Boyds, Maryland — Richie Burke has kept a relatively quiet NWSL offseason afloat with news. With no major signings being announced by other teams, Burke jumped on the chance to sign three new players in the last two weeks.
Making their way to Maryland will be Jessie Scarpa, Jenna Hellstrom and Kumi Yokoyama, a Japanese international. Burke spoke to reporters on a conference call last week to divulge about his game plan for 2020. Up next for the Spirit will be the NWSL College Draft, which will take place on Jan. 16.
On his new players, Burke is excited to see impact performances.
“Hellstrom is a wide player who can play both in the midfield or as a wing-back or a full back,” Burke said. “So, they might appear on paper or have played a little bit in the past as forwards. Only Kumi is an out and out forward who’ve we’ve recruited in [the midfield].”
Yokoyama is the more notable name of the three signings. The 26-year-old has more than 40 appearances for Japan. She has featured for clubs in Japan, and also spent time in Germany with Frankfurt.
“As you know, all the top clubs are signing Japanese players right now… She’s a player that we’ve tracked, a player that we’ve continued communication with and when there was a strong indication that ours was the league that she wanted to come play in, then we didn’t really hesitate,” Burke said.
Burke said that communicating and getting Yokoyama on board with the Spirit wasn’t a difficult process.
“When there’s a desire from both ends, you get the player on board, then things happen pretty quickly,” he said.
Still Looking to Add more Depth & Talent
Burke isn’t done recruiting this offseason.
Instead, Washington has a couple picks to work with in the NWSL Draft. However, the club does not have picks in the first or second rounds. Washington will have one selection in the third round and one in the fourth round. However, Burke says he wants to move up the draft table.
“We’re going to try and negotiate to bump up the order,” Burke said. “If we get a second round pick or a first round pick through a trade, I don’t have many assets in the football club that I want to give away in terms of player personnel. I am very happy with what we have returning this year. But, allocation money is a trading tool, future picks and international roster spots are all methods that we can perhaps convince another club to give us a pick at some stage.”
Despite acknowledging intentions of moving up the table, Burke wants to keep the identity of the Washington Spirit alive. The identity, he says, is bringing in younger players and using the draft to “find the gems that can come in and play for us right away.”
“I’m not interested in signing college kids who just sit on the bench or are just around for developmental purposes,” he said. “We want to bring in players who can come in and contribute immediately and play… Our draft board looks a little bit scant right now because it’s third and fourth round. But, you can get some great players in the third and fourth round.”
“We’re going to try and move up the draft board in some way.”
Some special words from some amazing women who have worn the @EliteAcademyNE with pride & have defined what it means to #BeElite in everything they did & continue to do within the sport & life #EgaFAMILY @Paigenielsen EGA, @uncwomenssoccer Alum & current @WashSpirit Defender pic.twitter.com/rViIWtQSEy
— Marcus Kelcher (@EGASOCCER1) December 24, 2019
Using Allocation Money in 2020
This is the first year the NWSL will introduce allocation money. According to the NWSL, teams are allowed to purchase up to $300,000 worth of allocation money from the league. All allocation money rules are listed here.
Burke said he’s not interested in “flashing cash around” to bring players to Washington.
“There is plenty of depth and many quality players in this county,” Burke said. “To bring an international in and pay above the odds for them, they have to be special. But I also don’t want to demean the players who have been in the league and in our football club who have helped us get to this level. The deserve recognition both financially, and, in every way.”
Burke said that, although having allocation money is important for the league and helps it grow, the Spirit are going to be cautious about it.
“We have to be intelligent and we have to be strategic,” Burke said. “That’s what we’ve done this year. It’s going to be interesting for everybody. Not just us but for every team in the league to see how they use this new method of bringing top players into the league.”
Wednesday, we hosted our third Advanced Development Program at the Maryland SoccerPlex, allowing 20 players to experience what it's like to train in a professional environment in front of a scout from US Soccer.https://t.co/IqNoz0Sk1Q pic.twitter.com/eyrgv0QWtv
— Washington Spirit (@WashSpirit) December 20, 2019
How Hellstrom and Scarpa fit with the Spirit
As mentioned, Yokoyama isn’t the only new member of the Spirit. Burke brought along Jenna Hellstrom and Jessie Scarpa. Players that featured collegiately in the United States, the two have spent time in Sweden.
Scarpa trained with Washington in the summer. Burke wanted to sign her, but the signing fell through due to injuries and other logistics. However, Burke chatted with her North Carolina college coach Anson Dorrance who spoke positively about Scarpa.
“When she came in and trained with us last summer, she really lived up to her billing,” Burke said. “We were sort us instrumental in the suggestion that we should go overseas and play in a league where she can get minutes under her belt, get a little prominence and get even better than she was when we had her in the summer.”
Burke said he’s excited to give Scarpa a platform with Washington.
“Good players don’t become bad players overnight,” Burke said. “Injuries set them back a little bit, but if you manage those injuries well and you have a good performance staff in the football club and you can work on their psychology, I think that player is gonna shine. That’s what we’re gonna try and do this year. She’s a very very good player.”
As for Hellstrom, who featured at Kent State University, Burke called her a flyer. A fast player, Hellstrom is a Canadian international. She was part of the federation’s roster for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
“She’s got some wheels and she gives us some flexibility,” Burke said. “Tori [Huster] is also one of those flexible players that can sit in the middle or can be part of the back three while letting somebody else fly down the line. Jenna gives us another option. Somebody with that type of pace and that willingness to run is what we’ve been looking for.”
“Our identity is in place”
— Richie Burke
Looking forward to the 2020 Season
Washington improved in 2019. After finishing two years ago toward the bottom of the table, the Spirit competed for a playoff spot this year. They narrowly missed the margin. Now, for Burke, it’s about improving even further and building a strong culture.
“I think now people are keeping a close eye on us because we might have been a little bit of a surprise package last year,” he said. “People will be thinking, ‘Okay, did they get a new coach bump? Did they get a new owner bump? What are they going to be like in year two?’”
Burke said the next step is finding and defining the club’s principles.
“We need to change our roster,” Burke admitted. “Many of the players that we brought into our roster are serial winners. They’re people who have been in programs that have won and are used to winning. That’s sort of a step that we’ve taken to encourage that mentality around our football club as well.”
Calling out the NWSL champions of 2019 — the North Carolina Courage — Burke said that the goal isn’t just to win the league, but to be the best team in the NWSL.
“My owner’s tasked me with becoming the best female football club in the world,” he said. “That’s an incremental process.”
Washington, like the other clubs in the NWSL, is waiting on the schedule. The NWSL Draft is scheduled for Jan. 16, which gives Burke about three weeks to make trades and talk to other clubs. Meanwhile, Burke will also keep an eye on W-League players, including goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe.