On July 1, 2013, Mark Parsons took the reins of a team with a 1-7-3 record that hadn’t scored in 456 minutes. He was able to coax 2 more wins and 2 more ties out of a roster that, frankly, was not of NWSL caliber. It wasn’t enough to keep the Spirit out of last place but was sufficient to keep them from being historically embarrassing. Scoring was the primary problem, with the team putting away just 16 goals the entire season.
With #1 draft pick Crystal Dunn and a host of new players, the 2014 team squeaked into the 4th and final playoff spot, tying with Chicago in standings points but winning the head-to-head tiebreaker despite a -7 goal differential. Parsons credits the team’s standings success to the players’ toughness and never-say-die attitude: “We scored 50% of our goals in the last 30. We scored 6 goals in 90 minutes plus that won us points. The fact that we had the physical condition to do that but more importantly the mental ability, the mental strength and the hard work.”
They then fell to the regular-season champion Seattle Reign in the semifinals. Defense was the greater problem that year, with 43 goals yielded, ahead of only eighth-place Boston (53) and last-place Houston (44).
Come year 3, and Parsons has dramatically rebuilt the team again, with just three non-allocated players who were regulars last year (Tori Huster, Christine Nairn, and Alex Singer). But this time he is satisfied with the roster. “Last year we went looking for first-tier players, but they weren’t always available, so we had to settle. This year we have the players we want.” We noted that it was a lot of turnover, and he agreed. “I don’t think we want to be in this place where we’re turning over 10-11 players, half the team. I feel like we needed to, we had to, we wanted to keep moving forward, and we look like we’ve done that. It’s exciting.”
Where will the scoring come from?
Last year the Spirit signed English striker Jodie Taylor to bolster their offense, and it paid off in spades. She took a few matches to get going, but she ended up with 11 goals on the season to lead the team and tie for third in the entire league. Taylor was traded to Portland, though, and the planned replacement, Welsh national-teamer Natasha Harding, was bizarrely denied a visa, leaving the team without a marquee player up top.
Parsons doesn’t see the lack, however. “It’s Caroline Miller, Tiffany Weimer, Estefi Banini, Amanda DaCosta can play wide, Laura del Rio, who’s just arrived. Crystal Dunn will play up there, and we’re also in final negotiations with another forward player [later announced as Nigerian Francisca Ordega]. The problem is that I can’t get them all on the field.”
I see three possibilities:
1. Someone (Miller, Banini, or Ordega) emerges as a star and worthy replacement for Taylor. (Parsons is so confident of Ordega he bet one of my fellow reporters a dinner that she’ll score at least 10 goals this season.)
2. No one emerges as a star, but the ensemble produces enough goals for the team to be successful.
3. Neither of the two happen, and we’re back to 2013.
As Parsons notes, there’s enough firepower to make option 3 unlikely.
Will this new team gel?
Against Virginia Tech, Virginia, and North Carolina, the team respectively started 3, 1, and 2 players who had ever played for the team before. The US national teamers are going to join the contingent the day before the opener. They seem to be playing well together, though, and several players are familiar with each other from other teams. Parsons was disappointed that his team was out-toughed by Virginia on a bitterly cold evening but happier with their performance against North Carolina. It will be interesting to see if 2014’s determination is retained by a mostly new squad.
Here’s some idea of what the lineups will look like this season (“” indicates amateur players not on the pro roster):
Lineup during WWC
Forwards: Banini, del Rio (Miller, Weimer)
Midfielders: Salem, Nairn, Huster, Da Costa (Lohman, [Pardue])
Defenders: Reynolds, Johnson, Oyster, Singer (Dydasco, Church, [Skogerboe])
Goalkeeper: Wys ([Lillard/Brown])
Lineup after WWC
Forwards: Ordega, Banini (del Rio, Miller, Weimer)
Midfielders: Dunn, Nairn, Huster, DaCosta (Matheson, Salem, Lohman, Perez)
Defenders: Singer, Johnson, Reynolds, Krieger (Oyster, Dydasco, Church, Romero)
Goalkeeper: Harris (Wys)
Here are the US universities the current players attended:
Penn State: Krieger, Nairn, Lohman, Weimer, Church
Florida State: Wys, Huster, DaCosta
North Carolina: Harris, Dunn
Virginia: Singer, Miller
UCLA: Oyster, Dydasco
Santa Clara: Reynolds
Francis Marion: Salem
I’ve divided the players into categories according to my own way of thinking of them, which does not always match the official status. Your mileage may vary.
Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, Crystal Dunn (US); Diana Matheson (Canada); Veronica Perez, Arianna Romero (Mexico). (Romero is not actually an allocated player, but she’s included here as the most appropriate grouping.)
The common thread for all the allocated players is their availability during the Women’s World Cup. The US players reportedly will be available for the three April matches but then will probably not return until the US run finishes, one hopes after July 5, the date of the final.
Official word has been that the Mexican players won’t be available until late July, after both the WWC and the Pan-American Games, but Parsons has said of them, “They’ll be straight in after the World Cup.”
Diana Matheson tore her ACL last October and is of course still rehabilitating from that, so the soonest she is expected to be available is after Canada’s WWC run is done.
Harris, Krieger, and Matheson have been with the team since its founding. Dunn and Perez joined last year, and Romero was acquired from Houston in a trade after the 2014 season.
Ashlyn Harris (GK). Harris will start in goal whenever she’s available. She let in a few soft goals last year but also made some jaw-dropping saves. While Hope Solo sets the standard for goalkeeping, Harris is in the discussion for the runner-up.
Ali Krieger (DEF). Local product Krieger has become one of the best flank defenders on the planet and will continue to be an asset to the team.
Crystal Dunn (DEF/MID/FWD). Dunn was occasionally spectacular as a rookie last year but was more often tentative, quite possibly because she frequently played hurt. Nominally a defender, Parsons wants to see her in a more attacking role. “When she runs at people, she scares the life out of them.”
Diana Matheson (MID). The 2013 team MVP has been the keystone player for the team, the leading scorer in 2013 and the runner-up last year. How well she recovers from her injury will be a significant factor in the Spirit’s late-season performance.
Veronica Perez (MID). Perez spent last year with the team as a solid substitute. Since she’ll be joining the team so late, her impact this year will be limited.
Arianna Romero (DEF). Romero was a regular starter in the back line for the expansion Houston Dash last year. Given the limited availability of the Mexican players, though, she’s more of a long-term project than someone to keep an eye on in 2015.
As noted above, this is a mighty short list. Gone are a plethora of regulars last year: Danesha Adams, Jordan Angeli, Yael Averbuch, Niki Cross, Lisa De Vanna, Kerstin Garefrekes, Toni Pressley, Jodie Taylor. Still, for the most part, if you wanted to keep just a few players, these were the players to keep. Look for these players to form the core leadership of the team while the national teamers are away.
Tori Huster (MID). Huster’s the only non-allocated player who’s been a regular since the first season. She was put into emergency service in 2013 as a defender and ended up being selected as the team’s Defender of the Year despite never having played there before. Last year she spent more time in her regular position as defensive midfielder and impressed enough to get a national team call up, something it wouldn’t surprise me to see happening more often once more of the current generation of national teamers retires.
Christine Nairn (MID). Of the three local players in the 2013 draft, the Spirit let the best one get away but then got the Annapolis, MD, native back in 2014. She rewarded the team with a strong performance, finishing 3rd on the team in scoring and with some highlight-reel finishing. She’ll need to step up big this year for the team to be successful.
Alex Singer (DEF). Singer is in some sense the veteran among veterans at the Soccerplex – she’s been playing there on and off ever since she joined the W-League Washington Freedom way back in 2007. This year she’s recovering from last September’s hip surgery and still seems to be working on 90-minute fitness. With Krieger away for much of the season, she’ll be relied upon to anchor the back line.
Returning From Injury
These are the sad tales of players who were on the team last year but who didn’t play a minute due to injury. Both forwards, they’ll need to contribute significantly to the scoring for the Spirit to be successful.
Caroline Miller (FWD). Miller’s tale is one of frustration. She played just 193 minutes in 7 games in 2013 before suffering a stress fracture in her ankle that kept her out the rest of the year. In 2014 she returned expecting to be fully fit but realized during preseason training that her ankle still had problems. That kept her out for another year. This year, finally, she’s fully recovered and ready to go (knock on wood). It remains to be seen how much she can contribute at the professional level. She has strong ties to the area, born in Rockville, MD, and graduating from UVA.
