile, the preseason starts at right back went to Matthews (a lifelong forward) and Bailey (a playmaking central midfielder at UNC).

It’s safe to say it’s a troublesome position, and it might be a while before a clear starter emerges.

How will the World Cup impact the squad?

It’s going to be tough. First up, 2018 showed everyone that the ability to break defenders down on the dribble is a real problem when Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, and Cheyna Matthews aren’t available, and those three are all extremely likely to head off to France (the former pair with the USWNT, the latter with Jamaica). Without them in the preseason, the Spirit struggled to pry open NCAA defenses; NWSL sides are going to be that much tougher.

The other issue is in the midfield, where Burke has placed a clear emphasis on his deepest midfielder being able to dictate the tempo and transition play into the attack. With Andi Sullivan, this has gone fairly well in the preseason, but Sullivan looks like one of the last players who will either get their ticket to France, or get some really bad news from Jill Ellis. If Sullivan makes the U.S. squad, Washington may really struggle to turn their possession into actual attacking moves.

And that doesn’t even get into what they might be losing with Logarzo and Harrison in the picture for Australia.

How much will this roster change after the season starts?

Washington has 2 open roster spots (and 2 international spots) at the moment, and it seems reasonable to expect them to go after some players that impress at the World Cup. Looking at how the roster is constructed, and the shortage of top defenders league-wide, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them bolster their defense.

Expectations for 2019?

This is a rebuilding year, so we’re keeping our expectations modest. This team is young and had massive turnover, and NWSL clubs that maintain roster continuity tend to be the ones in the playoffs. At full strength, Washington has the tools to score goals, but with a totally revamped defense featuring the aforementioned right back situation, two rookies, and a player whose previous NWSL season was spent as a forward sounds like a recipe for needing to win 3-2 pretty often.

A postseason berth feels unlikely, but if the Spirit’s young players grow consistently as the season wears on, mid-table is not out of the question (especially if they do well during the World Cup absences). The positive news is that the floor for this team appears comfortably higher than what we saw in 2018.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

A lack of experience. Between the youth movement underway and the number of players with little or no time in the league, there are going to be games where Huster, Hatch, and Bledsoe may have more games played in the NWSL than the entire rest of the lineup combined. This team is probably going to take their lumps on some nights, particularly against more physical, street-wise teams.

Who is THE player to watch on your team, and why?

Usually this question is about who the most electric player on the ball is, but let’s take it a different way. The player to watch in terms of monitoring how things are going for the Spirit is Ashley Hatch. First of all, she had the tekkers moment of the entire NWSL offseason:

Secondly, our rationale: Last year, Washington’s slow tempo and unwillingness to stretch games vertically saw Hatch end up having to drop deep to get touches, and she was often seeing most of the ball with her back to goal. If that’s happening repeatedly in the game you’re watching, the Spirit aren’t going to get chances. Since this team isn’t going to grind out many 1-0 slugfests, a lack of chances spells doom.

It’s when Hatch is getting out on the run and facing goal that she can thrive (see also: her seven-goal Rookie of the Year 2017 with the high-octane NC Courage). If Hatch is getting her chances on the run, it’s a good sign that Washington is going to find some goals, and like we said, this team needs to be scoring frequently if they’re going to pick up wins.