• Charles Olney

Washington Spirit and the Challenge Cup: The Spirit are back

The Washington Spirit came within seconds of winning the NWSL title in 2016, but the team has never come anywhere close since. But after bottoming out with a miserable 2018 season, they’ve begun the slow and steady march back up the ranks. Smart drafting and good trades have helped to assemble a roster that’s as young and as exciting as anyone in the league. After missing out on the playoffs for three straight years, they probably shouldn’t be counted as likely to reach the late stages of this tournament. But it’s also true that North Carolina is the only team in the league that seems like an obvious favorite when they square up against Washington.

Head Coach:

Richie Burke will be back for his second season.

2019 record:

34 points, 5th place

Player you should know:

If you follow the US Women, you almost certainly already know the gospel of Rose Lavelle. But Lavelle has never shown nearly the same returns at the club level. That’s largely due to injuries and disruptions caused by the international calendar. But there’s absolutely no reason to think she can’t elevate to the levels that make her one of the world’s best playmakers when she’s in a US jersey. She brings vision, footwork, speed, and precision. There are handful of players in the league that have the ability to qualify as ‘unplayable.’ If Lavelle isn’t first on that list, she’s very near the top. A good tournament from her could be the difference between disappointment and lifting the trophy.

Under the Radar:

Most of the excitement about the Spirit focuses on their brilliant young attackers. But the heart of this team is actually in the defense, and Sam Staab is probably the most important player in that line. She’s coming off an outrageously good rookie season. We’ve seen plenty of young players burst onto the scene fully formed, but it’s very rarely a defender. Staab is the exception. She’s as cool as she is resolute and already a pro at reading the game. Her play isn’t flashy, but there’s no need for stylish tackles if your positioning and anticipation cut attacks off before they ever have a chance to become dangerous. If she’s able to build on that first season, the Spirit have a real chance to take the next step forward.

Offseason moves:

It’s been a busy winter for the Spirit. The biggest move came at the draft, where the Spirit traded Mallory Pugh to Sky Blue in exchange for a raft full of draft picks. They immediately used one of those picks to select Ashley Sanchez—a very similar player to Pugh and potentially an immediate starter. They also signed all four of their other draft picks to fill out the extended roster. But that’s not even close to the end of the transactions. They signed Japan international Kumi Yokoyama, along with a host of other players who have recently plied their trade abroad: including Jenna Hellstrom, Brooke Hendrix, Jaye Boissiere, and Jessie Scarpa. Of those, Yokoyama is likely the most important--bringing guile and passing acumen that will really help the team lean into the possession game they developed last year.

What makes them exciting:

Washington have potentially the best young core in the NWSL, and at times in 2019 they looked like they were ready to return to being one of the league’s elite teams. With another year under their belt, there’s every reason to think this iteration might not just be promising but might have truly arrived.

Matchups:

Chicago Red Stars – June 27

North Carolina Courage - July 1

Portland Thorns - July 5

Houston Dash - July 12


The Spirit were maybe the worst-treated by the schedule adjustment. In this version, they'll kick things off with three matches in eight days against the top three teams from last year. In fact, Chicago, North Carolina, and Portland have accounted for 12 of the 16 total playoff appearances over the past four years. So it's a tough road. But if Washington want to prove that they really are title challengers, there's no better way to get the show on the road. And with the preliminary stages having no role other than to establish seeding, they can treat these as opportunities to test themselves.

Why they could win the Cup:

No team that’s not named ‘North Carolina’ can be considered favorites for this tournament. But the Spirit have a plausible argument as the team with the next-best chance. The teams who finished ahead of them last year all have some big question marks after prominent departures, coaching changes, etc. Meanwhile, the Spirit should expect to build on a solid foundation. All they need is for their young core to take another step forward together. That’s obviously not guaranteed, but it’s certainly not implausible.

Biggest challenge:

The Spirit have a lot of quality players, but it’s not yet clear how they will set up or who fits into the preferred XI. Will all the new additions be able to integrate? How much weight will fall on their shoulders? In a normal season, they would have access to a long summer to sort out these questions and let everyone settle. Instead, they’ll get at most four matches to try things out before the all-or-nothing games begin. That may simp;y not be enough time.

Predicted finish:

It’s hard to set expectations too high on a team whose current incarnation has yet to really prove anything. But the Spirit certainly have the quality to go far. A semifinal appearance is probably the baseline goal. And it wouldn't be at all surprising if they made the final.

Something random:

When Washington played the Reign in 2016, the national anthem was played while the teams were still in the locker room—an effort to prevent Megan Rapinoe from kneeling in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Four years later, Spirit rookie Kaiya McCullough has stated that she will kneel – and has received the full support of her organization. It’s a big change!