2014 NWSL Preview – Washington Spirit (Chris’ Take)

Projected Starting Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

The Washington Spirit are probably sick of hearing about 2013. So let’s keep it short. The club was awful. They finished last. It’s over. On to 2014.

OK, let’s be clear, the Spirit were awful until the last handful of matches, when they began to look like a proper club that could defend and had at least faint traces of offense. Faint traces aren’t going to cut it if Washington wants to reach the playoffs though, an explanation of why the Spirit underwent an extreme makeover on that side of the ball, bringing in a whole new crew of forwards to try and do the business up front. Add in midfielders Crystal Dunn and Christine Nairn, arriving from the draft and a trade respectively, and the Spirit shouldn’t finish towards the bottom of the scoring chart. Hopefully.

Head coach (and now general manager) Mark Parsons has inspired a lot of confidence from supporters and players alike, and few believe this club will finish bottom again this season. One has to wonder if enough has been done on defense to cure the club’s other big problem though. Getting Toni Pressley in for a full season, Ali Krieger healthy for hopefully the whole season, and perhaps a solution to the left-back revolving door of last season points to optimistic signs. But optimism alone doesn’t fuel playoff runs, and the Spirit need to come together as a unit from the off to challenge for a top four finish. In that respect, Parsons will be hoping last season’s late show wasn’t all smoke and mirrors as he tries to engineer a charge up the table.

Coach/Tactics

Parsons inherited a mess upon taking over midseason last year, and it took a while for him to put his stamp on the team, restoring confidence to a side who had been beaten down over the course of the first few months of the new campaign. At the end of the season, the Spirit weren’t exactly exciting, but they were competent at the very least at the back. But it was clear that the Spirit were going to need much more offensively, hence the purge in the offseason, aided by some of the club’s rivals, obviously. The team’s added experience in spades through trades and other transactions, and Parsons will be hoping it helps wring some consistency out of a side prone to fits of maddening play last season. Beyond tactics though, Parsons has proven to be a shrewd operator in matters off the field, and it’s not hard to see why the Spirit’s supporters have taken more than a small liking to their manager.

Tactically, it’ll be interesting to see how Parsons tries to get his side firing after last season’s struggles in front of goal. I suspect Parsons didn’t try to bring in every striker that wasn’t tied down to play just one up top. Jodie Taylor probably has one spot locked down giving her recent scoring form abroad, but who else fills in is up in the air. Danesha Adams has the experience but goes missing far too often, while the likes of Renae Cuellar and Tiffany Weimer both provide different looks in terms of pace and creativity respectively. The club will need great service from the midfield of course, and it looks to be in solid shape with the indefatigable Diana Matheson on the right, and Crystal Dunn likely on the left. Dunn could conceivably play in a similar role to the one she played in college as a dribbling #10, but her ability to stretch play could be invaluable down the flank.

Defensively, the team returns three of four starters…which may be a good or a bad thing depending on your viewpoint. Ali Krieger did fine when healthy, Toni Pressley was here only half the season, and Tori Huster was still learning the position. If they all come together, the Spirit could make big strides forward defensively. Cecilie Sandvej is an interesting addition on the left, but her work in the preseason still showed she’s far from the finished product, meaning opposing teams may again attack the club’s left-back. The addition of Yael Averbuch might be key in the end, as the club struggled without a true defensive midfielder last year. Averbuch doesn’t fit the destroyer mold, but she should at least be able to hold her own against opposing playmakers in the middle of the park.

Goalkeepers

Call it the curse of interesting times. Ashlyn Harris managed to get back to the Spirit from Germany for the start of the 2013 season but endured a tumultuous campaign with the capital club. In the end, Harris’ year will likely be best remembered for her volcanic mid-season outburst that was fairly or unfairly interpreted as a shot across the bow at then head coach Mike Jorden. It proved a fatal blow for Jorden’s coaching reign, as he was dismissed shortly after.

