From worst to…well, not first, but making the playoffs in 2014 after such an inept start to their NWSL experience had to feel gratifying for the Washington Spirit. Washington just about snuck into the playoffs on a tiebreaker with Chicago, proving the decision to keep Mark Parsons in charge after he took over in the middle of the 2013 horror show was the right one. While most expected the Spirit to be better than their first season miserable selves, few probably expected a run to the playoffs given the massive turnaround needed.
Not that that turnaround didn’t come with some real bumps in the road. Washington’s defense was still terrible, with the team conceding nearly two goals a game and finishing with a negative goal differential. It was a good thing then that the club got goals galore from offseason signing Jodie Taylor, who was a bit inconsistent but often set opposing defenses on fire when she was in a groove. In the end, there was just enough offense to offset just enough of the wretched defense to get the Spirit to the postseason.
And Parsons has at least gone some way to rectify some of the defensive woes the club suffered through last season thanks to the club’s 2015 draft and a few trades. But Washington also faces the prospect of trying to grind out goals from a frontline that looks dubious on paper to say the least. Taylor was traded to Portland, and Natasha Harding, a planned replacement, was denied a visa. It means Parsons is going into battle with a strikeforce composed of players coming off serious injuries and with much to prove at this level. Odds are, the Spirit aren’t going to be so fortunate in the league table if they conceded forty plus goals this season.
Mark Parsons stepped in in the middle of 2013, taking over a club short on confidence, but it wouldn’t be until 2014 until he began to really put his imprint on the Spirit. The Spirit manager seemingly made a faustian bargain, trading defensive solidity for attacking impetus, enabling Washington to reach the postseason despite conceding a bucketful of goals. While ‘score one more than your opponent’ may please the neutrals, it’s also a strategy that probably isn’t going to work out in the long run, perhaps explaining why the Spirit underwent a massive defensive overhaul in the offseason.
It’s almost a complete overhaul, as Washington may well start four brand new defenders during the WWC when Ali Krieger is away. Two of those may be rookies, with Megan Oyster at center-back and Caprice Dydasco at left-back. Dydasco though is a player who has been tried out in a more attacking role in the preseason though and might see time in the attack, though I feel she’s best suited towards bombing forward on runs from full-back. There’s a lot of interchangeability with the club’s defenders. Estelle Johnson, Krieger, and Katherine Reynolds can all play multiple spots on the backline, meaning Washington might do some chopping and changing depending on matchups. It’s also worth noting that Crystal Dunn can play full-back and that Tori Huster is now an accomplished center-back, giving Parsons plenty of options to tinker with in defense. Reynolds is the most natural replacement at right-back when Krieger is gone for the WWC.
Until the back four settles, I suspect Parsons may operate with a double pivot in midfield. Huster is basically a lock for one of those spots, while the battle for other spot is likely between Angela Salem and Joanna Lohman. Parsons might opt for a more progressive stance down the line in 2015, likely sacrificing Salem/Lohman for an additional attacker while bringing Christine Nairn into a more centralized attacking midfield position. Nairn and Dunn will be on the pitch when possible, though their positions could be fluid. Amanda DaCosta is also a near lock in the lineup with the potential to play all around the midfield.
The biggest questions come in the attack. Estefania seems like the best bet to feature given her preseason form, but you wonder if she’s a true #9 and not more of a 9.5 type player more comfortable operating between the lines to exploit space. The problem is, there are a lot of question marks around her on the frontline. I don’t really fancy any of the other forwards on call, so until some of them can earn Parsons’ trust and start producing, the Spirit boss may simple choose to exploit the club’s midfield talent and work with the Argentinian Estefania as a lone striker. The club could go more boxy during the WWC if Dunn is chosen, adding second forward and working with a 4-2-2-2. Dydasco would thrive on the left, but the club might suffer with Reynolds at right-back, with the well-traveled veteran not the best attacking option.
Ashlyn Harris returns for her third season as the Spirit’s first-choice in goal, but there’s upheaval behind her, with Chantel Jones going out and Kelsey Wys coming in via trade. That’s an important point, as Harris is all but assured of the backup role with the USWNT at this Summer’s WWC following her displays in goal in the Spring.
Now firmly entrenched as the USWNT’s #2 in goal, Harris will look to keep up her ascent for both club and country. Harris will likely be coming into the 2015 season on a confidence high after impressing as the USWNT’s stand-in in goal during Hope Solo’s suspension earlier in the year. It’s a far cry from the beginning of Harris’ NWSL career, where injuries and impatience with the pratfalling backline in front of her made for a miserable campaign for the former Tar Heel. Last year was much more like it from Harris, even though the defense in front of her wasn’t exactly the most consistent bunch on the block. Given the improvements on the backline in the offseason, Harris will likely be confident of her best season with the Spirit when she’s not away on international duty.
