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Washington Spirit thrilled to add ‘total competitor’ Emily Sonnett

The USWNT defender and her new coach Richie Burke addressed media after a major trade with the Orlando Pride

Washington Spirit v Portland Thorns FC Getty Images

Emily Sonnett, the latest major acquisition in what is the most ambitious offseason in Washington Spirit history, addressed the media recently for the first time since a blockbuster trade saw her join the club from the Orlando Pride.

The USWNT defender — a World Cup winner who also has championship medals in the NWSL and in Sweden’s top flight — joins her international teammate Kelley O’Hara and Japanese national team attacker Saori Takarada on the list of Spirit newcomers as the club looks to make the push from the NWSL’s upper-middle class and onto the list of clear contenders.

For her part, Sonnett cited the strength and stability of Washington’s core as part of the allure. “I want to have a very competitive training environment, where, can I get better? What kind of players can I surround myself with? So that’s kind of the attraction, and what I look for in a team when I want to join,” explained the 27-year-old Georgia native. “When I’m looking for team, I’m looking for a core group of players — I think [the] Spirit’s had...two or three years of players coming back into the group.”

“I’m absolutely over the moon that she’s on board with us, and I think immediately she’s made our football team so much better,” added head coach Richie Burke. “Let’s get it out there right away: Emily Sonnett’s a fantastic footballer, and getting her to come to our football club is a major coup for us.”

Beyond the normal praise that accompanies any USWNT player, Burke offered some specifics on why he felt the Spirit needed to add Sonnett. “She scored against us in Portland [in 2019], but she terrorized us coming out of back with the football at her feet because she’s a good footballer... She’s very resilient as a footballer. She doesn’t miss many matches, and when she does play, she only knows how to play one way. She’s a total competitor.”

The deal to bring Sonnett to the Spirit was not an easy one, but Burke said Washington had no hesitation about making such a substantial trade (Meggie Dougherty Howard, $140,000 in allocation money, and first round picks in 2021 and either 2022 or 2023).

“The truth is, we were willing to give up whatever it took to get Emily to come here, and we were constantly looking to up the ante because we didn’t want to miss out. We thought that she was an integral piece of what we wanted to do,” explained Burke, adding that in his view, NWSL trades “don’t truly represent, in comparison to the men, what value the players have. These are world class footballers! Emily Sonnett’s won a World Cup, you know, and whatever the money takes to get the deal done in the current market, we should be willing to do.”

Still, Burke acknowledged the difficulty of parting ways with Dougherty Howard, who spent four seasons with the club as a professional, and two more as a member of the team’s Spirit Reserves side.

“[Dougherty Howard] was a tough one because I love the kid. She was such a nice person to be around, and fits our project here,” said Burke. Still, according to him, Dougherty Howard had expressed interest in “looking for a new challenge,” and though the Spirit were not attempting to stand in the way, they had also recently offered her a new deal in case a suitable trade couldn’t be arranged. However, per Burke, once Orlando brought her up during the trade talks, it didn’t take long to complete the deal from there.

“Orlando asked, would we put her in the mix [to] get the [Sonnett] deal done, and we were like ‘absolutely, let’s do it.’ You know, whatever it takes to get Emily Sonnett to come to Washington Spirit, we’re going to do. It’s the professional game, it’s the business. It’s difficult to be sentimental at certain times.”

Last month, Burke alluded to changing systems for 2021, and adding Sonnett to the group certainly opens the door to moving away from the back four the team has generally preferred over the past two seasons. Referring to Sonnett’s ability to play at a national team standard anywhere across the back line, Burke said the club’s “tactical scope” was improved with the trade.

While he was understandably not ready to commit to any specific formation, Burke said such a shift was certainly on his mind. “The truth is, bringing Emily to the football club just gives us that option. We could have played [a back three] last year with Tori Huster in that role... We’re not locked into anything. We just know that adding Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett to our football club gives us a lot more weapons, a lot more tools, and a lot more options to use and a back three will certainly be something we’ll consider. But once you get on the training ground, once we get into preseason, once we look at how all the pieces gel together, we’ll put the best group out there, in the best system.”

For her part, Sonnett said she has no preference in terms of playing a specific position. “We can do a couple of different things of how we play this next year. I’m just looking forward to being coachable wherever the team needs me, and [whatever] role I need to fill, I’m comfortable with.”

Between her time with the USWNT, in Portland, and with Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC this past fall, Sonnett has seen plenty of time playing out of a back three, making the prospect a familiar one if the Spirit choose to go that route. “A lot of teams that I’ve played on played out of a three-back, and it’s very common, whether you have a midfielder coming down, whether you start with the three central defenders,” explained Sonnett. “In terms of how I’m comfortable, I’m comfortable playing a three, I’m comfortable playing a four. I just think it opens up a lot of options up the field, and how you want a team to look.”