It wasn’t exactly Harris’ best season on the pitch though. Her 72.0% save percentage was the second lowest in the league of NWSL starting goalkeepers, a somewhat damning indictment if you believe that metric proves anything. Then again, Harris didn’t exactly get much help from a backline that was seemingly a revolving door of players out of their depth and players playing out of position as the Spirit leaked goals at a depressing rate. The bad news is that the team hasn’t made any superstar additions considering the plan is to seemingly play Crystal Dunn in an attacking role. The good news is that the club only conceded two goals in their final four matches, so perhaps Harris might get more help than you might think at first blush.

The team was perhaps fortunate not to lose reserve keeper Chantel Jones in the expansion draft. The Virginia alum showed well in her handful of games of action and could contend for a #1 job somewhere sooner rather than later. With Harris flitting in and out of the #3 spot in the USWNT pecking order though, one wonders how much time the young keeper will get if her rival doesn’t get called up for international duty this season.

Defenders

There’s not much use in sugarcoating how bad the Spirit defense was last season, as they conceded thirty-nine goals in twenty-two matches, or nearly two a game. The club didn’t manage to keep a clean sheet until the last month of the season, when, ironically, they kept two in a row in wins over Chicago and Seattle. It was absolutely dire before then, with the club giving up fifteen goals in six games in a particularly brutal midseason run. The Spirit did manage to tighten things up later though, giving up just two goals in the last four of the season. Cynics would argue that Washington in fact did so well in that stretch defensively, because they were done facing the league’s top three teams.

The Spirit will likely see things differently and hope that that late positive form carries over into the new season, with many of last year’s defenders back. The unquestioned leader of the backline is USWNT right-back Ali Krieger. First choice for club and country at right-back, Krieger endured an up and down 2013 that saw her struggle to marshal a young backline while dealing with the effects of a concussion that sidelined her for multiple games. Such was the club’s woes further forward that Krieger at one point was tried in the midfield to try and boost the Spirit’s offensive output. With reinforcements having arrived in that department in the offseason, such experiments are likely a thing of the past, and Parsons will be hoping his USWNT international can be one of the league’s top full-backs this year.

The other full-back spot was a revolving door of injuries and ineptitude last season, so it was probably a relief for supporters that the club appears to have shut that door with the signing of Danish international Cecilie Sandvej. Sandvej should be match fit at the very least having featured prominently for Perth Glory in the past A-League season in Australia while also featuring for Denmark’s EURO 2013 squad this past Summer. The young Dane has plenty of size as well, meaning she could fill in at center-back in a pinch. How she adapts to this level is anyone’s guess, but it’s hard seeing the situation being any more dire than last season.

Who takes charge in the middle is another question needing answering before the season starts in mid-April. Toni Pressley played in Russia in between the WPS’ collapse and the beginning of the NWSL campaign before signing with the Spirit in mid-season and immediately taking her place on the backline for the club. The imposing center-back is still a raw product in many ways but has the potential to be a powerful, commandeering figure at the heart of Washington’s defense if she continues to develop. Surrounding her with a veteran leader in central defense could be key to her growth.

That doesn’t look to be the short-term plan though, with Tori Huster her likely center-back partner early. Huster played the role of utility player deluxe last season, filling in wherever the club had a need, which was basically everywhere by season’s end. She was most notably drafted in as an emergency center-back at one point, actually holding her own despite not being the ideal height to play the position at this level. Huster’s versatility and gameness to play anywhere as needed has made her an invaluable asset for the Spirit even with the upheaval around her. She still seems to be a more natural fit as a box-to-box midfielder, but Huster nonetheless should start the year in the center of defense.

Compatriot Robyn Gayle will likely be first choice at left-back when Sandvej is away on international duty, or if she cannot adapt quickly to the demands of this level. Very much in a battle to solidify her spot with the Canadian WNT ahead of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Gayle will be buoyed by her inclusion and use as a super sub in the recent Cyprus Cup. She was another slowed by injuries last season, and with young contenders emerging in defense, the veteran will need to find a way to make her mark this season in D.C. if she’s to not slip back down the pecking order.