The Spirit’s new understudy is second-year player Kelsey Wys, acquired in an offseason trade with WNY for Jones. Likely expected to function as a backup in Rochester as a rookie, Wys instead ended up starting a good many of the Flash’s matches after injuries decimated the goalkeeping depth. Considering she was basically tossed into the deep end as a rookie behind a shaky backline, Wys acquitted herself well. It made the Flash’s decision to offload her in the offseason all the more surprising, especially considering the club wasn’t getting AD Franch back. Wys will undoubtedly have a point to prove with her new club an should have plenty of opportunities to do so considering Harris will be gone for much of the season on international duty.
With Harris gone for much of the season, there’s room for a #3 in the fold. On paper, that’s likely to be Miami (FL) alum Emily Lillard. Lillard’s a rough prospect with tools who didn’t really get much of a chance to develop playing on some pretty poor Hurricanes teams.
Harris is good enough in goal, and Wys showed enough last season in WNY that the Spirit probably aren’t going to be worried too much about their goalkeeping situation going into 2015. With the improvements on the backline, this group could, finally, feel like they aren’t a target in a shooting gallery for once.
That Washington made the playoffs last season was a minor miracle considering they gave up forty-three goals, third worst in the league, and finished on -7 in goal differential, also tied for third worst in the NWSL. It was clear that a serious remodeling effort was needed, and the club obliged in the offseason, dispensing with the likes of Niki Cross, Toni Pressley, and Robyn Gayle while infusing the club with some youth in the form of three highly touted draftees and second-year player Ari Romero. The biggest move may have been the trade for the returning Estelle Johnson, who has been undervalued in previous stops, but who has been pivotal for some very good teams and could prove to be critical here as well.
USWNT international Ali Krieger remains this unit’s best player by a fair margin. Krieger’s durability last season was a key factor in the Spirit’s rise out of the basement and into the playoffs after the struggles of 2013. Given how much upheaval there was on the backline around her last year, Krieger’s steady presence at right-back (and at center-back for a month) was overdue and greatly appreciated. With things likely to be in flux around her again thanks to a fleet of new additions through trades and the draft, the Spirit will need Krieger’s leadership and experience to tie the unit together when she’s not away with the USWNT.
The Spirit needed some proven quality in defense after last year’s erratic form, making the trade for Estelle Johnson an inspired one. One only needs to look at the form of the WNY Flash’s defense in 2013 and its form last year without Johnson to know the impact of the veteran defender. While Johnson played at right-back for Philadelphia in WPS, she occupied the middle of the defense for the Flash, a role she’s likely to reprise with the Spirit in 2015 given the sheer amount of options the club already has on the right side of the pitch. However, when Ali Krieger and Ari Romero are both away, it’d hardly be a shock to see Johnson back on that flank. Regardless of where she’s called upon to play, Johnson’s steadiness in defense will be much appreciated for a squad that has often looked rocky in the back the past two years.
Another new arrival who last played for the Flash is Katherine Reynolds. Reynolds will be looking to get her career back on tract after a fitful 2014 season in Rochester for the underachieving 2013 regular season champions. A well traveled veteran of a handful of clubs worldwide, Reynolds had found a niche at right-back for the Flash last season, replacing Alex Sahlen, but she’s also played as a left-back and centrally as a professional, meaning she could serve as a utility defender wherever she’s needed for the club. That might mean at right-back when Krieger is absent, at center-back if Tori Huster is needed in midfielder, or at left-back if rookie Caprice Dydasco doesn’t pan out. Regardless of where, it’s hard to envision the veteran Reynolds not getting major minutes somewhere on the backline this season.
It was clear that the club needed some fresh blood in the defense, and the club obliged by making three draft picks for the backline. The highlight, despite not being the first of trio taken, was the addition of UCLA left-back Caprice Dydasco. Though Dydasco didn’t get as many column inches as fellow UCLA full-back Ally Courtnall the past two seasons, the Hawaiian was the better player and one of the nation’s premier full-backs for her four years in Westwood. Though she doesn’t possess world class athleticism, Dydasco is still plenty smooth and aggressive in getting up the line and a danger for opposing defenses. Parsons has indicated that Dydasco may also play in the attack on the wing if needed, though her long-term future is probably at left-back, especially if Crystal Dunn is used in the attack, as has been mooted.
