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Washington Spirit season preview: Keeping things blue collar

Tori Huster is now the lone remaining Spirit player from 2013. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)
Tori Huster is now the lone remaining Spirit player from 2013. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Tori Huster is now the lone remaining Spirit player from 2013. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

2016: 12-5-3, 39 pts (2nd place)
Playoffs: Final, lost in penalties to Western New York Flash
Head Coach: Jim Gabarra
Home Ground: Maureen Hendricks Field

The story of ’16

On the strength of its roster depth, the Washington Spirit recorded its best season to date winning 12 games and finishing second in the league standings. After beating Chicago in the semifinals, Washington moved onto its first league final in club history. Unfortunately, the Spirit would come up just short.

In the dying seconds of extra time in Houston, the Western New York Flash equalized for the second time forcing the game to penalty kicks. Minutes later all three remaining players from the team’s original roster would see their penalty takes saved and the Flash would lift the trophy. Little did Washington Spirit fans know that the heartbreaking final would be but a prelude to an even more heart-wrenching offseason.

What happened over the winter

Less than a month after the NWSL final, the Spirit shockingly sent team captain and D.C. area native Ali Krieger to Orlando for what could very well amount to nothing in return. It was just the first in a series of moves and happenings that left last year’s runner ups without a large portion of the talent that got them to final. Diana Matheson, Christine Nairn, and Megan Oyster, once fan favorites at the Plex, are also on other NWSL club rosters this season. Meanwhile, Crystal Dunn and Estefania Banini have decided to ply their trades in Europe with Chelsea and Valencia respectively.

{MORE NWSL PREVIEWS:  Breakers  |  Dash  |  Red Stars  |  Reign}

All told, five players that started in the NWSL final are no longer in Washington. Of the six returning starters, Caprice Dydasco and Kelsey Wys are recovering from ACL injuries and will be unavailable for opening day. A third Spirit player, forward Cali Farquharson, is also recovering from an ACL injury.

New additions to club include two former Boston Breakers Kassey Kallman and Kristie Mewis and Seattle’s Havana Solaun, who’s young career has been hampered by injury. Also new to the fold are rookies Cameron Castleberry, Arielle Ship, Lindsay Agnew, and Meggie Dougherty Howard. The team has also promoted reserve goalkeeper DiDi Haracic to the full team in Wys’ absence.

Player to Watch

With the two most dynamic offensive players from a year ago, Banini and Dunn, gone, someone is going to have to step up if the Spirit are going to have a threatening attack. At the top of the list of candidates to fill the void is second year player Cheyna Williams.

With ?? of ?? goals from 2016 gone, Cheyna Williams will be called on to up her productivity in 2017. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

With 14 of 30 goals from 2016 gone, Cheyna Williams will be called on to up her productivity in 2017. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

In the second half of the season, the Florida State product began to settle into the NWSL style of play.  She’s definitely got the pace to play the high pressure style system that the team employs regularly and has scored twice in the preseason.  All three of her 2016 goals came in the final third of the season.

“We’re looking for Cheyna to make and have a more significant role in our attack and scoring and also defensive presence applying pressure to opponents in their half of the field,” head coach Jim Gabarra said, explaining that he expects Williams and other players who now have a full season of NWSL game time under their belts to become “solid, consistent performers.”

Best Case Scenario

In the first five games last year, the Spirit allowed only one goal. If the team is able to re-establish the lock down defense that was key to its success at the beginning of the season last year, the Spirit could end up with a mid table finish.

Cause for Pause

To be honest, there’s many reasons to be pessimistic on the outlook of the Spirit’s season. On the field, the most alarming might be that 14 of the team’s 30 goals in 2016 were scored by players no longer with the team. Without consistency at the back, things could get ugly for the Spirit. After losing several key attacking players and replacing them with less proven talent, keeping the margin needed to win or draw is crucial.  Of course, losing Krieger, one of the world’s premier outside backs as well as Megan Oyster who was inexplicably marooned on the bench for much of last year’s second half, could make this a tall order.

Final Outlook

Coach Gabarra describes the team he inherited when he was hired as “a real blue collar, hard working team” and he’s aimed to keep it that way. In truth, throughout coaching changes, personnel changes and off-the-field issues, this has always been the Spirit’s modus operandi. Washington has never had a star studded roster like some clubs in the league or USWNT first billing type players. Even its past stars like Dunn found success in no small part because they were willing to put in work on both sides of the ball.

Want evidence of the club’s blue collar approach? Take a look at the team’s distribution of goals a season ago. No player on the Spirit scored more than five. The team generated chances by applying pressure well together and also passed the ball freely, resulting in some of the best ‘team goals’ on the season.

Gabarra hopes to see a similar distribution this season: “If we’re saying we’re taking a team approach, everybody attacks, everybody defends, it’s naturally going to happen where you going to get an even distribution of goals…I like the balance scoring because it means everyone is engaged and involved and feels like they are part of our attacking and defending.”

After a tumultuous offseason and whispers of locker room discontent, it will be interesting to see if the team can maintain its identity. Perhaps how players feel when putting on the uniform is as important as who’s putting them on.

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