2019 NWSL season review: Washington Spirit
Mallory Pugh celebrates after scoring late in a 2-1 win over the North Carolina Courage. | Photo: isiphotos via @WashSpirit

The Washington Spirit overhauled their front office, including a new ownership group and a new head coach after the awful 2018 season. Under the guidance of Richie Burke, the Spirit scored an amazing crop of rookies to go with youthful superstars Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh. Unfortunately, between the rookie wall, the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, and injuries, the team just wasn't quite able to secure the last playoff spot. The future is certainly looking bright, though.

Taking the league by storm

Burke came into the season with the idea of possession oriented football and tapped midfielder Andi Sullivan as his captain and leader of the team. In just her second season, and after a supremely disappointing rookie year, Sullivan played the role masterfully and played well enough to work her way back into the USWNT player pool discussion. With rookies scattered throughout the lineup, Washington started the season with five wins, three draws, and just one loss in their first eight games. 

After winning just 11 points in all 24 games of 2018, the Spirit sat in first place after the first eight weeks of 2019 league play. The offense was the most efficient in the league by far during that magical stretch run, and the slew of rookies, including Rookie of the Year candidates Sam Staab and Jordan DiBiasi, were playing like seasoned pros. The good times wouldn't last, though, and they would go on to get just 16 points from their last 16 games.

Biggest Win: September 28, 2019 vs North Carolina Courage

With the season winding down and the team in free fall, it looked like the Spirit were doomed to continue their poor form against the first-place Courage. Washington had lost their previous eight matches against North Carolina, and the game started out just like every other game in the series. The Courage came out on the front foot and dominated the Spirit in every phase of the game. Luckily, throughout the first 70 minutes of the match, the visitors were able to muster just one goal while the post denied another four potential scoring opportunities. 

With the clock winding down, the Courage took their foot off the gas. Washington seemed beaten and ready to take the loss, but something in their demeanor changed. They got control of the ball and exploited the mentally weakened Courage team. Buoyed by the presence of Pugh and Lavelle, the Spirit scored once in the 75th minute and again in the 84th minute. In front of the home fans, it was the two World Cup-winning players that would find the back of the net and lead their team to victory.

Despite missing the playoffs, that game completely changed the light of the season for Washington. Suddenly, it seemed like the future was bright and full of possibility after it looked like the shine had worn off of Burke's opening season. 

Biggest Loss: September 21, 2019 @ Chicago Red Stars

The Spirit mostly avoided terrible scorelines, and their most disappointing game was probably the 2-2 draw against Reign FC where they scored the go-ahead goal in the 90th minute before allowing the equalizer two minutes later. That said, this game wins the biggest loss award because of how non-competitive it was. 

The Spirit were in the midst of a battle to make the playoffs, but that draw against the Reign put them behind the eight ball. They desperately needed to win this game to give themselves a shot, but instead they laid an egg. Chicago absolutely crushed the Spirit, 3-1, on the back of a Sam Kerr brace. The game was well over by the time the Spirit scored their lone goal in the 80th minute, and that loss was one of the final nails in the coffin of 2019. 

Washington can just stay the course

After 2017 and 2018 ended up being so bad, it now feels like Washington can plug along with the players they have. Lavelle and Pugh are pieces that can be built around, and the sheer volume of solid rookies should lead to significant improvement in 2020. Sullivan will have another year of growth under her belt and Burke will have another year to hones his skills as a professional women's coach. It's not inconceivable to believe that this team is capable of making the playoffs next season. As long as the team sees growth from their rookies and stays healthy they can compete with any team on the pitch.

One excellent player who hasn't yet been mentioned is 2019 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, Aubrey Bledsoe. After two consecutive seasons of shot stopping between the pipes for Washington, Bledsoe just received her first call up to the USWNT. She projects to be one of the brightest goalkeeping stars if she continues to develop her game over the next few seasons.