After the above though, depth is shaky. The news that Molly Menchel, the club’s second draft pick this year, wasn’t looking to play for the Spirit at the moment was a hammer blow considering the club had regarded her very highly. Her teammate at Virginia, Shasta Fisher, was the club’s final pick in this year’s draft and was likely going to be seen as center-back depth but left the club in preseason to pursue other opportunities. Given the loss of Menchel, Fisher’s departure was the last thing the club needed.

The unexpected loss of the above two players opened up an opportunity for some unknowns to make their mark, and Mexican international Bianca Sierra took her opportunity and ran with it. Sierra had the misfortune of being on the weakest Auburn team in ages as a senior, though she hardly lit it up her self in her final season at collegiate level. It appears that Sierra has found new life this Spring though, impressing the Spirit brass from the off and winning a roster spot after some impressive preseason displays. Sierra’s shown an ability to play anywhere on the backline, which should help her odds of sticking around, though she still needs to show staying power at this level.

Parsons has hinted at further reinforcements in the Summer, and Niki Cross was confirmed as one of those additions late in the preseason. Since being a rather anonymous player in WPS at multiple stops, Cross has reinvented herself at Bayern Munich over the past few seasons of the Frauen Bundesliga. Playing left-back for much of last season for the club, Cross has taken up a post in the middle this season for the German side. She’ll probably get a look in the middle once she arrives back in the U.S., but at the very least, Cross should provide some much needed experienced depth here.

Crystal Dunn’s international future likely rests at full-back, but Parsons has been quick to state that the top overall pick in this past rookie draft will be taking on an attacking role this season. We’ll see if he changes his tune if the defense struggles early. Jordan Angeli, a supplemental draft selection last season, finally appears to be healthy after 2011’s catastrophic knee injury and has been purportedly in fine form in preseason. She figures to be a central midfield option, but she played center-back in college and could be useful as an emergency option there.

There’s potential here, especially if the starters come together as a unit, but the depth is perhaps a little less than desired going into the new year.

Midfielders

This group wasn’t much last season, but there’s room for a whole lot of improvement, as the midfield’s undergone a major makeover in the offseason through trades, the rookie draft, and USWNT allocations. The centerpiece of both the midfield and the team of a whole could be rookie Crystal Dunn, already gaining consistent call-ups to the full national team ahead of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Dunn’s been one of the nation’s best collegiate players for four seasons now and may have missed out on a second straight Hermann Trophy, being cruelly stopped by injury late last year. She was always going to go #1 in this year’s rookie draft though, and the Spirit figure to reap the benefits immediately. Her international future likely is at left-back, but Dunn figures to play a more attacking role here given Parsons’ comments before the season. As a left-winger, Dunn figures to terrorize opposing full-backs with her speedy dribbling, cool finishing, and clutch play. Big things are expected of Dunn, and most would be disappointed if she’s not on top of the shortlist of Rookie of the Year candidates come season’s end.

Also joining up for the 2014 season through the USWNT allocation process is veteran Yael Averbuch, most recently of Goteborg FC in Sweden. A mainstay with both Sky Blue FC and the WNY Flash in WPS, Averbuch took her game abroad after that league shuttered and was able to force her way back into the USWNT picture recently after being frozen out under the reign of Pia Sundhage. Given the current regime’s hesitancy to include full stop defensive midfielders in their plans though, Averbuch as much as anyone in NWSL this season needs a dominant year to feel confident about her hopes of cracking the roster for Canada next Summer. She’ll need to be at her best defensively this year, because the band of attacking midfielders in front of her aren’t the biggest bunch, meaning Averbuch will be counted upon to stuff attacks up the middle more likely than not.

One of the very few players to emerge from last season’s debacle with their reputations enhanced was Canadian Diana Matheson, who proved to be as important for club as she is for country. Matheson outdid many forwards in the league in front of goal last year, netting eight times, making her the only Spirit player with more than two goals in 2013. She’ll be among the many in the D.C. area grateful for offensive reinforcements and could see her game improve further now that she’s not carrying the entire attack on her back. How she combines with the club’s other attacking midfielders and the new frontline could be key in how the Spirit’s season goes. The feisty Matheson is undersized but has the workrate and tenacity to make her lack of size as small a liability as possible defensively, but if she’s teamed with Dunn and Christine Nairn, how well the team defends against the break from bigger attackers will be worth watching.