Tiffany Weimer (FWD). It would almost seem easier to list the teams “Ocho” hasn’t played for than the ones she has. One of them was the W-League Washington Freedom in 2006, but since then just among US pro teams she’s played for FC Gold Pride, the Boston Breakers, and the Portland Thorns. She was acquired by the Spirit in 2014 to bolster their attack but tore her ACL in practice two games into the season before ever making an appearance. It will be interesting to see how much the 31-year-old has left in the tank.
Imported from Rochester
Several new players were previously with the Western New York Flash and were traded to the team this year. Kelsey Wys was acquired when the Spirit traded Chantel Jones to the Flash for her and a 2016 draft pick. Katherine Reynolds and Angela Salem were traded for Jordan Angeli and the Spirit’s 1st-round pick in the 2015 draft. And Estelle Johnson was persuaded to come out of retirement to play in Washington. The Flash still held her rights, and the Spirit traded Toni Pressley to them in exchange.
Kelsey Wys (GK). Wys is one of several Florida State alums on the team. Wys was picked by WNY in the 18th spot in the 2014 college draft. Initially the third-string goalkeeper, she became the starter after Adrianna Franch tore her ACL in preseason and Lydia Williams did likewise partway through the season. She ended up making 9 starts and 10 appearances, with 1 shutout and 47 saves. Several other goalkeepers are currently in training camp, but odds are Wys will be the starting goalkeeper for the numerous matches when Harris will not be available.
Katherine Reynolds (DEF). A Santa Clara product, Reynolds played in WPS for Philadelphia and Atlanta, then in the WPSL-Elite and the NWSL for the Flash. She played in 19 out of their 24 games last year. She’s likely to start as a flank defender during the WWC and compete with Singer for a spot afterwards.
Angela Salem (MID). Salem played collegiately at Francis Marion, then professionally for Sky Blue and Atlanta in WPS, then like Reynolds played for the Flash from 2012 through 2014. She played in all but one match for them last year. She’s known for being a scrappy defensive midfielder and should be a regular during the WWC.
Estelle Johnson (DEF). Johnson was a Kansas Jayhawk before playing for the WPS Philadelphia Independence in 2010 and 2011, the WPSL-Elite New York Fury (coached by Paul Riley) in 2012, and the Flash in 2013. She retired after that season but was persuaded by Parsons to return. With Cross and Pressley gone, she’ll be key for the Spirit on the back line, presumably in the center back position.
Two experienced players have joined the team, both in the midfield.
Amanda DaCosta (MID). DaCosta joins Wys and Huster to make up the Florida State contingent. She was actually drafted by the WPS Washington Freedom in 2011, shortly before they moved to Florida and became magicJack. She was on the opening-day roster for Borislow’s team but didn’t stick around. In 2012, she played for the Boston Breakers in the WPSL-Elite, then went to Liverpool for two seasons. She’s received callups to the US U-17 and U-23 teams. Parsons has named her as one of the players he expects to contribute significantly to the scoring this year.
Joanna Lohman (MID). I will never quite forgive the Spirit for not retaining Lohman when they went from the amateur DC United Women to the professional Spirit. Born and bred in the DC area, she’d already played for the W-League Washington Freedom in 2006 and the professional Freedom in 2009. Waived, she ended up with the WPS Philadelphia Independence in 2010 and 2011. She’s played for a host of overseas teams as well as the US U-21 national team and has 9 caps with the full national team. But she’s finally back where she belongs.
Teams have four international slots each this year, and the Spirit have filled three of them with Romero (discussed above), Estefania Banini, and Francisca Ordega. Laura del Rio is listed here but as she has a green card she does not count as an international.
Laura del Rio (FWD) – Spaniard del Rio is the latest past-their-prime European to join the Spirit with the hopes of bolstering their offense. Conny Pohlers came on board partway through the 2013 season at age 34. She provided much-needed levity to a struggling team but only scored 1 goal in 13 matches. Kerstin Garefrekes, also 34 at the time, did similarly in June of 2014, participating in 10 matches but only scoring once. Del Rio is of a similar age (33) but will be here all season, which should help. She also has previous US experience, with the W-League’s FC Indiana in 2008 and 2009, and with the WPS Boston Breakers and Philadelphia Independence in 2010 and 2011, respectively. She was very successful in her W-League stint, scoring 33 goals in 2 seasons and being named to the All-League team. But she scored just 3 goals in her 2 WPS seasons despite playing 36 matches. On the other hand, she has 39 caps and 40 goals for the Spanish national team.
