What to do about a problem like the Spirit?

It’s not hard to compile a litany of depressing statistics about the Washington Spirit. They finished with a 3-14-5 record, a point-percentage (points earned/maximum possible points earned) of 21.2%. That’s the 3rd worst in the history of US women’s professional soccer out of 52 team-seasons, with only the offensively challenged 2011 Atlanta Beat (1-13-4, 13%, 7 goals scored) and the defensively inept 2002 New York Power (3-17-1, 15.9%, 62 goals allowed) less successful.

They were shut out 10 times, had a 542-minute scoreless streak (that’s the equivalent of 6 games in a row), and only scored 16 times the entire season, 12 from the run of play. Diana Matheson led the team with 8 goals, though it helped that she took all the penalty kicks and went 4-for-4 on those. All the forwards combined (McCarty – twice, Pohlers, Ochs) scored a mere 4 times from the run of play – the same number as Matheson all by herself – while defenders and other midfielders (Lindsey, Krieger, Huster, Worbis) contributed the other 4. They took 80 corner kicks without ever scoring on one.

On the other hand, the team seldom embarrassed itself. Of the 14 losses, 5 were by 1 goal and 4 were by 2. They actually won the season series against 7th-place Seattle and with a few breaks could have finished ahead of them. Injuries proved to be devastating: Caroline Miller, Colleen Williams, and Toni Pressley were lost for the season after getting hurt. Candace Chapman was never 100%. Ali Krieger, Robyn Gayle, Diana Matheson, and Lupita Worbis – who joined the team late, anyway – all had to sit out at times.

Despite the lack of success on the field, the enthusiasm off the field was almost palpable.

And when you talk about the Spirit you’ve got to mention the success in the stands. The objective at the beginning of the season was to average 3,000 attendees a match, and they achieved that with room to spare. And despite the team’s lack of success, the fan loyalty and enthusiasm is through the roof. I’ve been through all three eras of women’s pro soccer in this area, and I’ve never experienced the intensity or the vibe that the Spirit fans give out routinely. Cavernous RFK Stadium simply didn’t allow for it during the WUSA era, and somehow the Soccerplex never rocked during the WPS era the way it does now. The Spirit Animals and the Spirit Squadron are more boisterous than any local supporters group I’ve seen before (and I ran one of them), and there are fans who routinely drive for hours to make it to games.

By the numbers, the team sold 1140 season tickets this year and had an average attendance of 3,626, a figure diminished somewhat by three midweek matches. The goal next year is to sell the entire west side as season tickets – all 1,500 seats’ worth – and it wouldn’t be too surprising to see them succeed.

Diana Matheson was clearly the star of the team and was deservedly named Most Valuable Player.

What the team needs to do

So given all that, what does the team need to do next year? Here’s some inexpert advice.

1. Get rid of the W-League mentality.

The organization behind the Washington Spirit was the same one that was behind the DC United Women the past two seasons, and judging by player selection they seemed to think they could take their W-League team, add in some allocated players, some solid free agents, and a few promising rookies, then compete at a professional level. Most observers thought even before the season started that this was doomed to failure and predicted the last-place finish that came about.

They promoted a coach who couldn’t handle the professional level and ended up being fired partway through the season. They spurned the few players on the W-League team who actually had professional experience, letting Lianne Sanderson and Joanna Lohman go up to Boston, where Sanderson was named team MVP after scoring 5 goals and 7 assists.

Most importantly, though, there was no one on the team to score goals. One of Tiffany McCarty, Caroline Miller, Colleen Williams, or Stephanie Ochs needed to turn into Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, or Christen Press – all successful rookie professionals – for a winning season. It’s not surprising that that didn’t happen.

They used up free agent and discovery picks on players like Domenica Hodak and Ingrid Wells, who both ended up being cut partway through the season. Kika Toulouse and Julia Roberts were solid players but not the sort they needed, and Candace Chapman looked to be a steal until lingering injuries limited her playing time.

Meanwhile, I was watching the NWSL playoffs this weekend and gnashing my teeth at substitute players on other teams who would be a godsend to Washington as starters: Sinead Farrelly, Casey Loyd, Tiffany Weimer, McCall Zerboni, Taylor Lytle, Danesha Adams.

But General Manager Chris Hummer thinks there’s considerable opportunity to fill in the gaps. “There are a lot of Americans playing overseas that people forget about. A lot of them want to come back, and the US Soccer Federation wants them back.”

Tori Huster was one of the best young players. A midfielder, she was pressed into emergency service on the back line and did well enough to be named the team's Defender of the Year.

2. Go to US Soccer and demand a striker.

It’s not entirely the team’s fault that they didn’t get someone who could score goals, considering that they were one of the few teams who weren’t allocated one. In fact, there’s an almost linear correlation between success and goal-scorers this year. The teams in next week’s championship were each allocated two, the Portland Thorns with Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan, and the Western New York Flash with Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd. At the other end of the standings are Washington, Seattle, and Chicago, who without genuine goal-scoring threats ended up at the bottom of the table. Sky Blue had a marginal allocation but managed to sign Lisa De Vanna – just the sort of player the Spirit could have used – and ended up prospering for most of the season and making the playoffs.

Whether it’s really possible to do this or not – or if it would do any good – is a question, but at least the management realizes that it’s an issue, as Hummer freely stated. “We still need to find a big number 9 up top. We’ve got to find someone with experience, strength and power that can hold people off and hold the ball so our midfielders can come in and score off of them or that can score on their own. There’s not a lot of those players in the world, there really aren’t. And two of them are on one team. That’s going to be tough but if we can just find somebody who can hold the ball, and we can just score out of the midfield. That’ll be a big step.”

I’ve been involved in discussions where people have said that with the first draft pick the Spirit should skip over defender Crystal Dunn and instead go for a forward like Kealia Ohai or Maya Hayes since they need goal-scorers more than defenders. I see that as repeating one of last year’s mistakes – unless Ohai or Hayes are Morgan- or Wambach-caliber players, better to take the outstanding player of the draft and look for a goal-scorer elsewhere. “We’ve already got a player lined up,” said Hummer about the draft, though he named no names.

General Manager Chris Hummer.

What the team actually plans to do

Okay, well, so much for my advice, what can we actually expect from the team?

No house-cleaning

You’d think that with a last-place finish, management would be happy to clean out the roster and start over. But it’s clear from late-season interviews that that’s not in the cards. Head coach Mark Parsons: “We want to keep everyone that’s here right now that have gone through all the tough times this year. We’d love to keep everybody. We all have to continue to improve and players have to do that. And if that’s not possible, we have to look at new faces because we need to perform.”

And Hummer again: “We’ve got a really happy solid group and a solid coach. When we get three or four positions in with top elite type of players, it’s going to make a huge difference.”

Incidentally, that includes Marisa Abegg, who was added to the roster late in the season and bolstered the defense into two consecutive shutouts. “We would love to have her back,” said Hummer.

Players choosing to join the Spirit

You might also think that a last-place team is the last place an ambitious professional player would want to go, but not according to Hummer. “A lot of players want to come play here because of the facilities, because of Mark, hopefully because of the organization in general. Word is spreading amongst the player community which is a very small community, there’s only a few hundred of them in it. We’ve been contacted by quite a few players and agents. We going to be able to almost pick players for character. I think we’re onto something good here.”

Mark Parsons, 2014 Coach of the Year?

Mark Parsons is the coach of the future

I know a lot of fans see Parsons as a placeholder coach, but it’s clear that’s not the case. He may have been brought up from coaching the U-20s a couple of years ago, but before that he spent half-a-dozen years managing Chelsea’s women’s youth programs and is extremely well thought of. “He’s a fantastic coach, said Hummer. “We were introduced to him by Lianne Sanderson and Joanna Lohman last year. Lianne had worked with him at Chelsea, and he had just moved here. This is Lianne: ‘This is a guy you got to get in the organization and he’s only right down the road.’ At the time, the only open slot in the organization was U-20 coach, so that’s where he ended up. But don’t be surprised if he’s 2014 Coach of the Year after getting the team into the playoffs.

And for those of you who think that’s not possible, look back at the WUSA-era Washington Freedom. In 2001 they finished tied for last with a 6-12-3 record. They added a topnotch goal-scorer by picking up Abby Wambach in the 2002 college draft, made just a couple of other tweaks, and ended up just two points shy of the 2002 regular-season championship and made it to the final. Will history repeat itself? We’ll find out in 2014!

Most photos courtesy of Tony Quinn.

Harris/supporters photo courtesy of Amanda McCormick.

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