Led by Head Coach Richie Burke and the fearless PK (Penelope Kix) the Eagle, the Washington Spirit are hoping to have a transformative year in the Challenge Cup. For a team defined by their youthfulness, even from Richie Burke who is only entering his second season with the squad, the team will strive to get the best of both worlds by taking advantage of the strength and experience of players like captain Tori Huster, who is entering her seventh season with the team, as well as the creativity of their bright 13-person class of new additions.
The Spirit finished 5th last season, just four points shy of a playoff spot, with a 9-7-8 record. Burke’s first season in charge proved to spark a dramatic improvement from the 2018 season where the squad finished second to last with a dismal 2-17-5 record. While in recent years the team has struggled to break into the upper echelons of the NWSL, it wasn’t too long ago that the Spirit were considered a top force; in 2016, the Spirit reached the NWSL finals, only to fall to Western New York Flash on penalty kicks. Last season, the Spirit racked up an impressive 10 clean sheets and only let in an average of one goal per game, a huge testament to the strength of 2019 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, Aubrey Bledsoe.
2019 World Cup final goalscorer and Bronze Ball Winner Rose Lavelle is undoubtedly the Spirit’s biggest national team star. The Wisconsin graduate joined the team in 2018 after a first NWSL season with the Boston Breakers. Since then, injuries and USWNT commitments has left Lavelle with an inconsistent record with the Spirit, (one goal and one assist in 17 total games played) oftentimes seeming to struggle to integrate with the team. After having consistent training with the team over the past few weeks, the Challenge Cup offers Lavelle the opportunity to really put her stamp on the NWSL. Andi Sullivan is another national team player who has proven her chops for the Spirit, being a solid rock in the midfield by playing and starting in 45 out of 46 games. Although just barely missing out on the 2019 World Cup team, the Stanford graduate and DMV local has been called up to the USWNT consistently during Vlatko Andonovski’s reign as head coach, being a part of the victory tour and She Believes Cup team in 2019-2020. Jordan Dibiasi and Ashley Hatch are two other key Spirit players who have been called up to USWNT camps as well.
Outside of the US, the Spirit recently bolstered their attacking threat by signing Japanese international Kumi Yokoyama and Canadian Jenna Hellstrom. Both of these players are expected to make an immediate impact, with Yokohama pairing up with Ashley Hatch on the front lines, bringing an enhanced creativity and skill, and Hellstrom using her speed to power up and down the flanks.
One of the Spirit’s major strengths comes in the form of Ashley Hatch. Hatch has been a stand-out for the Spirit since joining the team in 2018 from a rookie season at the North Carolina Courage. Hatch has led the Spirit’s frontlines with a fearless tenacity, being the team’s leading scorer in both 2018 and 2019. Her blazing speed, carefully-timed runs behind the defensive lines, and eye for the back of the net are not to be overlooked. Being one of the more experienced players on the Spirit’s particularly youthful squad, look to Hatch to emerge as a leader during the Challenge Cup this month and to firmly establish her place as one of the most productive NWSL players.
Another player to keep your eye on is Sam Staab. Drafted by the Spirit with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 NWSL College Draft, Staab has made herself indispensable in the Spirit’s defensive line, playing every minute of the 2019 campaign. Not just known for her defensive prowess, Staab has impressive distribution capabilities, tallying an 84% successful pass rate and even notching one goal and one assist in her rookie season. Coming off a season in the Australian W-League with the Western Sydney Wanderers, Staab will surely be looking to continue her 2019 dominance into the Challenge Cup.
The Spirit have been busy this off season, making 13 additions to their team. The most significant loss, however, was the departure of USWNT winger Mallory Pugh, who was traded to Sky Blue FC in return for three draft picks, including the fourth overall pick.
