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2022 NWSL team previews, for newbies and diehards: Washington Spirit

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

Welcome to The Equalizer’s 2022 team-by-team National Women’s Soccer League previews! As the league continues to grow, a challenge for an outlet like ours, which has been covering women’s professional soccer for 13 years, is to lower the entry barrier of information for new fans while still serving the longtime fans who want more depth. So, we’re aiming to do both here!

New fan? We’ll give you the high-level, thousand-foot view of what you need to know about a team. Already following the league and a specific team? Let us take you through the weeds with some more specific information.

This is yet again a weird season where the NWSL Challenge Cup, which may or may not feel like a preseason tournament, precedes the regular season. So, we’ll preview each team now, ahead of that mini-tournament, and then we’ll probably preview them all again once we have more information ahead of the regular season. Fun!

We are doing this in alphabetical order in preparation of the Challenge Cup kicking off on Friday. That means Angel City FC started us off. You can find all our season preview material here. Last but not least is the team that won the big one in 2021:

Washington Spirit

Head coach: Kris Ward
Home fields: Audi Field and Segra Field
2021 record/finish: 11-7-6 (39 pts.), 3rd in regular season; NWSL champions

I’m new here. What’s the deal?

The cliché of a team of destiny can certainly get old, but the players on the Washington Spirit collectively deserve the title for 2021. Washington, D.C. was where the NWSL’s tumultuous year away from the field really began, at least in public view. Richie Burke was allowed to resign ahead of a Washington Post report which alleged emotional abuse toward players and details inappropriate comments and interactions with racist and sexist undertones. Eventually, a league investigation confirmed widespread problems within the Spirit organization and Burke was officially fired from the Spirit and banned indefinitely from working in the NWSL.

Between that initial report and the league’s announcement of Burke’s firing, the Spirit forfeited back-to-back games for failing to comply with league COVID-19 protocols. By all accounts from the outside, the wheels appeared to have fallen off in Washington. That, however, was not the feeing in the locker room, where players managed to rally around each other for what became an improbable run to a first NWSL trophy for the franchise.

Washington did not lose a game which it played under interim (and now full-time) head coach Kris Ward, the two forfeits aside. A run of 12 matches played without a defeat under Ward ended with a 2-1 victory in the final over the Chicago Red Stars. The Spirit got there by winning a first-round game at home and then going on the road in the semifinals to defeat an OL Reign team loaded with talent.

All the while, Spirit players were dealing with all the trauma around the league, which included them and their team in a major way. Owner and managing partner Steve Baldwin was effectively told by the NWSL Board of Governors that he needed to sell his stake in the team and, until then, the Spirit would be suspended from all league governance. Michelle Kang, an equity partner who Baldwin had brought in less than a year prior, wanted to buy the team — at a valuation of 10x the sale of OL Reign only two years prior — but Baldwin did not want to sell to her, specifically. The battle became increasingly ugly and public, and, in a bold and unprecedented move, Spirit players publicly and collectively came out in opposition of their owner — and in support of Kang — and demanded that he sell the team specifically to Kang. They dealt with this backdrop daily on their march to the title, and the ugly battle dragged into the new year, when Baldwin — likely realizing he did not have enough remaining allies — agreed to sell to Kang.

Now, the Spirit move forward. They do so with a championship in hand and a roster which remained largely intact.

You learn something new every day!

There is not too much specifically new about this Spirit team in 2022, and in a league where almost every team finds itself in some form of transition, it truly puts Washington in its own category as a favorite for the NWSL Shield and to defend its title. Things in the NWSL don’t always play out exactly as planned, but Washington enters the season as a clear favorite. Yes, Ward is entering his first full season as coach, but he’s already been at the helm for some time and guided players through major adversity.

Trinity Rodman, with the league’s richest contract ever in hand, leads the front line again alongside attacking midfield ace Ashley Sanchez. Both players earned game time with the United States women’s national team recently, and they are the best one-two attacking punch in the league when they are on. Their collective ceiling is high, and they are joined by 2021 NWSL Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch, who despite that distinction still flies somewhat under the radar as more of a poacher than a flashy goal-scorer.

One area of the field to keep an eye on is the back line, which over the past two years developed into a major strength for the Spirit — particularly for its collective ability to play out of the back and set the tone of matches. Gone are Paige Nielsen and Tegan McGrady, who each left for expansion teams as the Spirit traded their way out of that draft. Nielsen gave Washington depth at center back and was versatile enough to play at fullback; in part, she helped the Spirit’s system remain flexible within games as they shifted their defensive lines. McGrady will be missed for her ability to get forward on the flank.

Still, Sam Staab is as solid a center back as most in the league, and Emily Sonnett settled into her role last year. Kelley O’Hara remains at fullback, and Julia Roddar could now play a larger role there.

One to watch for the future: Jaedyn Shaw. The 17-year-old has been training with the Spirit during preseason and word from within the camp is that believe Shaw’s potential is through the roof. If she does decide to turn pro, she is unlikely to have an immediate impact this season, but she could be another strong, young addition to a Spirit roster which has several of its best players (all relatively young or in their prime) locked up in multi-year contracts. If Washington plays its cards right with roster moves and doesn’t suffer any bad luck with injuries, this could be a special year in full — and not the only one.

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