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Washington Spirit waive six, reportedly trade to acquire USWNT defender Emily Sonnett

The Spirit are the NWSL’s busiest team right now, and by a wide margin

Spain v USWNT Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The Washington Spirit have been the NWSL’s busiest team this offseason, and that trend has continued over the last 24 hours. Yesterday, the team announced that they would waive six players, and today a report from the Washington City Paper says the club will make a major trade to acquire USWNT defender Emily Sonnett from the Orlando Pride.

According to that piece by Kelyn Soong, the Spirit would be moving midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard, the #9 pick in the upcoming NWSL College Draft, a 2023 first round pick, and some unknown amount of allocation money to Orlando to acquire Sonnett. Sources have told Black and Red United that Dougherty Howard, a Florida native, has been pursuing a trade throughout the offseason.

Sonnett, 27, has 46 caps for the USWNT and appeared in their recent 2-0 win over the Netherlands. While her NWSL career has almost entirely been spent at center back, Sonnett’s versatility is well-known, and she can play anywhere across the back line.

Interestingly, Sonnett would come from the Pride having never actually played for the team after an offseason trade saw her leave the Portland Thorns for Orlando. The Pride were not able to participate in the Challenge Cup this summer, and before the Fall Series began, she had signed a deal to play for Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC in Sweden’s top flight. Sonnett earned plaudits playing right-center back, making 10 appearances and helping Kopparbergs/Göteborg win the Damallsvenskan title.

Spirit head coach Richie Burke has talked about a significant formation change for 2021, and sources have told Black and Red United that in all likelihood this will mean going to a back three or back five. Sonnett would likely slot in with Paige Nielsen and Sam Staab as a third center back.

Kelley Piper / Black and Red United

Dougherty Howard’s departure would be bittersweet for both her and the Spirit. Over the past two years, she has been the most natural player to take over at the base of the midfield when Andi Sullivan is unavailable or needed elsewhere, and her time with the Spirit includes all four of her professional seasons as well as two more with the Spirit Reserves in 2015 and 2016.

However, a move to Orlando would see her become a foundational piece for the Pride, who have struggled for some time to assemble a robust midfield that can both provide for their attack while also screening their back four. Dougherty Howard would be a reliable starter right away for Marc Skinner, who will also expect to add another starter with the #9 pick in the draft next month.

While this trade is still not confirmed by either team, yesterday’s waivers are a settled deal, and the players involved included some surprises. Center back Brooke Hendrix, Canadian international wingback Jenna Hellstrom, midfielder Jaye Boissiere, and attackers Meg McCool, Jessie Scarpa, and Crystal Thomas were all let go, leaving the Spirit with 16 players under contract. That number does not include Dougherty Howard and forward Kumi Yokoyama, both of whom were listed as being in talks with the club over a new deal when Washington announced their end-of-year roster decisions.

Thomas garnered most of the attention when news broke yesterday. Thomas scored 3 goals in 13 appearances in 2019, but due to injury was only able to make one appearance during the Challenge Cup. During the Fall Series, Thomas subbed into two games and started once, posting one goal and one assist. While Thomas may not have been a full-time starter in a fully healthy Spirit attack, her ability to effectively high press is elite within NWSL, and her connection with striker Ashley Hatch made her a valuable option, particularly with the Olympics looming in 2021.

The Spirit acquired Hendrix from West Ham last winter, but ultimately she found herself stuck behind Nielsen and Staab at center back throughout 2020. She ended up having to fill in out-of-position at right back or come into games as the Spirit shuffled their formation either to attempt to come from behind or to protect a one-goal lead.

Hellstrom and Boissiere had roughly similar issues to Hendrix and Thomas this year, with injuries impacting both newcomers. Hellstrom ultimately looked more like a wingback on a team that mostly played with fullbacks, while Boissiere had to cope with Washington having an absolutely packed group of candidates vying for time in central midfield. McCool and Scarpa both managed to change the tenor of multiple Fall Series games coming in off the bench, but ultimately the club has chosen to repeat an approach from last year, when Washington opted to waive nine players from their depth chart despite what was seen as a successful season.