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2016 NWSL Preview: Washington Spirit

Katie Stengel will be the Spirit's center forward this season, allowing Crystal Dunn to do even more freelancing.

Katie Stengel will be the Spirit’s center forward this season, allowing Crystal Dunn to do even more freelancing.

Last season (8-6-6, 4th place; lost semifinal): Two straight seasons the Spirit have rode into the playoffs relying heavily on the performance of a single attacking threat. In 2014, it was Jodie Taylor. In 2015, it was Crystal Dunn’s spectacular 15 goal performance after failing to make the World Cup roster. Can the Spirit diversify its goal production and truly become a contender for a title in 2016?

Key changes: Gone from the team is the man who engineered the team’s turnaround from dead last in 2013 to playoff bound two years in a row. With Mark Parsons off to lead the Portland Thorns, Jim Gabarra takes over in D.C.

Gabarra, is of course, no stranger to D.C., having coached prior iterations of women’s professional soccer in the nation’s capital. While the area is familiar, the Spirit’s new skipper finds himself it somewhat uncharted territory.

“It’s definitely an interesting position coming in and taking over a different roster that is very different for me where all the past teams that I’ve had, every player has been there because I’ve brought them or I’ve traded for them or drafted them,” Gabarra said about taking over an already constructed roster.

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The Spirit already had in place what Gabarra admitted was an “excellent core group” and he tasked himself with making changes to improve the roster and also provide cover for the other significant loss of the season – Ashlyn Harris, the team’s starting goalkeeper, who was selected by Orlando Pride in last fall’s expansion draft.

In wake of Harris’ departure, the Spirit acquired Canadian allocated player Stephanie Labbe (via trade with the Red Stars who had her initial allocation), who joins the league from KIF Orebro. With Labbe and returning keeper Kelsey Wys, Gabarra feels he has two number ones.

“We knew we had to bring in one more goalkeeper to help challenge Kelsey. We’re comfortable with Kelsey being the number one but we felt like if we can bring in another keeper that can challenge and be a number one as well.”

Choosing who starts between the posts may be the most difficult personnel decision that Gabarra has to make come opening day.

Other additions to the club include forward Katie Stengel and Canadian center back Shelina Zadorsky. The latter looks primed to be part of the team’s starting center back duo, alongside Megan Oyster, who was one of the league’s best rookies a year ago.

Gabarra has liked was he’s seen out of Zadorsky. He feels that the Michigan product provides some balance and noted that she’s been a vocal leader in the back during preseason.

Strengths: Two words: Crystal Dunn. Arguably no player in the league was as dangerous or as impactful as Dunn last season. Her 15 goals accounted for nearly half the team’s production. While Dunn might not score as many goals this year that might not necessarily be a bad thing. Whether or not her efforts show up in the scoresheet, she will still be a huge factor, as teams will have to game plan for the dynamic forward. Dunn’s presence should help the rest of the Spirit’s attacking core get opportunities at goal.

Washington looks to have a number of appealing options at forward. With the Spirit returning Francisca Ordega and likely to sign their first round pick Cheyna Williams, the team should have plenty of pace and athleticism. These two players and Dunn will be hard for any back line in the league to stay in front of.

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The Spirit also added a piece that’s been missing throughout much of the team’s existence – a true central forward in Katie Stengel. Stengel will provide the ability to hold the ball up and build the attack. Perhaps no one is more excited about the addition of Stengel than Dunn, who played with Stengel on youth national teams including the 2012 U-20 World Cup team and played against her in the ACC.

“She’s like a true number 9,” Dunn said when asked about her teammate. “Thank god I don’t have to play that role anymore this year and her vision for the goal is just incredible.”

The answer to whether Spirit are able to diversify scoring and generate a more potent attack this season may be determined by how well and quickly Stengel adapts to the style of play in the NWSL.

Areas of Development: Looking at the current depth chart left back jumps out as the area of the field most likely to cause issue for the Spirit. Washington traded Katherine Reynolds to the Thorns in exchange for Alyssa Kleiner in one of the off season’s most baffling trades. Caprice Dydasco, who can play on either side, will likely provide cover but she has yet to show she can deal with the physicality of the NWSL. She may also be the team’s plan at right back when Ali Krieger is gone as Whitney Church, who played there much of last season, has played the majority of the preseason at center back or defensive midfield.

Point of Interest: While the Soccerplex was practically a fortress in 2015, with the Spirit losing just once at home, the team’s away performances were less impressive. The Washington Spirit managed just two wins on the road in 2015. That’s two fewer than any other playoff team.

When asked about the Spirit’s road record Gabarra answered that while it’s hard to determine why that was the case or if it’s just the luck of the draw, teams he has managed have actually fared better on the road.

“If we do turn it around I don’t think it has much to do with this staff is better than the previous staff or focus, it could just be luck of the draw you know eventually you’re going to start to get results on the road. Gabarra said, “It’s something you don’t want to do at the expense of your home record but teams I’ve managed have always been good on the road and it’s something we definitely focus on.”

Gabarra’s assertion appears to check out. During his time as the head coach of Sky Blue in NWSL, Gabarra posted the same home and away records: 12-11-10. In two of those three seasons, 2013 and 2014, his teams managed more points on the road than at home.

As the 2014 season showed, a single point can be the difference between playing the playoffs or watching them. If the Spirit can carry over their form from home into 2016 and improve even slightly on the road, they could be well on their to a playoff berth for the third straight season.


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