Washington Spirit 2017 Preview

Tori Huster is the lone remaining player to have been with the Spirit every year of the team's existence.

Tori Huster is the lone remaining player to have been with the Spirit every year of the team’s existence.

This year’s Washington Spirit seems defined more by who isn’t here than who is. If you tried to name the team’s defining players, it would probably go something like: Ali Krieger, Tori Huster, Diana Matheson, Crystal Dunn, and maybe a nod to Megan Oyster, Estefania Banini, and Christine Nairn.

Well, except for Huster all those players are gone now. Krieger was pretty much given away to the Orlando Pride. Matheson and Nairn were traded to the Seattle Reign. Oyster was traded to the Boston Breakers. Dunn and Banini are across the pond, playing for Chelsea and Valencia, respectively.

The remaining players include two from the Canadian WNT (Stephanie Labbé and Shelina Zadorsky) and two internationals (Line Sigvardsen Jensen of Denmark and Francisca Ordega of Nigeria), but no allocated players from the US WNT.

On the other hand, Washington has never been a team of stars, relying more on teamwork and a blue-collar attitude. Last year they had some of the prettiest team goals you could ask for, pinging the ball all over the field until someone found an opening and sent it in. They’ll need to do more of the same this year. As Huster says, “We’ve got a blue-collar mentality. No one’s going to outwork us.”

With the loss of four of their seven top goal-scorers from last year, you might wonder where the goals are going to come from this year. If preseason is any indication, the players to watch are Katie Stengel – in her second year with the team – and Kristie Mewis – traded from Boston in the deal involving Oyster. They each scored four of the fourteen goals for the team, plus two assists for Stengel and one for Mewis. Last year’s draft pick Cheyna Williams also scored two goals. And in a positive sign, two of this year’s rookies, Meggie Dougherty Howard and Lindsay Agnew, also got tallies. “It’s my job to help lead from the front,” says Stengel.

The team is big on rookies this year, signing all three draft picks: Agnew (Ohio State, F), Dougherty Howard (Florida, M), and Cameron Castleberry (North Carolina, M). In addition, Arielle Ship (California, F) was taken in the draft by Seattle but came to the team as part of the Matheson trade.

The remaining forward on the active roster is Havana Solaun, a 2015 Seattle draft pick who came over as part of the Nairn trade. Last year’s draft pick Cali Farquharson is also on the roster but is recovering from the ACL tear she suffered late last season.

The midfield is anchored by veterans Huster and Joanna Lohman, who seems to be getting better with age: in the Virginia game at one point she darted between two Cavalier defenders probably roughly her age combined to get to the ball before either one of them could. International Jensen is returning after being signed partway through the 2016 season. Rookies Castleberry and Dougherty Howard fill out the lineup here, and Mewis – starting her fifth season in the NWSL after graduating from Boston College – looks to be a strong addition.

Dougherty Howard comes into the team after two years with the Washington Spirit Reserves, the first player groomed within the Spirit system to make the professional team. “It definitely helped me get used to the system here, the style of play, the coaches, the girls. It definitely helped me in the transition. I was just comfortable coming in, which helps your confidence.” Asked if she thought that gave her a leg up on the other rookies, she said, “Yes, definitely, just on the basis of being here before and being more comfortable with the way things are done.”

The back line includes familiar faces Estelle Johnson, Shelina Zadorsky, Alyssa Kleiner, Whitney Church, and Caprice Dydasco. Like Farquharson, Dydasco is recovering from an ACL injury suffered late last season but appears to be farther along as she participated in most (but not all) of the practice activities during media day. The only new player here is Kassey Kallman, acquired from Boston as part of the Oyster trade. Kallman is a Florida State grad starting her fourth season in the NWSL after one season with Kansas City and two with Boston.

In goal, the presumptive starter will be Labbé, in her second year with the team. Kelsey Wys would normally compete with her for this spot, but she tore her ACL in November while playing in the Australian W-League and is still on the mend. Local girl (from Round Hill, VA) DiDi Haracic is the third goalkeeper on the roster. Better known for playing for the DC United Women and then the Washington Spirit Reserves, she has played professionally for the Western New York Flash after being signed mid-season. But this is the first time she’s been under contract as the NWSL season opens.

Is this no-name team going to be any good? How much internal dissension is there after last year’s controversy with the national anthem? (I thought about asking about that on media day, but I didn’t want to lose my access and figured no one would give me a straight answer anyway. Maybe I should get a couple of beers into Joanna Lohman and then ask her….)

Well, let’s let JoLo have the final word: “A lot of people are predicting that we’re not going to do very well. On paper, we may not look like we have the stars and the national team players. But you don’t play the game on paper, you play the game on the field. And I’m so excited to take the field with my teammates because I think we’re going to have a strong season.”

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