Washington and the W-League: A Brief History

As the Washington Spirit Reserves conclude the 10th season of Washington teams’ formal involvement in the USL W-League, I thought this would be a good time to look back at what led up to this.

To put this history in context, we have to go back to 2004. The WUSA had ceased operations in 2003 and but for a few fruitless “WUSA Festivals” the following year would exist no more. However, Washington Freedom head coach Jim Gabarra and assistant coach Clyde Watson – presumably with some financial help from John and Maureen Hendricks – kept the team name going, the only one of the eight WUSA teams to do so. (The Boston Breakers may claim heritage back to the WUSA era, but they did not exist in any form in the several years between WUSA and WPS.)

A Barnstorming Team

In that first post-WUSA year, the team had a barnstorming schedule, playing W-League and WPSL teams up and down the east coast. They even hosted a Sacramento Storm team featuring Brazilian veteran Sissi. The roster, however, was uneven, with a handful of WUSA veterans like Nicci Wright, Carrie Moore, and Casey Zimny sticking it out, occasional guest players such as Heather Mitts, and the rest being some of the better young local players.

Yes, Virginia, Heather Mitts did play for the Washington Freedom. Briefly.

Yes, Virginia, Heather Mitts did play for the Washington Freedom. Briefly.

The high point of the season had to be a return to RFK Stadium on July 14 for a doubleheader with DC United against the Nottingham Forest women’s and men’s teams. Eight WUSA players returned for that match, with the rest of the roster filled in with young local players. One of those young locals overshadowed the veterans by scoring a hat trick in the 8-0 victory. Her name? Ali Krieger. At halftime of the DC United game that followed the women’s game, a championship banner was unveiled celebrating the Freedom’s victory in the third and final WUSA championship match. (You can still read the Washington Post’s writeup about the game at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50308-2004Jul14.html .)

Soccer legend Sun Wen (far right) with the 2005 team.

Soccer legend Sun Wen (far right) with the 2005 team.

The following year was much more organized. Eight WUSA Freedom players were regulars, including Lori Lindsey, and added to them were national team pool players including Kylie Bivens, Tiffany Roberts, and Joanna Lohman plus other WUSA veterans from other teams. Ali Krieger also became a regular. Sun Wen and Brandi Chastain were brought in as guest players for one game each. The team compiled a 7-2-2 record against mostly W-League teams, the high point being a 1-1 draw on the road against the eventual W-League champion New Jersey Wildcats – still one of the best women’s club matches I’ve ever seen. (You can see the full roster at http://www.mdsoccerplex.org/docs/home/WFSCRosterRelease.pdf , though to the best of my knowledge Nicole Barnhart never actually joined the team.)

Into the W-League

In 2006 the Freedom became an associate member of the W-League, playing an exhibition season that consisted of a home-and-home series against teams in the region. They also added a youngster named Tiffany Weimer to the roster. One 2006 opponent was the W-League Ottawa Fury, who with a roster that included Diana Matheson and Robyn Gayle defeated the Freedom at the Soccerplex, 1-0. Another was the New York Magic with a young English defender named Laura Bassett. (That game they won, 3-0.)

This was their actual practice field in 2007 - a helpful neighbor's back yard.

This was their actual practice field in 2007 – a helpful neighbor’s back yard. (Ricky Carioti)

They became a full member of the W-League in 2007. Playing games that mattered for the first time since 2003, the Freedom compiled a 12–1–1 record, defeated the regular season champion Ottawa Fury at Ottawa in the Eastern Conference championship game, then went on to beat the Atlanta Silverbacks, 3–1, in the W-League championship match.

That game included one of the most decisive goals I’ve ever seen: The Freedom kicked off to start the game and brought the ball forward but lost it. The Silverbacks started a counterattack but right around midfield Ali Krieger shot forward from her central defender position and claimed the ball back. She dodged around opposing players as if they were traffic cones. When she was finally challenged, she passed the ball off to her right to Lori Lindsey, who brought the ball up and fed Rebecca Moros, who was charging in from the right with a defender on her shoulder. When she fired the ball in, they hadn’t even started showing the game clock on the screen, but I timed it at around 45 seconds into the match. Game over, man. Game over.