The other arrival this offseason is local product Christine Nairn, who comes to the Spirit following a trade with Seattle. Nairn was the big dropper in last year’s rookie draft, falling towards the Reign at the end of the first round, and she played like a woman with a point to prove in 2013. Though she still had some sharp edges in her game to refine, Nairn was one of the few players the club could count on for offense with her five assists leading the Reign, while she also netted three times. Back on familiar ground, Nairn will certainly be a contender to feature as the club’s triggerwoman as a central attacking midfielder with Dunn and Matheson flanking her. But given the sheer numbers in attack on the roster, all of that could change at the drop of a hat. Or with a slight dip in form.

Given the lack of size in the attacking band of midfielders, Parsons may feel wielding two holders at once is the safest course of action. Allocated in last year’s USWNT grouping, Lori Lindsey was one of the players to lose such status as her hopes of featuring internationally have faded after a relatively nondescript 2013 season. The efforts in shielding such a ragged backline from midfield proved a taxing task, made all the more difficult by the club’s frequent inability to create anything in the attack. Lindsey’s no longer an automatic first choice at this level and has it all to prove this year as she tries to prove she’s not past it just quite yet. It’s difficult to see Lindsey playing as a lone holder at this stage, so a partnership with Averbuch in defensive midfield seems most likely if she figures in the Spirit’s first team plans.

Angeli could be one of the league’s best stories if all goes right going into the new season. The former Santa Clara star willll suit up three years removed from a catastrophic knee injury early in the 2011 WPS season with Boston. Taken by the Spirit in last year’s supplemental draft, Angeli wasn’t fit enough to play for Washington last season but has apparently recovered and looked good in preseason friendlies, meaning she could be a canny addition to a club needing a little bit of steel in midfield. Angeli can also play on the backline, with the Spirit always happy to have another body for depth in defense after last year’s displays.

This group’s gotten a makeover with the addition of Averbuch, Dunn, and Nairn, and you suspect it might take a bit for the new group to gel. Still, the midfield figures to be more dynamic going forward and a little less pliable defensively, which should bode well for the team this year.

Forwards

All change here, as the likes of the underachieving Tiffany McCarty and Stephanie Ochs have departed, with the Spirit bringing in five new forwards to compete for the opportunity to lead the line. England’s Jodie Taylor might be seen as the club’s new centerpiece in attack and looks likely to be one of the club’s top attacking options for 2014. Taylor has been well traveled to say the least, playing with Lincoln and Birmingham City in her homeland as well as stints in Sweden and Australia, where she was one of the W-League’s top scorers this past season. Taylor’s no stranger to this country though, having played collegiately with Oregon State. She still has to prove it at this level, but Taylor comes in with a chance of becoming a breakout star for the Spirit this season.

A more known commodity in the U.S. is veteran Danesha Adams. Playing with Sky Blue FC last season, Adams ended up taken by Houston in January’s expansion draft before being dealt to the Spirit shortly after. Adams’ career has been defined by flashes of big game talent but far too many frustrating scoring outages that have hampered her hopes of becoming a top option at this level. Last season, Adams started twenty matches for SBFC, but she netted just three goals, making her the fifth leading scorer for the Jersey club. Given the glut of options in D.C., such a poor return is likely to leave Adams rooted to the bench, but her experience should at least see her given every chance to impress early.

Tiffany Weimer dazzled at times with her interplay with Adams in the preseason, and you suspect Parsons would be keen to revisit that partnership in the regular season. Weimer’s made a career out of blowing hot and cold in the attack, and that was on display last season when she joined up with Portland midseason. The former Penn State player was responsible for some great moments with the Thorns’ attack last season but was most useful as a super sub with the eventual league champs. You suspect she’s not going to be satisfied with that role in the nation’s capital though, and she may just end up as the team’s #10 if Nairn doesn’t impress early on. Weimer’s currently injured, meaning she might have to be eased back into action, which probably sets her up in that super sub role (again).

Renae Cuellar had a dream start to her professional career with FC Kansas City last season, scoring the league’s first ever goal against Portland and going on to look like the real deal early on. Her dream would turn into a nightmare later though, ending up frozen out at FCKC and traded to Seattle, where she’d hardly show any of her early scoring form. Now on her third team in two seasons, it’s not hard to believe this may already be her last shot at this level. Cuellar’s got the pace to trouble center-backs, but her indiscipline in making runs saw her called offside more than once last year. With many options on the frontline, Parsons probably won’t show much patience if Cuellar can’t deliver the goods.

Countrywoman Veronica Perez may also be feeling the pressure to perform after a lost season mostly spent drifting on and off the bench for the WNY Flash. Despite making eleven starts for the Flash, Perez netted just one time, getting lost in the Rochester club’s galaxy of attacking stars. It was always an odd fit given said nexus of attackers, and it was hardly surprising to see Perez moving on before the 2014 season. She certainly will get a chance to show her wares for a Spirit side desperate for some attacking verve this year. Like Weimer however, Perez may be better suited to a role as an attacking midfielder instead of a role as an out-and-out striker.

The status of two of the club’s draft picks from last season is very much up in the air going into 2014. Injuries ruined the seasons of Caroline Miller and Colleen Williams last year, and the duo are still recovering from maladies as the new campaign kicks off. Miller had shown some signs of life in the attack but then missed the rest of the season through a foot injury and was hurt again early in the preseason this year. It’s tough to believe that a player as deadly as Miller was in college could be out of the league so soon, but she’s going down that path if she can’t get on the field this season. She faces stiff competition for minutes, meaning it may not just be a matter of getting healthy. Williams had even less of a chance to impress before ripping her ACL last year. Still on the comeback trail, Williams faces the same problem Miller does but may actually have a better chance to stick given her ability to play in midfield as a playmaker.

Parsons doesn’t lack for options here, but the Spirit boss will be hoping that it’s quality and quantity and not just a case of the latter come season’s end.

Outlook

It can’t get worse. Well, let’s hope so, after last season’s horror show that saw the Spirit pushing the Beat of 2011 WPS for worst pro WoSo team of all-time in the U.S. This side shouldn’t be anywhere near that dishonor, but they also may not be able to clear the high bar that’s been set by many after seeing the wholesale changes made in the offseason. At the very least, the Spirit should be a happier side after last season’s sullen bunch suffered through a ceaseless run of adverse results for the first half of the season. Parsons has brought in some intriguing talent, but he’s also gambling with some mercurial talents in attack and some unknown commodities on defense.

All that losing helped net the club Dunn though, and cornerstone talents like the UNC alum don’t come along every day. Getting the most out of such a versatile talent may be key to the course of Washington’s season, and perhaps how the long-term future of the franchise looks as well. The Spirit could well rule the wings with Dunn and Matheson on opposite flanks, but college coach misgivings aside, you wonder if Dunn’s club future isn’t on defense as it likely is with the USWNT. It’s a dilemma most other coaches in the league would love to have, such is Dunn’s talent.

There’s optimism here, and it’s probably well founded. Parsons seems like he gets it, both on and off the pitch, and that’s a good thing considering some of the early missteps here. Enthusiasm may take Washington up the table, but I’m not sure there’s enough here yet for the Spirit to push for the playoff places. Yet.

Projected Finish: 7th

One thought on “2014 NWSL Preview – Washington Spirit (Chris’ Take)

  1. Confused

    Why are there two previews for Spirit? Was the first one written by someone else?

    Not to wish injury on anyone, but Spirit’s luck may have taken a turn for the better with Abby’s blowout injury. Even without surgery she may be out for weeks so all those other opponents are lucky as well.

    Reply

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