Adding to their already youthful squad, the Spirit drafted five players in the 2020 NWSL College Draft. Most draftees are targeted to bolster the Spirit’s attacking threat, something that was lacking last season. With the fourth pick, the Spirit drafted UCLA forward Ashley Sanchez, a highly touted US Youth National Team player. With seven goals and fifteen assists in her senior season at UCLA, making her UCLA’s all-time assist record holder, Sanchez will bring a much needed spark of creativity to the Spirit’s frontline. Paired with Hatch on the frontline, Sanchez will be a real threat this season to the opposition. With the 32nd pick, Sanchez is joined by fellow UCLA player defender Kaiya McCullough, who will bring added strength and stability to the already-strong Spirit backline. Natalie Jacobs from University of Southern California was drafted 13th by the Spirit. Jacobs’ has a unique versatility being able to play in the attack, midfield, or defense. Washington State midfielder Averie Collins (17th pick) and Kansas forward Katie McClure (23rd pick) are two more attacking players that round out the Spirit’s draft action.
For the Spirit’s other new additions, they have brought in two new goalkeepers, Katie Lund and Devon Kerr, defender Brooke Hendrix, who most recently played for West Ham in the WSL where she reached the 2019 FA Cup Final, midfielder Jaye Boissierre, and forwards Jessie Scarpa and Meghan McCool.
The Spirit’s strength lies in its defense, with 2019 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe leading the way. Huster, Staab, and Nielsen all return to protect Bledsoe and the additions of McCollough, Jacobs, and Hendrix only provide added depth to the team. Especially considering the jam-packed Challenge Cup schedule, depth on the bench will be much needed and the Spirit don’t seem to be letting up on their defensive base anytime soon. Furthermore, the additions of Yokohama, Sanchez, and other new forwards to pair with Hatch will provide more diverse attacking outlets to the midfield trio of Dibiasi, Sullivan, and Lavelle. Although having many USWNT and national team players typically works wonders for a team’s marketing and attendance, the presence of only a few USWNT players potentially appears to benefit the Spirit, especially as it allows for more consistent team integration. Coming off an amazingly successful year with the USWNT, it will be exciting to see how Lavelle, without disruptions from national team commitments, will bring her creativity, skill, and vision to the Spirit during the Cup.
The Spirit will struggle most with their youthfulness and lack of experience. 18 of their players are entering their first or second NWSL season. This leaves the strength and cohesion of the team up for question entering into this hot and heavy month of matches. Another area of concern is that the Spirit has been significantly lacking in their attack. Over the past couple years, a dependence on Hatch and Dibiasi to create most of the goal scoring opportunities makes the team appear one-dimensional and easily stifled. The new signees will need to make an immediate impact in order to bring more depth and dynamism to the attack.
In their preliminary round games, the Spirit will play Chicago Red Stars (June 27th), North Carolina Courage (July 1st), Portland Thorns (July 5th), and Houston Dash (July 12th). This draw, re-done after Orlando Pride withdrew from the tournament, is fairly difficult. Chicago Red Stars and NC Courage, the 2019 finalists and champion, respectively, as well as Portland have traditionally been the strongest competitors in the league. Although these opponents will provide challenges, they are not unbeatable for the Spirit and last season’s records are mixed. The Spirit had one win and two losses against both Chicago and North Carolina. As the Courage haven’t made many changes to their already dominant squad, competing against their attacking force made up of Lynn Williams, Kristen Hamilton, Debinha, Jessican McDonald, and Sam Mewis will be challenging to say the least. The Spirit will surely bring their defensive strength for this match. As Chicago will be without Sam Kerr, it is questionable whether they will have the same strike threat this season. If the Spirit are able to boost their clinicality, they are more than capable of coming out of this match with a win. Against Portland, the Spirit finished 1-1-1 while holding a 0-1-2 record against Houston last season. Being the weakest opponent of the Spirit’s preliminary games, it will be essential that the Spirit end their group stage with a win against Houston. The Spirit will need last year’s defense to shine again this season. But as the records show, the defense itself cannot win the games. The Spirit’s lack of attacking prowess hurt them last year. But with this year’s added attacking threats, there is optimism in the Spirit’s ability to be a strong competitor in the tournament.
Setting the tone in the first game out against Chicago will be key for the Spirit’s campaign. On the whole, things look optimistic for the Spirit. Despite a bumpy past, the Spirit are surely not a team to overlook during the Challenge Cup. Equipped with the creativity of Lavelle, the solidity of Sullivan, the skill of Yokohama, and the strength of Bledsoe and her backline, expect the Spirit to ditch a stormy past and make a long run in the tournament.
By Anna Goorevich
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos