The 2013 Spirit’s incompetence led to something of a mixed bag last Friday. On the one hand, it allowed them to walk away with the #1 pick in the draft, which they used to take Crystal Dunn, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Dunn’s going to have the chance to help turn around the fortunes for the long suffering fans in the nation’s capital, and she’s probably the best player to come out of the college game and into the pros in ages. Obviously, putting Dunn in the role that best helps the team will be paramount, though it’s hard envisioning a zone on the pitch where the former Hermann Trophy winner isn’t going to succeed in. Sticking her at left-back is probably the “safe” option and would stabilize the defense while giving Washington some great options going forward at full-back. Playing Dunn in midfield might take a little more creativity, especially considering the group of attacking midfielders isn’t exactly replete with size with Diana Matheson and Christine Nairn seemingly locks for the lineup. Whatever the solution, it should be fun for Mark Parsons and Spirit fans as they try to settle on the club’s best lineup option.
But the pessimist/realist (depending on your opinion of my opinion of the Spirit) in me views the rest of the draft as an indicator of just how much damage was done by the club’s brass as they flailed in denial at the plight of the team last season. The disastrous Lindsay Taylor trade that cost the club its second round pick is the main source of pain for Spirit fans, but the deal that sent their third round pick away for Renae Cuellar and Jodie Taylor is another move that could be costly in the end, though bringing Taylor in could be a masterstroke if she plays to her potential. Beyond trading picks away though, the Spirit appear to have been a bit too attached to some of last year’s players, tentatively returning fourteen players from last year’s basement club. It probably would’ve been too much to ask for for a total demolition job, but the Spirit’s inability or refusal to swap assets for picks in a loaded draft may ultimately come back to bite them, as they walked away with just one of the draft’s first twenty-five picks.
Then again, it’s pretty easy to be cynical about the Spirit’s draft strategy given their final two picks in this year’s draft. The club was panned last year for their naivety in depending heavily on local players to make up the numbers on the roster, particularly when it became apparent that many of said players couldn’t make the grade at this level. Drafting from a powerhouse Virginia team might look like a great strategy on paper, but few are likely to confuse that UVA side’s back four with conquerer UCLA’s million dollar backline. Molly Menchel was a borderline pick and a slight reach at the end of the third round, while Shasta Fisher was one of the day’s more puzzling selections. The duo join a Spirit side that suddenly looks bloated from additions through trades, allocations, and the draft. Dunn aside, many might question if quantity may be trumping quality at this point.
1 – Crystal Dunn – D/MF – North Carolina
The Spirit made really the only move they could have, taking Dunn to be the new cornerstone of the franchise. Won just about everything there was to win at both individual and club level before being taken first overall in Friday’s draft, including a Hermann Trophy, numerous All-America honors, a U20 World Cup title, and a national title with North Carolina. Played just about everywhere at college level and played well as a defender in UNC’s 3-4-3, as a left-winger in the same formation, and as an attacking midfielder causing havoc in the space between the backline and the midfield for opponents. Dribbling skill and pace with the ball at her feet are exceptional, to the point that the temptation to use her in a more attacking role may be too much to overcome at some point. Cool as ice in front of the goal and a big-time scorer as her record against top opposition this season attests to. She’ll probably be the club’s left-back in the short-term, but it wouldn’t shock me to see them build the team around her in the long-term, which may mean an attacking role at the heart of the midfield. It also might mean blowing up the team around her as well to craft an XI that’s balanced, which would definitely not be the case if Dunn joined the likes of Nairn and Matheson in the attack right now. The early favorite for Rookie of the Year if all goes according to plan.
26 – Molly Menchel – D – Virginia
So, apparently, the Spirit decided after drafting a player who should theoretically be their left-back from now until the end of time that they needed another left-back. The logic escapes me, especially when the club could have found value at center-back or gotten more dynamic at attacking midfielder, with a glut of defensive midfielders already on the roster overshadowing Diana Matheson and Christine Nairn. Menchel’s not a bad player, but her deficiencies were all too apparent in the club’s College Cup shootout defeat to UCLA. She’s technically proficient, as almost all Virginia grads are, but I question whether she’s going to be able to hold up against the more explosive wingers and full-backs she’s likely to face at the next level. The more athletic Haley Palmer may not have been as popular a choice but may have been a better pick long-term. I’m not sure what Menchel’s role is going to be beyond late game sub when the team is chasing the game and moves Dunn into the attack. That is, of course, counting on Dunn playing full-back for the Spirit.
29 – Shasta Fisher – D – Virginia
I thought the Menchel pick was defensible on some level if the Spirit were looking to find some way to play Crystal Dunn more in the attack and believed the Virginia left-back was a solution to the black hole on the left side of the defense that’s settled over the Maryland SoccerPlex since the beginning of last season. This pick? Yeah, much less defensible, as you might guess from the fact that Fisher was the only draftee on Friday I didn’t have rated on my board. I don’t think anybody that started for a juggernaut like Virginia last season can be ruled a total stiff, but Fisher was clearly the weak link on a back four that also featured Menchel, Emily Sonnett, and Morgan Stith. She’s not the biggest center-back and certainly not the fastest either, facts that I fear are going to become very apparent when she’s matched up against the creme de la creme of the NWSL. There’s no question the Spirit needed center-back depth, but it’s really puzzling that the club didn’t take a flyer on someone like Shelina Zadorsky (even if she’d take up an international slot), Rachael Doyle (likewise), or Holly Hein. I suspect Fisher wasn’t on too many teams’ radars, and the Spirit could have likely easily added her as an undrafted free agent going into camp. As is, it looks like another example of local ties trumping aggression in the draft.