Four years ago, the Washington Spirit finished dead last in the inaugural NWSL season. Through a lot of soul-searching and a few coaching changes, the Spirit transformed their team, reaching the playoffs for the first time last year, and securing both a home playoff match, which they won and a place in the final. The victory may have been snatched from them in the last thirty seconds, but the story of the Spirit’s 2016 season stretches far beyond the walls of BBVA Compass Stadium.
A solid start, followed by some uncertainty
Starting the historic fourth season by going undefeated for their first five games, the Spirit showed a promising start. Unlike some other teams, they weren’t giving up ground covered last season. Despite having a new goalkeeper, the backline remained solid with the leadership of Ali Krieger. Their first loss of the season, and arguably their biggest, came in their second matchup against the Portland Thorns, where the team they had previously tied defeated them 4-1. It was that match that really started to raise questions about the legitimacy of the Spirit’s success thus far; sure, they could beat the teams at the bottom of the table, but how would they fare against those in the top five spots? The future looked bright then, but it was so early in the season. The following match brought a discouraging tie against the last-place Boston Breakers, bringing more questions regarding what the rest of the season would hold for the Spirit.
Hard-fought wins brought the Spirit to the playoffs
The Spirit were not a team to be discouraged, though, as they got back to winning on June 18th against the Orlando Pride, a month after their last victory against the Houston Dash. After that match, they went 7-1-4 for the rest of the regular season, which was enough to secure the team a home playoff match. Played against the Chicago Red Stars, that match was almost like a fairy tale; played in the cold and rain, Krieger scored the first goal for her team by perfectly finishing a cross from fellow defender Shelina Zadorsky. It looked as if the Spirit would see their first ever NWSL final, until, of course, Christen Press complicated their plan by scoring an equalizer in the 81st minute. Once again showing grit and determination, the Spirit regained control of the game in extra time and finished the game with a goal from Francisca Ordega in the 110th minute.
The team operated as a single unit until the very last minute of their season. Krieger was the first member of the United States Women's national team to return to her club after the semifinal loss to Sweden because she wanted to help lead her team in every way possible. Her eagerness to get back on the pitch did not go unnoticed by fans, her teammates, or her coaches, and helped unite the team behind one common goal: getting to the NWSL final.
The Spirit Squadron provided an exciting atmosphere for fans of both sides everywhere from the Maryland Soccerplex to the final match in Houston. And even though that match ended in the most heartbreaking fashion, the way the team played for the other 124 minutes can not be ignored. The unusual formation that allowed three centre-backs successfully controlled the opposing offense and the team did not find themselves distracted when two teammates suffered injuries that required subs during the match. While the title was taken from right under their noses in the very last minute, that result is not reflective of the work that went into their twelve victories this season.
Where to next?
The 2016 Spirit was not the same as the previous years. The team found a new starting goalie in Stephanie Labbé, then again in Kelsey Wys post-Olympic Break. Crystal Dunn found a new role that saw her distributing balls and making plays, rather than being the finisher that earned the 2015 NWSL Golden Boot. The team said goodbye to old faces, including that of their head coach, and greeted plenty of rookies who fit in perfectly and filled their role as if they’d been on the team since its inauguration.
Even the Spirit of May is not the same as that of October. They dealt with the injury of Estefania Banini and will continue to monitor the recovery of Caprice Dydasco, Cali Farquharson, and Laura del Rio. So, it goes without saying that the 2017 Spirit will differ from the one we know today. It has already begun to say goodbye to some familiar faces, with Banini announcing her move to Spain to play with Valencia. The loss of a talented international player will be felt by the NWSL as a league as well as the Spirit as a team. Finding new players that can fill the spots vacated adequately will challenge Jim Gabbarra during the off-season, but bringing in youth will give the team a certain edge.
Although their five-back worked in the NWSL Final, more speed in the backline would make that formation unnecessary when dealing with teams as young as the Flash, which is something to keep in mind as the team continues to grow older. With all of that being said, though, if this season is any indication of the grit that Washington has, this isn’t the last time the Spirit will be finishing at the top of the league. As of October 9th, there is already more fuel in their fire.