Is the Winning Spirit Gone in Washington?


Last season was one to remember for the Washington Spirit, thanks to a third straight trip to the playoffs and finally reaching the league final. But a last-second loss in the NWSL Championship game will forever change that narrative for the DC squad.

Throughout the 2016 season, the Spirit led the league and it appeared almost certain that the Supporter’s Shield trophy would be coming to Washington. But resting players came as a priority down the stretch to ensure that players were ready for the playoffs, and the Spirit had to settle for second place as they headed into the playoffs. A win at home in extra time against the third-place Chicago Red Stars during the first round of the playoffs brought Washington their place in the championship, where they would face the fourth-place Western New York Flash.

In a game where the Spirit were favored, they came out fast and firing. Crystal Dunn scored a goal in the 9th minute, but the Flash took the momentum back just five minutes later when Samantha Mewis scored. The game went to extra-time where Dunn scored once again. With just under a minute left to go, it appeared as if the Spirit were en route to their first championship in franchise history. Lynn Williams and the Flash had other plans. In the 124th minute, Williams headed in a cross from Jessica McDonald. The game went into penalty kicks where Flash goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo stopped three of five penalty kicks en route to the victory.

If Spirit fans thought that the championship loss was tough to swallow, the off-season that came after was just a series of tough punches to the gut. With key players such as Ali Krieger, Christine Nairn, Crystal Dunn, and Estefania Banini leaving the team or getting traded, there was not a lot of positive news for Spirit fans to hold onto. Add on top of that Caprice Dydasco’s ACL injury in the final and Kelsey Wys’ ACL tear in the W-League and this off-season seemed like it would never end. There appeared to be a culture shift happening in Washington. Despite all this, the coaching staff still remained confident in the product that they would be putting out on the field.

But fear not Spirit fans, the world is not over and the NWSL season is just around the corner.

First, let’s start with the goalkeeping situation. Last year, head coach Jim Gabarra started off the season with Canadian international Stephanie Labbé between the pipes. However, when called upon for her Olympic team duties, Labbé’s absence left Kelsey Wys as the starter for the second half of the season. Gabarra continued to stick with Wys because he did not want to change up what was going well. It appeared as if Labbé would seek a new home during the off-season as well, but after Wys’ knee injury in Australia ruled her out for a good chunk of the 2017 season, the Spirit once again leaned on Labbé to return as their number one goalkeeper. To back up Labbé, Spirit Reserves goalkeeper DiDi Haracic was signed to a professional contract in early February; Haracic has played in one NWSL match as a member of the WNY Flash. The Spirit will most likely let Haracic go once Wys returns. As for who starts when Wys returns, don’t be surprised if Labbé stays in net for the Spirit.

It’s also going to be important to talk about the shape of the Spirit’s play in the back during this upcoming fifth season. After a fairly successful attempt at the 3-5-2 formation in the last year’s league final, Gabarra has relied heavily on it heading into the 2017 season. With a real lack of depth on the backline because of injuries and trades, Gabarra will most likely play with three in the back for most of the season. Estelle Johnson and newly named captain Shelina Zadorsky have spent the preseason on the outside of the three back with Whitney Church playing in the center. While Church is not the fastest center back, her positioning and aerial ability have gained the trust of both her teammates and the coaching staff. It will be interesting to see where Dydasco and Alyssa Kleiner will fit in when they come back from their respective injuries. Gabarra has not ruled out bringing back the 4-3-3 formation this season if necessary. He said that it will depend on what team they are playing, who is available, and what the situation in the game looks like. But so far, the team as a whole seems positive regarding this change in style of play.  As Shelina Zadorsky said in a postgame scrum, “I think it is obviously a challenge adjusting to a new system but I think we have smart footballers on our team and a lot of versatile players. As the three in the back, we have three solid center backs.”

But the midfield is really the area of the field to keep an eye on heading into the season. In 2016, Washington’s midfield was often considered one of the top units in the league because of the cohesiveness of Christine Nairn, Joanna Lohman, and Tori Huster. This season’s midfield will have a different look to it as new players have come in and a new formation has been added. Lohman, Huster, and Danish international Line Sigvardsen Jensen are the three returning players for the Spirit, and Gabarra has mentioned playing those three in the center of the five midfielders. Former Boston Breakers defender Kassey Kallman and 2017 draft pick Cameron Castleberry (UNC) will be the likely starters on the flank, making connections between the back three and the attack. And Spirit newcomers Havana Solaun (traded from Seattle), Kristie Mewis (traded from Boston), and Meggie Dougherty Howard (drafted out of Florida) will most likely be used off the bench in what is a very deep midfield.

“We like our depth, and every player brings something a little differently depending on whether you are more of a six or an eight or you’re a ten,” Gabarra said. “It’s just about what combination do you have and making sure they are all ready and they can all contribute when called upon.”

In terms of which position took the biggest hit in the offseason, look no further than the forward corps. Of the six forwards who saw game time for the Spirit last season, just three will be available on opening day. Banini and Dunn left for Europe, while Cali Farquharson is still recovering from an ACL tear she suffered late last season. Of the 19 goals scored in 2016, just under 50 percent came from Banini and Dunn. The bright side for the Spirit is that Katie Stengel and Francisca Ordega both had very good seasons in the W-League and are hoping to carry that momentum forward into the 2017 season. Add to that rookies Arielle Ship and Lindsay Agnew, and the Spirit attack could be dangerous yet again. One thing to keep an eye on is whether Cheyna Williams can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.

Looking at the Spirit’s schedule for the 2017 season, one thing that stands out is the lack of consistency. The longest they will be on the road is three weeks with an international break coming in the middle of that trip. The break can either help or hurt the team, depending on how the game before the break goes. A good sign for the Spirit is that there are back-to-back weeks throughout the year that they will play games at home. The Maryland SoccerPlex has been somewhat of a fortress for the Spirit over the past few years, and if they want to make the playoffs for the fourth straight year, it’s here where their best chances to rack up points will occur.

This season will be an interesting one for the Spirit. After a year that saw them reach the final, heavy turnover and controversy in the off-season has led many to question the prospects of the 2017 team. In polls conducted by Backline Soccer, both the fans and staff picked the Spirit to finish in last place. But with a strong core returning to take the pitch, the Spirit still have the possibility of being a good team this season. The question is, will we see Washington lose it’s winning ways in 2017?

2017 Washington Spirit Roster

Goalkeepers (3): Didi Haracic, Stephanie Labbé (FED-CAN), Kelsey Wys (OOM, D45)

Defenders (6): Whitney Church, Caprice Dydasco (D45), Estelle Johnson, Kassey Kallman, Alyssa Kleiner, Shelina Zadorsky (FED-CAN)

Midfielders (6): Cameron Castleberry, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Tori Huster, Joanna Lohman, Kristie Mewis, Line Sigvardsen Jensen (INTL – DEN)

Forwards (7): Lindsay Agnew, Cali Farquharson (OOM, D45), Francisca Ordega (INTL – NGA), Arielle Ship, Havana Solaun, Katie Stengel, Cheyna Williams