Dydasco’s teammate on UCLA’s backline the past four years, Megan Oyster, was also taken by the Spirit in January’s draft. Oyster didn’t get a lot of column inches in Westwood the past four seasons, but that tends to happen when the three players around you on the backline are All-America calibre players. Oyster wasn’t a glaring weak link for the Bruins though and was part of one of the most dominant defensive units in recent memory in college soccer. The rookie doesn’t possess outstanding pace though and can be turned by quick, skillful attackers, making it a bit of a surprise she went as highly as she did in January’s draft, especially considering Dydasco was still on the board when Oyster came off. The Spirit are much stronger out wide than in the middle in terms of their backline though, meaning Oyster should be given every chance to shine early for Washington.
Also battling for a spot at center-back will be Alex Singer, now in her first full season with the club after signing in the middle of last year from German club Turbine Potsdam. The Spirit defense didn’t particularly stabilize despite Singer’s insertion into the lineup at midseason, with the club keeping just two clean sheets in the twelve matches Singer started in. Given the major influx of players in the offseason that can play center-back, you have to wonder whether Singer’s spot in the Spirit’s first XI is under threat as Parsons tries to tighten up a defense that was a liability all too often last season. Singer can also play left-back and defensive midfielder as well though, and that versatility should ensure she’s a valued member of the squad even if she’s not starting during this chaotic NWSL season.
More depth comes from yet another Spirit draftee, Penn State star Whitney Church. Church rather surprisingly slipped all the way to #30 despite another fantastic season as a senior for PSU, and Washington was probably thrilled to get such a value in the final round of the draft. Church’s fall may have been due to some concerns about her size, as there aren’t many 5’5″ center-backs playing at this level. At the same time though, it’s hard to deny Church’s consistent quality at Penn State, and it would appear that the Virginia native has at least some chance of sticking as a utility defender in the short-term. While a move to full-back long-term may be her best chance of a long NWSL career, Church will probably be counted upon to fill backline needs wherever necessary in 2015.
The Spirit also made an interesting trade in shipping Niki Cross to Houston and bringing in Mexican international Ari Romero. That’s a statement based not on Romero’s talent level but on the reality that the Spirit already have one of the league’s premier right-backs in Ali Krieger. Add in the fact that Romero won’t be available until late July at earliest due to WWC and Pan-American Games commitments with Mexico, and you wonder what exactly Washington got out of the trade. Romero showed plenty of promise as one of the sole bright spots on a soporific Houston side last year though, so the trade may have been one made with the future in mind.
A side that had previously toiled with a paucity of reliable options seems to have gone in the opposite direction, with some probably wondering how Parsons will divvy up minutes to a plethora of talented defenders. It’s a dilemma Washington will be thankful of after the past two seasons, and the Spirit could be one of the league’s most improved teams defensively as a result.
It was a little bit of bad and a fair amount of good in the midfield for Washington last season. Some of the attacking talents such as Christine Nairn, Diana Matheson, and Crystal Dunn shined brightly and helped the Spirit create a vibrant attack that helped compensate for their defensive shortcomings. The bad news was that players like Yael Averbuch and Lori Lindsey looked past it in central defensive midfield roles, with their inability to stifle opposing attacks through the midfield not helping bail out a defense that struggled for much of the season. Washington will be looking to rectify that problem with a couple of key additions, namely Angela Salem and Amanda DaCosta, while Tori Huster may move back into a midfield role. It’s a promising mixture on paper.
Last year’s #1 pick in the NWSL Draft, Crystal Dunn, has endured a star-crossed two years after taking the world by storm during her first three seasons at North Carolina in college. Nagging injuries have slowed Dunn’s progress, especially at international level, and there’s a growing sense that the former Hermann Trophy winner is going to be the unfortunate #24 for the USWNT that is going to miss out on the trip to Canada this Summer. Dunn was more than competent as a rookie for the Spirit last season despite not being a superstar that some might have thought she’d be right off the bat. Shuttled between left-wing and left-back as a rookie, Dunn looks more likely to play as a winger given the influx of defenders added to the squad in the offseason. Given the uncertainty in the attack, Washington may need Dunn to make a big breakthrough this year in front of goal. If she misses out on the WWC, Dunn will certainly not lack for motivation this Summer.
Tori Huster was called up to the USWNT earlier this year, and it was a just reward for a player who has functioned as the glue for the Spirit the past two seasons. Last year, it was Huster playing the role of center-back more often than not, trying to keep the Spirit’s ramshackle defense from sinking completely. Huster performed ably in a thankless task, made all the more shocking considering the former Florida State player was more of a defensive midfielder by trade coming out of college. Given the amount of effort that Washington has made to fortify their backline, Huster might be unshackled from her center-back role of last year and moved back into midfield, where, seemingly, she’d be most comfortable. Of course, if the defense falters again, Huster should be willing and able to step right back in and steady the ship.
