HOUSTON — Three years ago this week, the Spirit were preparing to make the first pick in the 2014 NWSL Draft. Preparing is the optimum word, because deciding would be unfair to Crystal Dunn. Despite several inquiries from other clubs about acquiring the pick, the Spirit were always going to use it on Dunn.
The addition of Dunn was a major piece in the Spirit’s rise from bottom-feeders in the league’s debut season to NWSL Championship participant in the fourth.
“The first year was rough,” Diana Matheson, who with Tori Huster and Ali Krieger are the remaining Spirit players from 2013, said during Thursday’s media day ahead of Sunday’s final. “Then it kind of feels like it’s been a steady climb to get here. There were obviously going to be some changes from that first year.”
The first big change happened when the first season was at the halfway mark. After a 1-7-3 start that included a public scolding of the team from Ashlyn Harris, the club sacked head coach Mike Jorden. The Spirit drew their first game under Mark Parsons while snapping a then-record 543-minute scoreless drought. They proceeded to lose their next seven games.
“I remember the days I would spend 12 hours a day for six days preparing for a game and no matter what we did we would lose still,” Parsons said recently.
The results were slow to come, but the slow, steady march off the bottom of NWSL had begun. “(Parsons) was kind of a breath of fresh air,” Huster said. “He had some new ideas and new perspectives about players and how we wanted to play. I think it was good leading into the next year because we had a feel for how he was. He was very positive and he was a young coach willing to really work hard for us. I think that was a big reason why we did so well the second year.”
“Mark was a great change,” echoed Matheson. “When a club is doing that poorly, it helps to have any change. He just changed the attitude a bit and gave us a bit more hope and belief in ourselves.”
Heading into 2014 the Spirit not only drafted Dunn, they traded for Christine Nairn and added Jodie Taylor, and Yael Averbuch. They reached the playoffs and lost a heartbreaking semifinal away to the Shield winners, Seattle Reign FC. Another playoff loss in Seattle followed in 2015.
The themes of those seasons were that in 2014, more often than not Parsons elected to protect leads by dropping into a five-back and bunkering. In 2015, Dunn moved from outside back to center forward and, after being among the final cuts from the United States World Cup roster, took the league by storm scoring 15 goals. The problem was, the Spirit scored only 16 other goals.
A key moment in 2014 came after a 3-1, opening-day loss at home to the Flash who had won the Shield a year earlier. “The mentality after conceding the first goal is unacceptable,” Parsons told the press that day. The next week, the Spirit defeated FC Kansas City who ended that season as league champions.
“You kind of have those first (game) jitters or not knowing what to expect,” Huster recalled. “You had Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambach on that team and maybe we just weren’t as ready as we needed to be for that first game. But to turn it around that quickly we got a little bit of a shock and had to let that game go.”
Shortly after the Spirit’s 2015 season ended, Parsons stepped down to take the same job with the Portland Thorns.
“I was sad to see Mark leave for sure,” Matheson said. “He put a lot into this club and a lot of these players are players he bought in. It was disappointing to see him go.”
Jim Gabarra then left Sky Blue to return home to Washington where he coached the old Freedom in two different leagues, including 2003 when they won WUSA.
“Kind of like Mark had a fresh look, Jim also has a fresh set of eyes,” Huster said. “I think he and (assistant) Denise Reddy have done really good things with the players that they’ve inherited. We have a really dangerous front line that is also is really willing to defend for us and high press. That’s always going to be a tough thing to face. From top to bottom I think we’re a really good defensive team.
“Jim and Denise have done a really good job putting players where they need to be and talking about this high press that has really led to a lot of our goals and our overall intense feeling on the field that has led to a lot of our wins.”
The Spirit also added more depth, including much needed help for Dunn in the form of Katie Stengel and rookies Cheyna Williams and Cali Farquharson. Estafania Banini and Francesca Ordega were both contributors on a more consistent basis than last season.
“A significant reason why we have done so well is we don’t have one person who is going to carry us through,” Huster said. “It’s kind of an all around, collective effort of people doing their role and bringing their unique qualities.”
The point is easy to prove. Dunn scored two goals all season and the Spirit had their best season yet. “She’s not the leader (in scoring) but she leads us in other ways,” Stengel said of Dunn.
Matheson said the buildup from last to nearly first has been long and steady, but that the arc has always been pointing up. “It was kind of inevitable for this group of players. Not to discount the hard work we’ve put in this year, but every year the club has gotten just a little bit better and coaches have brought in just better and better quality players.”
Added Huster: “I think sometimes you have to go through things like that. It makes years like the one we’re having now more sweet.”
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