Washington Spirit Preview: Will the Stanford reunion bring consistency?

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Andi Sullivan Washington Spirit
ORLANDO, FL — JULY 07: Orlando Pride forward Chioma Ubogagu (6)and Washington Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan (6) during the NWSL soccer match between the Orlando Pride and the Washington Spirit on July 7th, 2018 at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Editorial (March 22, 2019) — In the last eight months the Washington Spirit have had three different head coaches. In August 2018, the team fired Jim Gabarra, a longtime women’s soccer coach. Taking over for him was interim head coach Tom Torres.

Torres remains with the club, but as an assistant coach. This past off-season, the club added Richie Burke as head coach.

Washington Spirit Preview: Will the Stanford reunion bring consistency?

Burke is looking to revitalize an organization that has floundered in recent years. After making it to the NWSL Championship game in 2016 — they eventually lost to the former Western New York Flash — the Spirit finished 2017 in last place. In 2018, Washington jumped up one slot to eighth place.

Washington’s eight-place season finished with a 2-5-17 record.

This year, the Spirit have added a much of new drafted players, traded away some players and brought in a large group of Stanford alums. This year could be the year that Washington makes it back to the playoffs. Here are three questions for the team ahead of the 2019 season.

What role will Cheyna Matthews play? 

Last season, Cheyna Matthews was the biggest cheerleader for the Washington Spirit. While pregnant with her son, Josiah, Matthews watched and cheered for the Spirit from the sidelines.

This season, Matthews is back and joins a busy forward group. Last year, the team added Ashley Hatch up top. The second-year striker led the team with four goals. Meanwhile, right behind her, Spirit veteran Francisca Ordega had three goals.

However, Ordega is no longer with the club. Instead, the Nigerian striker joined Shanghai WFC in China. Also leaving the Spirit are strikers Estefania Banini, who joined Levanted UD in Spain, and Havana Solaun, who joined Klepp IL in Norway.

Meanwhile, Matthews will likely take Ordega’s spot up top. She’ll be great to tutor and mentor Mallory Pugh and Hatch. Pugh didn’t have the strongest season last year. Pugh suffered through some injuries, but when healthy she couldn’t get into a rhythm. Matthews will have to find her own consistency first, before she can help the players around her.

It also helps that Matthews has been training with the Jamaican Women’s National Team. She received her first call-up and international appearance this year. With Jamaica punching their ticket to the World Cup, Matthews could be a possibility to be on the final roster.

What will the defense look like? 

Defense was an area that Washington needed to give some attention to this off-season. In the beginning of the off-season period, Washington traded away defenders Estelle Johnson and Caprice Dydasco. Also tossed in the trade was goalkeeper DiDi Haracic. In return, they received a handful of draft picks.

In addition to losing Dydasco and Johnson, Taylor Smith tore her ACL while spending the off-season in Australia. Meanwhile, Canadian international Rebecca Quinn has departed the club after one year in the NWSL to join Paris FC.

Whitney Church was also waived by the team after a poor 2018 season.

Needless to say, there’s hardly any veteran leadership on defense. During the NWSL Draft, Burke focused more on building around the midfield, not the defense. However, he did pick up defender Samantha Staab and defender/forward Tegan McGrady.

Washington did go across the world to bring Australian defender Amy Harrison to the squad. Harrison made 43 appearances for Sydney FC since 2012. Since her debut in 2015 for the Australia national team, Harrison has made 10 appearances.

There’s a lot of question marks surrounding the Washington Spirit defense more than ever. It’s up to Burke and his assistants to get a core group of four so that Aubrey Bledsoe doesn’t have to deal with inconsistency. One of the more underrated goalkeepers, Bledsoe was fantastic in net last year for Washington.

Now, she needs people that’ll work with her.

Will the Stanford reunion bring results?

Jordan DiBiasi was Washington’s first selection in this year’s NWSL College Draft. Just moments later, her Stanford teammate, Tegan McGrady, was selected.

Together, they join up with Andi Sullivan. In the 2018 NWSL College Draft, Sullivan was picked with the first overall selection. She entered the Washington Spirit program out of Stanford University.

There’s three players that have featured together at the collegiate level for at least two years. The players know each other and they likely know each other’s styles. However, there is a big difference from college-level action to professional-level competition.

There’s no room in a professional atmosphere for cliques. There will likely be no trouble with this, as McGrady and DiBiasi have the personalities to click well with others. Plus, they’re young players joining a young team.

The Stanford connection could benefit well, especially if DiBiasi starts in the midfield with Sullivan. However, it’s important that not only the Stanford players have consistency with each other, but the whole team learns consistency and communication.

Last Word: Washington makes improvements, but still misses the mark

The level of competition in the NWSL is high.

North Carolina proved that last season with a historic unbeaten run and clinching the title. Portland made the NWSL Championship match for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, Seattle, Utah and Chicago are at an extremely high level.

With how young the Washington Spirit roster is, there will likely be improvements, but Washington could miss the mark. This is mainly because of all the question marks on defense. Also, with so many players potentially leaving for the World Cup, it’ll be on the younger players to step up and take charge.

Richie Burke has every right to be confident in his team. However, with the overall competition in the NWSL rising, it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see Washington miss the mark. They’re close, but they’re not there yet.

 

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