Acquired before last season to try and kickstart a moribund offense, Christine Nairn put in a solid second season as a pro after having played in Seattle as a rookie. Nairn slipped unexpectedly on draft day and has played like a player with a point to prove ever since. The third-year Spirit player proved to be a big hit after arriving via trade before last season, netting seven goals as an option both in the middle of the park and on the right flank. While the club did Amanda Da Costa to their midfield ranks, it’s very thin on attacking midfielders otherwise considering Diana Matheson’s ACL injury, meaning Nairn may have to continue to be a scoring threat for Washington to live up to its potential. If the former Penn State star can keep improving, she may yet be able to work her way back into the mix at international level.
One of the more understated but potentially impactful additions this offseason may be the signing of Amanda DaCosta from Liverpool. DaCosta has quietly been one of the best American players abroad for a few years now, and Washington being able to add her back into the fold was a big coup for the Spirit. Though not a huge threat on goal, the former Florida State star still packs a little offensive punch and can play in a variety of roles in the midfield, from a deeper role to a playmaking role to being a winger. The glut of midfielders here means DaCosta may be used as a utility midfielder in D.C., positioned where the club needs her most based on their other in-form personnel. That versatility should make the import an invaluable commodity this season as the Spirit chase another playoff bid.
One player looking for a career revival is Angela Salem, acquired via trade with the WNY Flash. Salem is a true success story at this level, a player who fought her way to the top after playing for tiny Francis Marion, becoming one of the very few players to have played at such a small school to make it at this level. The partnership between Salem, Carli Lloyd, and McCall Zerboni had taken WNY to the regular season title in 2013 and to the brink of the overall title. But things went noticeably sour last season, with Salem just one of the Flash players guilty of a poor season. While it’s hardly Last Chance Saloon after so many solid seasons, there are no shortage of contenders for minutes in central midfield, meaning Salem isn’t guaranteed of anything if she can’t find her old form.
Also making a new start is veteran Joanna Lohman, who was claimed off of waivers from Boston in the offseason. While Lohman has been tenacious and dogged in staying as a starter in the league, most often as a central midfielder, she is unquestionably on the downside of her career and is likely in Last Chance Saloon with the Spirit. Lohman is certainly familiar with the turf, having played for both the Washington Freedom and D.C. United Women in previous years. With a glut of defensive midfielders here though, Lohman isn’t going to be guaranteed of starting minutes. If she isn’t, her role will likely be as a late game sub in midfield if Parsons is trying to close a game out.
Washington will also be looking to benefit from some late season returns. Mexican international Veronica Perez returns for another season but will likely miss most of the campaign away on international duty. Known more for providing bite than goals in the midfield at this level, Perez was mostly used as a late match sub for much of the latter part of last season and may find minutes hard to come by when she returns given the club’s additions.
Another potential late season return is Canadian midfielder Diana Matheson, who has been a huge part of the Spirit the past two years. Matheson, however, is in a race against time to get fit for the Women’s World Cup after suffering a torn ACL in late October. While the odds are steep, Matheson will be hoping to get back for Canada for the tournament, though the turnaround from her injury would be about seven months. There’s no telling as of yet if she’ll be able to make it or even if she’ll be anywhere near full strength after the WWC. Anything the Spirit can get out of the Canadian after the WWC has to be seen as a bonus. A big bonus considering the talent of the former Princeton player.
This would probably be one of the league’s best midfields if Matheson was healthy. As is, the likes of Nairn, Dunn, and Huster form a fantastic young core that should mean this midfield stays strong over the long-term (if Washington can keep it together). DaCosta and Salem are also solid additions, while Matheson could be a great wild card down the stretch if she can get all the way back. This is by far the best unit on the team and could be a joy to watch together in 2015 and beyond.
For the third straight season, the Spirit enter a new campaign with basically an entirely new frontline. Given the performances of most of the Spirit’s forwards last year, it’s not hard to see why. Considering the likes of Danesha Adams, Renae Cuellar, and Lisa De Vanna are all now out of the league after unimpressive stints last year, it wasn’t exactly stunning news to see the Spirit clean house. What was surprising was the trade of Jodie Taylor, who was a thoroughbred up front, netting eleven goals in a brilliant first season in the NWSL. But Taylor wasn’t locked in to a return to Washington in 2015 and was shipped out to Portland. The club had seemingly netted a natural replacement in Welsh forward Natasha Harding, but the club was rocked by Harding being denied a visa before the preseason began. It sent the team scrambling for replacements.