Gabarra had continued to enhance the roster, and familiar names on this team included Christie Welsh, Alex Singer, Kati Jo Spisak (now the coach of Washington’s W-League team), Rebecca Moros, Sarah Huffman, and Tiffany McCarty, who scored the final goal in the championship match. However, Lohman and Weimer did not rejoin.

Lori Lindsey takes a corner kick. Check out the 2007-era Soccerplex scoreboard.

Lori Lindsey takes a corner kick. Check out the 2007-era Soccerplex scoreboard.

The following year, despite adding Ella Masar and Becky Sauerbrunn to the roster (though losing Ali Krieger as she started her stint with FFC Frankfurt) and getting time from future Colombia National Teamer Nataly Arias, the team fell in the W-League semifinals to a new team, the Pali Blues, who would prove to be a continuing nemesis over the years. The game score was 2-0, with both goals scored by future Washington Spirit player Danesha Adams. It was hardly a failed season, though, with an 11-1-2 record and the championship of the Eastern Conference to show for it.

Things changed dramatically in 2009 with the return of the professional league. The newly professional team took the best W-Leaguers as its core: Ali Krieger, Sarah Huffman, Becky Sauerbrunn, Lori Lindsey, Emily Janss, Alex Singer, Jill Gilbeau, Rebecca Moros, Sarah Senty, Kati Jo Spisak, and Christen Karniski. With the addition of national teamers Abby Wambach and Cat Whitehill, and internationals Erin McLeod, Sonia Bompastor, and Lisa DeVanna, the team was good enough to make the playoffs, losing to the eventual champion Sky Blue in the first professional playoff home game for Washington.

But what about the W-League team? I don’t have a 2009 roster to hand, but the 2010 team, dubbed the Washington Freedom Reserves, included familiar names such as Katie Schoepfer, Tiffany McCarty, Becky Edwards, Kika Toulouse, Molly Menchel, and Toni Pressley. The revamped team managed a 12-1-1 record and beat the professional team to hosting playoff matches at the Soccerplex, first downing the Ottawa Fury on penalty kicks in the league semifinal but then falling to the Pali Blues in the championship, which took the same place the same evening as the Meet-the-Team event the professional team held for season ticket holders.

Joanna Lohman took over as manager of the team in the fall of 2009 and renamed them the Washington Freedom Futures. Gabarra stepped down from coaching both teams, and handed the reins of the amateur team over to Win Puffer. One notable signing was that of Clare Polkinghorne, now an Australian national teamer also playing for the Portland Thorns. The team would compile a 10-1-1 record but then lose on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw to the Charlotte Lady Eagles in the conference semifinals.

Enter the DC United Women

Mikaela Howell and Lianne Sanderson fight for the ball for the DC United Women. (Tony Quinn)

Mikaela Howell and Lianne Sanderson fight for the ball for the DC United Women. (Tony Quinn)


We’ll gloss over what happened to the professional Washington Freedom after the 2010 season. That was bad enough, but on top of turning arguably the flagship team of women’s club soccer into a joke practically overnight, the whole soccer development pyramid carefully crafted by Gabarra and Watson disappeared as well, including the W-League team.

Into the gap came the DC United Women. Despite the name, the association with the men’s team was almost entirely a matter of branding. The team was run by Washington Soccer Properties, the same entity that now runs the Washington Spirit. The team came into existence very late, so late that according to assistant coach Cindi Harkes, “We were on the bus to our first game, and we were still introducing ourselves to each other.” Familiar names on the team included Christie Welsh, Danielle Malagari (now the Spirit’s color commentator and coach of the U-20 team), Hayley Siegel (now a Spirit assistant coach), Marisa Abegg, Christine Nairn, Katie Watson, Didi Haracic, and a still-in-high-school Ashley Herndon. The team finished with a 5-3-2 record and narrowly missed out on the playoffs by losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with the New Jersey Wildcats.

