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2018 NWSL Team Preview: How fast can the future arrive for Washington Spirit?

Mallory Pugh and a host of talented youngsters represent the future of the Washington Spirit (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Washington Spirit

2017 Record: 5-15-4 (10th place)
Head Coach: Jim Gabarra (3rd season with the Spirit)
Home Ground: Maryland Soccerplex

’17 in Review:   Even before the opening whistle blew for the 2017 season, the Spirit were the subject of derision after a series of injuries and flurry of offseason departures including most of the team’s marquee players. The derision would only intensify as the injuries would continue to pile up beginning on opening day.

The season’s outlook look brightened a bit when Mallory Pugh opted out of college and landed in the nation’s capital as Washington acquired the top slot in the distribution ranking order in the preceding offseason. Third round draft pick Meggie Dougherty Howard also impressed when injuries thinned the team’s midfield corps. Silver linings aside, the team limped, somewhat literally, to the finish line by the time September rolled around.

What’s New:  While the Spirit certainly haven’t made a 180-degree shift from a season ago, the mood and outlook for the club is markedly different. Washington ushered in a bevy of young talent considered some of the most promising in North America. Through the 2018 college draft, trades and the Boston dispersal draft, the Spirit added essentially four of the top six selections in the last two college drafts in Rose Lavelle, Ashley Hatch, Rebecca Quinn and Andi Sullivan.

The backline went through further change with the additions of goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe and defender Taylor Smith and the loss of defenders Shelina Zadorsky and Kassey Kallman as well as keeper Stephanie Labbe.

On paper, the team’s defense midfield corp is especially strong which is fortunate as some of these players may be needed to strengthen the thin defensive ranks. Quinn, who saw time at both center back and defensive midfield in college, also saw time at both positions in her preseason début last weekend. Given the thin roster numbers in defense it seems likely that the need Canadian international’s services may be more pressing at the back.

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“She does such a good job in possession she’s kind of in between a four, five, six,” head coach Jim Gabarra said when asked by Quinn’s likely position on the field.  “So it’s great to have someone of that ability that can play both positions. It gives you the flexibility to move people around whether you need to be more attacking players or be a little more defensive.”

Morgan Proffitt, a late add to the 2017 roster, is listed as both a midfielder and defender on the roster. Dougherty Howard, meanwhile, played right back for the Spirit in preseason when Smith was unavailable.

Naturally, the focus has been on Washington’s on the field changes, but it’s worth noting what’s different for the Spirit on the other side of the touchline this season.  While often overlooked assistant coaches and other support staff are important to the dynamic and culture of the team.

There have been several departures in the club’s coaching staff, most notably former assistant Denise Reddy is now  New Jersey’s head coach and has replaced on Washington’s staff by Hall of Famer Briana Scurry.

“I think it’s a little different dynamic with Bri as opposed to Denise where basically we had two head coaches last year where now it’s more the traditional head coach and assistant role,” Gabarra said about the staff changes. “It’s great to have Tom (Torres) on helping us with video analysis so. I think that’s something we were a little under resourced in last year.”

All the moves the Spirit have made in the last 15 or so months will be all for naught, however,  if the team fails to stay healthy, arguably the squad’s most pressing problem in 2017. It seems the club has taken a look at its approach to training schedule so far this season.

“It’s always a difficult balance,” Gabarra said about training loads so far this year. “Are you preparing enough? Are you overloading them? I think we’ve looked at the weekly cycle and we’ve given them another day whether its regen or a lighter session as opposed to last year where we training 3 or 4 days a week in a row.”

If Things Click  Undoubtedly, the ceiling is very high for this team but it would be rather bullish to anticipate the Spirit nearing that ceiling in time to grab a playoff spot.  If there’s one central tenet of roster building in NWSL, it’s that roster consistency rules supreme. A short preseason punctuated by national team call ups and a significant amount of change in a roster likely to endure a rocky first couple of months. Add in the fact that most of the newly minted members of the Spirit have little to no professional club experience and it would be unwise to expect Washington to come sprinting out of the gate.

The Spirit have a solid chance of playing spoiler at the end of the season. Likely out of the playoff race themselves, if the young guns in Washington are reasonably quick studies, they will be a club no team looking to lock up a playoff spot will want to face down the stretch.

What the opponents think:

The Equalizer has asked members of NWSL coaching staffs to comment on opposition clubs around the league. They were all promised anonymity.

“They’ve acquired a lot of new players and now that they have some new people on the staff–not a new head coach, of course– but they’re also going to be looking for their senior leadership. They have a quite a bit of people that have been there a long time– you know, Estelle Johnson and Tori Huster and Whitney Church– they’ve been there a long time, so I think they’re going to rely on them a lot.”


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