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Washington Spirit 2019 season preview: Can youth reignite a franchise?

Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer

BOYDS, Maryland The Washington Spirit are a new-look team heading into the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League season after finishing eighth out of nine clubs last year.

Jim Gabarra was fired as head coach midway through last season and Tom Torres took over as interim head coach. While Torres didn’t leave the club — he remains an assistant head coach — he did not take on the title permanently. Instead, the Spirit elected to bring in former Livingston and Northern Virginia Royals coach Richie Burke.

Burke wants to erase the memory of 2018 for Washington Spirit fans. It’s been a long road for the Spirit ever since they made the NWSL Championship match against the Western New York Flash in 2016. After struggling through the 2017 season and enduring an even worse 2018 season, Burke wants to flip the script and aim for a successful, winning season. The team isn’t “looking in the rearview mirror,” he says.

“We’re looking forward to what’s ahead of us. We’re on track with all the targets we set for ourselves. It’s all about keeping everyone in a positive mindset. This is a new era for us.”

A positive start to the preseason

Washington has earned wide, split results in the preseason. The Spirit began the 2019 preseason with a victory over James Madison University but lost to FC Bordeaux, a club in France’s Division 1 Féminine, 3-1. Washington didn’t even score their own tally, as Bordeaux defender Chloe Bornes knocked in an own goal. The Spirit followed with a scoreless draw against the University of North Carolina on March 30.

Preseason results are always difficult to take at face value, given the different objectives of the matches. Despite the wide array of results, Burke believes that training has been positive for his players.

“The players have been fantastic and responsive and the general atmosphere around the team are responsive,” Burke said. “The players have reacted really well. I think we’re in a really good place.”

Meanwhile, forward Ashley Hatch said that the Spirit are coming into the season with high expectations and new energy.

“It’s been really good,” Hatch said. “I think it’s been fun for all of us to have a fresh start.”

Hatch said it’s nice to have new faces around the facility., including high-performance coach Michael Minthorne and tactical analyst Christian Cziommer.

“Every person on the coaching staff brings something to the table,” Hatch said. “They bring a lot of energy to the other players and the other members of the coaching staff. Everyone is eager to learn and work hard. It’s been a good filter.”

New additions bolster the squad

Last season, the Spirit competed without Cheyna Matthews, who gave birth to her son, Josiah, last summer. Now, Matthews has some preseason experience under her belt, and also a bit of international experience with call-ups from World Cup-bound Jamaica. Meanwhile, Rose Lavelle missed out on several matches last year due to sporadic injuries. Burke is hoping that Lavelle can remain healthy to work in the midfield when she isn’t missing time with the U.S. national team.

While players like Estefanía Banini, Havana Solaun, Rebecca Quinn, Francisca Ordega and Caprice Dydasco have moved on to new teams and new challenges, Burke added a couple veteran Australians to his roster.

READ MORE: All of our 2019 NWSL team previews

Amy Harrison and Chloe Logarzo are two midfielders looking to go to the World Cup this summer. However, until the World Cup comes along, they’ll be competing for Burke in their first respective NWSL seasons. Harrison spent her whole career with Sydney FC, while Logarzo has found herself all around Australia.

Burke said that the new additions of Harrison and Logarzo — along with a handful of NWSL College Draft selections — are important for the team’s depth, especially in a World Cup year.

“Everyone has been given an opportunity to improve,” Burke said. “We’re not looking to work with a specific set of players. We’re working with everyone. We’re losing six to the World Cup. We have a crew — Ashley Hatch included — that are in the cycle of the next World Cup players.”

With all the new players entering the Spirit locker room, Burke is relying on players like Hatch to help serve as role models. This will be Hatch’s third season in the NWSL, after spending her first with the North Carolina Courage and then joining Washington last year.

“I’m a little more experienced,” Hatch says. “I think I bring experience for the young players that we have on the team. I want to lead by example and show the work ethic that Richie expects from us.”

Meanwhile, Burke gives a hand to Hatch for the leadership she’s shown early on.

“She’s been a really good role model,” Burke said. “She’s off the scale for our data. Her work ethic is incredible and she’s a great role model for our young players to look at.”

Looking ahead to the regular season

Washington begins their NWSL on April 13, hosting Sky Blue FC at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Burke said there’s no particular game he has circled on the schedule. He’s looking forward to every single game for the Washington Spirit players to prove themselves.

“There’s a couple of rivalries that we’re interested in,” Burke said. “We’re looking at it in shorter platforms. We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. We’re not looking at big pictures yet. We’re taking each game at a time and see where we go.”

However, Burke reiterated that he believes Washington has the talent to win the entire league.

“We’re locked down,” Burke said.

Opposing coach takes

“I’m looking forward to seeing how a very, very young group can evolve through the journey of the season. I think you always jump on the negatives of a young group, which is lack of experience, lack of this, lack of that. However, I look at Washington and I’m excited about the potential they have. With a young player, a young group, they want to learn, they want to fight, they want to grow, they want to get better, they want to get better, they want to get better. That matches the year that [we’re in], which is a World Cup year, with players missing throughout the year, I’m excited to see a young group and how they evolve over the season and how they take on the positives of being young. I would say that with what Washington have been in 2017 and 2018, I think it’s another organization that has to be better this year, has to produce results, has to get close to playoffs, has to make playoffs. We can say they’re young, we can say they have a new coach, but I think that’s a club that there’s little excuse, after the last two years that they’ve had — they need to be making progress.”

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