Head coach Richie Burke and the Washington Spirit’s three-year plan to win an NWSL championship was, like everything else, derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the NWSL not having anything close to a regular season — instead being the first league to return to competitive play in June/July with the 2020 Challenge Cup, then forming the Fall Series pod competition — the Spirit’s ambition remains undaunted. As such, they have (so far) been the busiest NWSL club this offseason.
Shortly after announcing the signing of 20-year-old forward/midfielder and Japanese international Saori Takarada, the Spirit confirmed the acquisition of USWNT star right back Kelley O’Hara. While the former will need time to adjust to a new league and compete for a place in the starting XI, the latter is an immediate starter at a position of need — and the sort of ‘win now’ move a team expecting to compete for a championship should make. During O’Hara’s introductory press conference, Burke alluded to further moves to help the club do more winning, now.
“I said earlier that I’d be happy with the players we got under contract going and playing, but I think we might need to add another attacking piece, maybe an attacking midfield piece... Especially if we are contemplating another system next season, looking at being a little bit more progressive in how we play and moving into a more attacking type of system to help us in the top third of the field, which has been a little bit of an issue for us.”
The good news is that the Spirit have multiple paths toward locating that star #10 to help the team transition from midfield into attack more frequently, and more clinically. Let’s review a few:
More Yuletide Shopping
Saori Takarada joined fellow national teammate Kumi Yokoyama and Canadian Jenna Hellstrom fill three of the Spirit’s four international spots, so Washington’s search for a game-changing attacking midfielder can extend outside of the U.S. borders. However, given that Rose Lavelle (more on her later) used to don a Spirit shirt and sets the bar high for any future #10, obtaining a player in a similar stratosphere is going to not only take some money, but also some convincing.
Due to Olympique Lyon’s acquisition of what is now OL Reign, Dzsenifer Marozsan and Saki Kumagai would likely head to Tacoma if they ever decided to come to the NWSL. Other European stars like Lieke Martens (Barcelona), Kadidiatou Diani (PSG), or Kim Little and Danielle van de Donk (Arsenal) are already with clubs they are unlikely to leave for the NWSL, particularly with the women’s EUROS coming in 2022.
But Chinese superstar playmaker Wang Shuang might be an interesting place to start. She left PSG last year to return to join her hometown club, Wuhan Chedu Jiangda. In October, Wang completed The LeBron James Experience and helped Wuhan claim its first ever CWSL title. Given everything that city and its inhabitants have been through, the championship may have made the storybook complete as-is, and the Spirit could look to try to convince Wang of that. Another interesting name is ex-Boston Breaker (though she never actually played for them) and ex-Barcelona Brazilian playmaker Andressa Alves, who has been at Roma since 2019, and only turned 28 years old last month.
It may be the most difficult — and the most costly — path, but both talents are at least worth an exploratory phone call.
Continue The Ashley Sanchez Experiment
From her first minute as a Spirit player, Ashley Sanchez was by far the team’s most exciting attacking player. In fact, it took her just 49 minutes to nutmeg Julie Ertz. In the Fall Series, whether through injury or design, Burke began playing Sanchez as a central attacking midfielder. Getting Sanchez on the ball more frequently, particularly since teams began double-teaming her on the left wing within her first five appearances, gave the Spirit the best chance at threatening the opposition goal. Sanchez’s exceptional box-to-box work rate allowed Burke to gamble on giving a young player with fewer than ten starts a shot at a new, and prominent, position.
Allowing a thrilling young talent to grow into a new role with a lot of responsibility, particularly when one of the strongest midfields in the NWSL will be behind her, is an intriguing prospect. Sanchez is very quick, can dribble around anyone (and wants to), has solid vision and a powerful right-footed shot (she’s still working on her left). The downside, of course, is the heavy reliance on a 21-year-old to be an immediate solution to the Washington Spirit’s attack. There’s no question Sanchez herself would be up for it, but it would be a much larger gamble for Burke to approach a full season with Sanchez expected to be the new Rose Lavelle (more on her later, I promise).
The Catarina Macario Play
The stratospheric talent from Stanford has already spent a not-insignificant amount of time with the USWNT and is widely expected to become one of its biggest stars in the not-too-distant future, but where she will play her club football is more uncertain. Unfortunately collegiate draft processes give talented and highly-valued athletes no control over the starts of their career. As such, there’s always the possibility that Macario could head to Europe for a couple years before having her pick of NWSL clubs to return to as a free agent. If she isn’t ready to make either decision she could opt to use her final year of collegiate eligibility to remain at Stanford for another year.
However, if Macario wishes to begin her pro career in 2021 and remain in the United States, the team with the #1 pick would have a remarkable opportunity to add an instant star. At the moment that club would be Racing Louisville, but that can change, and the Spirit are well-positioned to make a persuasive offer. Not only do the Spirit have the #2 pick, which will still ensure a high-quality, likely-instant starter, but the Spirit can also help Louisville with a hole or two that they weren’t able to fill in the Expansion Draft.
With Yuki Nagasato, Savannah McCaskill, CeCe Kizer, and Katie McClure, plus the rights for Caitlin Foord, Tobin Heath and Christen Press, Racing has an experienced and respectable attack, which is true even without players currently in England until at least the end of the 2020/21 WSL season. The Spirit are no strangers to draft day drama and trading up to get a talent they believe will immediately improve the team (see: Sanchez, Ashley).
Operation: Whoopsie Daisy
The main reason the Spirit are even in this situation is because Rose Lavelle is no longer on the team. Lavelle’s Spirit career was filled with expectation but ultimately injury, USWNT duty, and confusion with U.S. Soccer over her availability for club matches led to Washington swapping her NWSL rights to OL Reign for $100k just before she flew to England to join Manchester City for the 2020/21 WSL season.
Rose has stated in the past that it was a goal to play in Europe, and with the United States’ poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, an offer from Manchester City was too good to pass up. However, her time in Manchester might not be going as she would have wanted or expected. City manager Gareth Taylor, whose only experience had been coaching the club’s U16 team before he was promoted to head coach of the women’s team, is having a difficult time figuring out how to use the USWNT star. Lavelle has started just two league matches, and has five appearances overall — most at positions other than attacking midfield, her preferred and best position. In mid-November, Manchester City and Manchester United met in the Manchester Derby, which, because of each team’s new American acquisitions, was billed at a clash between USWNT stars. Press! Heath! Versus! Mewis! Lavelle! Except the match ended as a 2-2 draw and with Lavelle as an unused sub.
The trouble is that getting Lavelle’s rights back will surely cost significantly more than Reign paid, especially considering the Tacoma-based club have no reason to enter into negotiations since from their point-of-view the worst case scenario is Rose Lavelle playing for them. However, the Spirit have the 2nd and 9th picks in the upcoming draft and a couple players that might interest the Reign, all of which could be packaged with a similar cash offer that could be too good to pass up. The biggest downside is that Reign’s primary position of need is goalkeeper, and the Spirit are very unlikely to part with Aubrey Bledsoe, as the ensuing rioting would be much too costly.
But if it’s a star central attacking midfielder that you need after letting go of the star central attacking midfielder you had, maybe it’s best to take the mulligan and do all you can to get the one you had back.
Whether it’s one of these paths and/or names or not, it’s clear the Spirit want to take the final step toward completeness by unlocking the final third. The player will be important, but so will the tweaking of the system; as the saying goes, ‘the hardest thing is football is scoring a goal.’ If Burke and the Spirit can tame that part of the pitch as well as they’ve tamed the other two, they’ll be well on their way to conquering their title ambitions as well.