Estefanía Banini (FWD) – Soccer is a team sport, but if there’s one player that will determine the success of the Spirit this year, it’s probably Banini. Dubbed “the female Messi” and “the Marta of Argentina,” Parsons describes the 24-year-old as “an exceptional talent, and I do not think there is a player like her in the league. She is going to give the team a very different dynamic and provide us with real quality in the final third.” Her previous club experience is with the Chilean team Colo-Colo, which she helped to eight straight twice-yearly national championships from 2011 to 2014. She also plays for the Argentina national team, scoring one goal in the 2014 Copa América Femenina. Though Argentina didn’t qualify for the Women’s World Cup, she may be called up afterwards to represent Argentina in the 2015 Pan American Games.
Francisca Ordega (FWD) – If Banini doesn’t come through, the other possibility is Ordega. A member of the Nigerian national team since 2011, the 21-year-old has two years of club experience with Piteå IF of the Damallsvenskan, the top-level Swedish women’s league, scoring 4 goals in 34 appearances. Before that, she played within Nigeria and for the Russian team WFC Rossiyanka. Says Parsons: “Francisca is a very hard working forward that will bring plenty of pace and power to our team. She is an explosive player that has the ability to score and create goals and we are very excited to bring her to Washington D.C.” With Nigeria in the WWC, she’ll be with the team for their first 6 matches, then away for as long as Nigeria’s WWC campaign lasts.
TBD (???) – The Spirit have one international spot open. I haven’t heard anything about their plans for filling it.
When the draft started, it appeared that the Spirit would not be much involved, with just a single fourth-round draft pick. On the day, though, Parsons did some wheeling-and-dealing, giving up Jodie Taylor, the team’s leading scorer in 2014, but adding second-round and third-round picks, which he used respectively for UCLA defenders Megan Oyster and Caprice Dydasco. The existing pick went for Penn Stater Whitney Church.
Megan Oyster (DEF). With Dydasco still on the board, it was a bit of a surprise to take teammate Oyster ahead of her. Part of one of the stingiest defenses in recent college history, Oyster will bring some much needed height to the team, not to mention some welcome blonde hair for those of us trying to tell players apart. She’s played for the US U-18 and U-20 national teams
Caprice Dydasco (DEF). Fortunately, Dydasco was still available when the Spirit’s next pick came around, and she joined her back line teammate. A native of Hawaii, Dydasco had some adjusting to do after arriving in the DC area with snow still on the ground. A member of the U-23 national team, Parsons expects her to contribute to the offense as well and in fact had her put in some minutes at forward against UNC on Saturday.
Whitney Church (DEF). From Ashburn, VA, Church is the fifth player on the team with strong local ties. A M.A.C. Hermann Trophy award semifinalist, she was part of the Nittany Lions’ tough defense. She was called up to the U-17 national team in 2009.
With the national teamers away for the WWC, amateurs will be filling the gaps for the duration. The Spirit have two players with long histories with the organization that they will be relying on, plus two goalkeepers they’ve been looking at. (Teams are allowed to designate up to 10 amateur players as possible replacements, but these are the only 4 I’m aware of for the Spirit.)
Jennifer Skogerboe (DEF) – Skogerboe is from Leesburg, VA, and joined the team’s W-League predecessor DC United Women late in the 2012 season, scoring their lone goal in the W-League Final Four. A 2013 graduate of Connecticut, she’s been a mainstay of the W-League team ever since. Last season she was also called up when the US national teamers were away and put in 15 minutes on the field.
Kelsey Pardue (MID) – Pardue is from Henrico, VA, and joined the DCU Women in 2013 after spending 2012 with the rival Fredericksburg Impact. She scored a spectacular goal for the Spirit Reserves last year in the US Soccer National Amateur Championship that effectively clinched the championship for the team. She got 9 minutes with the pro team last year after filling in for the national teamers in practice.
Emily Lillard (GK) – Lillard spent three seasons as the University of Miami’s starting goalkeeper, making the second-most saves in the ACC her senior year. From Overland Park, KS, she attended Arkansas her freshman year before transferring.
Che Brown (GK) – Brown graduated from Radford University in 2013 after rewriting their record book for goalkeepers with 33 shutouts. She was named Big South Defensive Player of the Year three years in a row and named to the all-conference first-team all four years of her college career. After graduating, she signed a professional contract with the WPSL Houston Aces and played for them in 2014. She’s from Manassas Park, VA.