The National Women’s Soccer League features some of the biggest stars in the world. With the Summer Olympics kicking off in July, many of those stars will be absent for a significant portion of the season. Additionally, the start of the league’s Challenge Cup competition will fall in an international FIFA window, meaning the national team players will be called up instead of being with their club teams to start the tournament. Fortunately, the league’s impressive depth will be showcased while the internationals are away. This series will highlight five players from each NWSL team who can take advantage of the opportunity to make a name for themselves this season.
SO MUCH YOUTH AND PROMISE!
The Washington Spirit are currently the team of youth, with an average age of 24.5, and there is a lot to be excited about in not only the Spirit’s future but the present as well. Washington had great showings last season, finishing at the top of their Fall Series pod and having a solid Challenge Cup, which was stopped short in a penalty shootout against Sky Blue FC in the quarterfinals. It may be hard for Richie Burke to plan around international call-ups this year. With Andi Sullivan being awarded a US allocated spot, as well as new transfers Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara contending for spots on the Olympics roster, any, all or none of the three may be called up. The team has a lot of talent and should manage quite well without them if necessary. The Spirit are going to be a force to watch not only in 2021 but for the foreseeable future as well. Here are my five Spirit players to watch in 2021.
Because of the odd way statistics are recorded for the 2020 tournaments, Ashley Sanchez has no goals and no assists for the Washington Spirit. However, this beautiful assist exists and everyone should see it.
Sanchez won the Future Legend Award at the Challenge Cup, and it is no mistake: she is going to be a key piece for this team. Whether Sanchez is going to be primarily upfront with Ashley Hatch or deployed in the Rose Lavelle-sized hole in the Spirit’s midfield is still to be seen. But in either position, the 21-year-old is going to have a great impact on this team.
Sam Staab & Paige Nielsen
Two players at once here, as the centre-back pairing played every minute together in both the 2020 Challenge Cup and Fall Series. This pairing has been solid and a crucial part of the building from the back philosophy the Spirit showed last year. Both Nielsen and Staab have led the league in touches per 90 minutes and had pass completion rates near 85% in 2020. While building from the back may not be everyone’s preferred style, it is much easier to relax when the pair have played so frequently together.
It will be interesting to see how the pair adapts to the potential formation change. Coach Richie Burke has indicated that he may switch to a 3 CB formation, which would include new signing Emily Sonnett. I have no doubt that the young but experienced pair (Nielsen is 27, Staab is 24) will adjust appropriately as they have both thrived in the Spirit’s system since they each joined the team in 2019.
NEW PLAYER HYPE! A part of me wanted to just leave this paragraph as “NEW PLAYER! EXCITEMENT! HOORAY!” and end it there. But you are here reading this and may want to know WHY we should be excited. Rodman has been one of the key pieces in the USWNT U-20, slotting in seamlessly into any of the forward positions, and U-20 coach Laura Harvey has given her high praise for both her physical and mental attributes that allow her to compete at such a high level. Unfortunately, we did not get to see Rodman play in the NCAA system for Washington State University, but that did not deter the Washington Spirit from drafting her number 2 overall. In a team full of youth, Rodman will be the youngest at 19 years old. She may not be an immediate starter, but she is one who will grow and thrive in this team.
Bayley Feist’s dynamic ability on the football pitch was on full display in 2020. Looking back, it feels as if she was deployed in every position based on what the Spirit needed, and she excelled in each spot. Andi Sullivan is unavailable? Feist can play there. Want a partner for Ashley Hatch up top? Feist can play there. Want someone to be on the opposite wing to Kumi Yokoyama? Feist can play there. Need a third midfielder with Sullivan and DiBiasi? Feist can play there. It is very comforting to have a player on the roster who can be called upon to do practically any job and do it well. Especially as there may be a tinkering period with a potential new formation, I feel confident that whatever the plan is, there will be a role in which Bayley Feist can perform.