With more time to prepare in 2012, the team significantly upgraded its roster, adding Lianne Sanderson, Joanna Lohman, Molly Menchel, Diana Weigel, Holly King (later to play for the pro Spirit), Katie Yensen, Jennifer Skogerboe (now an amateur callup to the pro Spirit), Mikaela Howell, and a still-in-high-school Andi Sullivan. Howell was named to the team of the week five weeks in a row, a W-League record. Becky Sauerbrunn played in a few games and even scored a key goal but was not regularly available due to national team obligations. They finished with an 11-0-1 record, hosted and won the Eastern Conference playoffs, but then headed off to Ottawa only to lose to the host team in the first round, then won the consolation game on penalty kicks.

The Return of the Professionals

With the inauguration of the third women’s professional league in 2013, the organization behind the DC United Women established the Washington Spirit as the new professional team, and the Washington Spirit Reserves as the amateur W-League team. Mark Parsons took over as coach. Haracic, Herndon, Sullivan, Siegel, Weigel, Yensen, and Skogerboe stuck around, and Ashley Spivey, Alex Doll, Shannon Collins, and Amber Stobbs joined the team. Stobbs ended up leading the league in assists as the team finished 7-3-2 in the Northeast Conference. However, they defeated the Northern Virginia Piranhas in the Conference Championship, 2-1. That sent them to the W-League Final Four in Florida, where they played a thriller against the Pali Blues, falling behind 1-0, tying it up, falling behind 2-1, scoring in the 90th minute to tie it up again, but then gave up a goal in extra time to fall 3-2. They would go on to win the consolation match against the Carolina Elite Cobras while the Blues went on to win yet another championship.

Ashley Herndon is the most veteran current W-League player with 5 seasons under her belt.

Ashley Herndon is the most veteran current W-League player with 5 seasons under her belt. (Larry J. Clark)

The team seemed to upgrade even more in 2014. Hanging on to Stobbs, Herndon, Sullivan, Yensen, Skogerboe, and others, they added goalkeeper Adelaide Gay and Satara Murray from the 2012 NCAA champion North Carolina Tar Heels, as well as Herndon’s James Madison teammate Sam Lofton, who would go on to be drafted by the NWSL Boston Breakers.

The team would finish the season 10-2-0 and win the Northeastern Conference playoff in a 6-0 rout over the Braddock Road Stars Elite. The semifinal was another thriller, this time against the Ottawa Fury. Washington looked to have the win but Ottawa’s Arin Gilliland – now with the NWSL Chicago Red Stars – scored in stoppage time to tie it up. The match went to penalty kicks, where the Reserves made all four of theirs while Gay saved one of Ottawa’s and another went off the post. The team would go on to face the Blues – now Los Angeles rather than Pali – for the fourth and final time and would lose for the fourth and final time, 6-1, with one Blues goal scored by Caprice Dydasco, now a defender with the professional Spirit.

Prospects for 2015

Two factors bode well for a good result this time: this is the strongest Washington W-League team I’ve seen in a year when there was a professional league, and there’s no Pali Blues team to get in the way. (Let me note as a footnote that the Blues have always had to get by Washington to win a championship. They played and beat Washington all four times they won it all, while the three times they fell short they never played Washington.) They’re the top seed in the W-League Final Four for the first time since 2007, when a Washington team won the W-League championship for the first and so far only time.

Going to Canada, meanwhile, has been a mixed issue for Washington. The 2007 team went to Ottawa for the Conference playoff and beat the Fury on their own turf, 1-0, in their toughest playoff match on the way to the championship. On the other hand, the 2012 team likewise went to Ottawa for the Final Four and lost, 1-0, in an uncharacteristically poor offensive performance. At least this time as the top seed they don’t have to play the host Laval Comets in the first round.

Whatever the result, one can be confident that the legacy of this team will be felt for years to come, just as the once-obscure names of Ali Krieger, Lori Lindsey, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rebecca Moros, Joanna Lohman, Danielle Malagari, Clare Polkinghorne, and KJ Spisak are now familiar ones. Players from this team will play in World Cups and the NWSL. They will commentate and coach. And by then we’ll be looking forward to seeing what the players they’re coaching will accomplish.

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