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Rookies continue to define Spirit season

The Spirit’s success has been driven largely by its talented rookie class, and new coach Giráldez shows no sign of limiting them

Makenna Morris controls the ball in front of a Bay FC defender.
Photo Copyright David Gonzales for USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday night, July 6, the Washington Spirit played their first game under the official tutelage of new head coach Jonatan Giráldez. Giráldez, the former head coach of the FC Barcelona Femení, officially joined the Washington club a few weeks ago. Interim head coach (and current assistant coach) Adrián González, however, remained at the helm in order to execute a smooth transition.

So when Giráldez curated his first game plan on Saturday night, many were curious to see if he would continue pursuing González’s strategies that brought the Spirit early season success, or if he would chart a different course for the team. 

But Giráldez’s first big move was straight out of the successful González playbook — use the rookies. The Washington Spirit’s 2024 draft class consists of five rookies who have made enormous contributions to the team’s success this year. Perhaps the least known of the five, Makenna Morris, earned a start from Giráldez on Saturday night and immediately validated his choice.

Before the game even reached the four-minute mark, Morris had scored, netting the Spirit’s fastest goal of the season. She took four shots in just the first 15 minutes of action and went on to not only generate a penalty kick — converted into a goal by Trinity Rodman — but also assist a goal in the second half by teammate Ouleye Sarr. Morris, in her first start back from injury, became the first Spirit player to record a goal, register an assist and win a penalty in a single game. 

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“I was really happy after Makenna’s performance,” Giráldez said after the game. He explained that, while she hadn’t always made the starting lineup and was dealing with a persistent injury, she recently “showed great performance in training” and looked “really smart with the ball,” so he wanted to give her the chance. 

Per Giráldez, Morris was particularly useful because of her versatility. “She played on the left, and then in the second half she played in the pocket,” Giráldez said. “She is able to come inside from the left wing, play in and out. … I like that she finds different places to play.” 

Morris’s performance on Saturday night, right before the annual NWSL season break, rounded out the strength of the team’s rookie class that has defined so much of the Spirit’s success in the first half of the year. The five rookies — Morris, Croix Bethune, Hal Hershfelt, Courtney Brown and Kate Wiesner — have dominated across the board this season. All five of the team’s rookies have scored, and the Spirit currently lead the NWSL with 10 rookie goals scored. 

Bethune is having the breakout season of her dreams. The two-time rookie of the month scored five goals through her first 13 matches. She recorded eight assists in her first 11 matches and recently became the first rookie and fifth player in NWSL history to record three assists in one game.

She will head to the Olympics in two weeks alongside Hershfelt — both were selected as alternates. Hershfelt has had no trouble making an impact this season, appearing in 10 games so far and scoring two goals. Fellow Spirit rookies Brown and Wiesner have also proven themselves valuable, the former scoring her first professional goal against NJ/NY Gotham FC on June 23 and the latter receiving a call-up to the USWNT June 2024 training camp as an alternate after proving herself on the Spirit side. 

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Of all the advantages Giráldez inherited upon taking the helm of the Spirit, the rookie class might be the biggest asset. The rookies are the ammo of the Spirit these days, and, barring major injuries or setbacks, should only continue to bolster the team’s success. 

Midfielder and captain Andi Sullivan echoed the strength of the rookie class in a postgame interview with reporters. She also touched on Giráldez’s transition and his ease upon taking over what González had created so far this season. “Jonatan’s transition has been smooth,” Sullivan said. “We feel comfortable with him and Adrián … he’s only been here a short time, but it felt very seamless.” 

The rookies have their next chance to prove themselves to their new coach and their fans at the inaugural NWSL x Liga MX Femenil Summer Cup on July 19. Before then, though, the team will take a break from July 8 to 14. The break will mean rest and relaxation for the team, but it will also bring an opportunity for the squad to reassess and figure out how to keep up its winning streak as the season heats up and gets more competitive.

“Everyone’s looking forward to the break,” Sullivan said. “Coming back, it’s almost going to feel like a mini preseason. … We’re playing well, but we can keep getting better.” And expect the rookie presence to grow even stronger.

Editor’s note (July 9, 12:30 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story misstated a statistic about Makenna Morris’ production in Saturday’s game. She is the first Spirit player, not the first NWSL player, to score a goal, record an assist and draw a penalty in a single match.

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