Perhaps Washington’s most intriguing forward option this season is Argentinian youngster Estefania. The Argentinian comes to the U.S. with a massive reputation as one of her national side’s brightest hopes for the future, though she was unable to drive them towards the WWC. As the captain of Chilean side Colo Colo, Estefania led the club to undisputed domestic dominance as very much the big fish in the small pond. Playing at times in a deeper midfield role in Chile, the Argentinian international will probably be playing further up in the frontline out of necessity for the Spirit. Estefania certainly has a ton of upside and could make Parsons look like a genius if she comes through at this level. But it’s a huge leap in class for the Argentinian, and she’ll have to hit the ground running if the Spirit are to count on her given their ambitions this year.
Looking to rebound from a major knee injury last season, Tiffany Weimer will be hoping to secure major minutes up front for the Spirit in 2015. Weimer got an NWSL winner’s medal after signing midseason for Portland in 2013 and likely anticipated a major role in Washington’s offense after joining up with them last season. But an ACL injury in late April put those plans on hold, with Weimer still working her way back to full match fitness this preseason. The race for playing time on the Washington frontline is a wide open one though, meaning Weimer and her creativity has as good a shot as anyone to claim starting minutes for the Spirit attack this season.
The signing of Spaniard Laura Del Rio to fill out the frontline was a shock on many levels. For one, the former Spanish international is thirty-three years old, having been at it all over the globe for over a decade. But Del Rio also couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn in her previous stint in the U.S., tallying just three goals during two fitful seasons with Boston and Philadelphia. Del Rio seemed to have gotten some of her scoring touch back upon a move to England, netting four for Bristol Academy in 2012. But it’s been declining returns since, and Del Rio didn’t score in ten English Women’s Super League appearances last season. Call it a massive gamble or sheer desperation, but the Del Rio signing is just one more big question mark for a unit full of them going into 2015.
After two injury blighted years, Caroline Miller will be hoping to finally bring her scoring talents to the Spirit. It seems like an eon ago that Miller was taken tenth in the 2013 NWSL Draft after a spectacular college career with Virginia. But Miller was limited to just seven matches as a rookie before missing all of last season through injury. Miller has refused to pack it in though, and the Spirit have shown patience with their forward and will be hoping to be rewarded for said patience this season. Miller was a predator in college for the Cavs and had a world of upside coming into the league, but it remains to be seen how much the injuries have taken out of her after two years out. But Miller also will be coming into a situation where playing time is totally up for grabs, so she could well end up being a major factor for Washington’s offense right away.
Another of the unknown commodities in attack this season is Nigerian Francisca Ordega. The Spirit have seemingly been scrambling for frontline help all offseason and made Ordega a late signing after Natasha Harding’s visa was denied. Parsons indicated that he hoped that Ordega could provide some of the same traits in attack that Harding would’ve brought, but it’s safe to take those statements with some skepticism after looking at Ordega’s scoring record in Sweden. She signed for Pitea after four goals in the 2012 U20 World Cup but managed just four in thirty-four matches in two seasons combined with the Swedish club. Ordega’s just twenty-one years old, so there’s plenty of time to develop still, but those expecting she’ll be a quick fix in Washington may want to temper their expectations. Additionally, Ordega is likely to miss a big chunk of time with Nigeria on international duty this year.
Washington’s frontline is nothing but questions this season. The likes of Estefania and Ordega have no shortage of upside, while Miller and Weimer also both could be big factors if they can shake rust and the injury bug. But going into the new season without any sure things is a scary thought for a club with real postseason ambitions in 2015.
Let’s sympathize with the Spirit, who took major steps to solve their defensive problems but promptly went to the other end of the spectrum after clearing out their frontline in the offseason and not doing a too particularly convincing job in replacing them. The good news is that the defense, if the rookies are up to the task and Estelle Johnson and Katherine Reynolds aren’t on the downswing, should be able to perform well enough to keep them in games if the offense isn’t firing. There’s enough depth there as well to keep them afloat in the case of injuries, international duty, or just a bad run in form. Add in what could be a sneaky good midfield, and it’s not hard to believe Washington might just make it back to the playoffs.
At the same time though, it’s hard to overlook the issues up front. It’s not as if the club didn’t try to make a big move once trading Jodie Taylor, as the Natasha Harding visa denial was a major shock. But this is a cruel league, and you get the sense that two players coming off major injuries, two players who haven’t proven able to score at a high level recently, and a very raw Argentinian may not be enough in the end. The Spirit should at least keep things interesting, but I think they’re going to fall a few wins and a few points short of the playoffs.