“This is the start of something big!!” was the last line of a statement sent to Washington Spirit season ticket holders and the media earlier this week. The team will host Sky Blue FC at 7:00 pm at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds on Saturday night as the National Women's’ Soccer League begins its sixth season. The statement was from new ownership group member Steve Baldwin, who join the Spirit ownership team in the offseason.
The Washington Spirit is not the same team — nor the same organization — that has won just five games in the last two seasons and finished the 2018 season with a record of 2-17-5. Almost everything about the Spirit is new. New owners, new CEO in Larry Best, new head coach in Richie Burke, new coaching staff, a new mascot, new locker room for the team, and most dramatically new faces. Less than half — just nine — women on the 20 player roster saw any time in a Spirit uniform last season.
“Every single game is an opportunity to step forward,” Head Coach Richie Burke told Germantown Pulse. “The mantra in the dressing room is, winning is a habit. By winning is a habit we mean; we win on the training ground, we win in getting better in every single way. For us, in every match we are looking to make a step forward, so we are better at free kicks, we are better at restarts, we’re better at defending, better at winning in every way we can.”
Some of the returning players are familiar names to Spirit fans and fans of women’s soccer in general. Three are members of the United States Women’s National Team who will compete for a second straight World Cup Championship in France in June. They are Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, and Andi Sullivan. Pugh will return for her third year with the Spirit, while Lavelle and Sullivan for their second year playing in Germantown. Also returning is goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, who just won a championship in Australia where she backstopped Sydney FC to the W-League Grand Final title.
The only member of the Spirit defensive line returning is Mallory Eubanks who returns for her second season with the Spirit after appearances in 12 games last year.
The midfield houses the most veterans of past Spirit campaigns. Returning is mid-fielder Tori Huster, the only member of the team to make an appearance in a Spirit uniform since the team started playing in the NWSL in 2013. She is joined in the mid-field by Lavelle, Sullivan, and third-year player Meggie Daugherty-Howard.
Up top, the Spirit will field Pugh, along with forwards Ashley Hatch returning for her second year with the club, and third-year player Cali Farquharson. Farquharson missed most of last season due to injury. Also returning on the attack are Arielle Ship who begins her third season, after missing all but two games last year after an ACL injury and Cheyna Matthews (formerly Cheyna Williams) who returns for a fourth season after sitting out last year to become a new mother.
The new faces populating the Spirit 2019 roster are impressive. Two international players from Australia, who will play big roles in their nation’s run at a World Cup trophy — midfielder Chloe Logarzo and defender Amy Harrison. Logarzo and keeper Bledsoe were teammates on the title-winning Sydney FC team over the winter.
All four of players in the first round of the 2019 NWSL draft will be on the roster this season: midfielder Jordan DiBiasi from Stanford, defender Samantha Staab from Clemson, defender/forward Tegan McGrady from Stanford and midfielder Dorian Bailey from North Carolina. During the draft, the Spirit also acquired a second-round pick from Portland Thorns FC and selected forward/midfielder Bayley Feist with the 17th overall pick. Also joining the backline are Paige Nielsen and Megan Crosson.
Coach Burke and the five players who will make appearances on the world stage in France at the Women’s World Cup, Pugh, Lavelle, and Sullivan from the US and Aussies Lograzo and Harrison met with the media at the Maryland SoccerPlex on Thursday.
“I am looking for a win in the season opener,” said Burke. “I am looking for a good performance. I am looking for our players to showcase their ability and create a good footprint for our team’s first step in the NWSL this season. I am hoping the Mallory Pugh bags a hat trick, and we’ll go from there.”
“We have sitting at this table veritable superstars,” said Burke, “they can adjust and adapt. The tactics that we’ve worked so far this preseason have been a joy for me to watch, we’ve gotten a lot of positive results from it.”
Pugh, who has become one of the superstars on the USWNT scoring three goals in seven games in the national team’s run up to the World Cup in June, said that she was looking forward to playing in a Spirit kit again. “It has been so long since we’ve actually played an NWSL game. I am hoping to go out there and put on a good show for our fans.”
Fellow USWNT player, Andi Sullivan said that she too was excited to be back with the Spirit. “It has been a crazy off-season for the whole program, there were just so many changes that everything feels very fresh. I hope that our fans can sense that, and get behind that excitement. I hope we can score some goals, especially Mal,” joked Sullivan. “I will put all the pressure on her.”
Pugh noted the major changes in the Spirit organization and its attitude toward fans and players. “The main thing that I see is that I am treated as a professional both on and off the field,” said Pugh. “I feel like the past two years that was not the case. On the field, I am being held to a high standard, not just by myself, but by my teammates and coaches. I feel like that really helps me push and elevate my game. Off the field, I am being asked if I need anything, or if the team needs anything, just so we are comfortable and can focus on being the best soccer players that we can be.”
To that end, the Spirit has an expanded the full time coaching staff to include a head coach, two assistants, a high-performance sports science coach, and goalkeeper coach.
The organization has made significant investments in equipment and technology to maximize the development of players, as well as, contracting with a world-class strength and conditioning facility and providing financial support for individual medi-spa treatments. The team has created a players lounge, which is a first for the organization, as well as a new locker room for the women. Also, new this year, players will have bubble shelters to keep them out of the rain during matches. The team also has apartment housing for all players that wanted it, as well as, full-time laundry service and meals with all training sessions.
Although there are so many new faces on the team, the Spirit are becoming a cohesive unit. “This group is really gelling,” said Sullivan, the second-year midfielder. “We have a lot of different personalities. It is easy when you have a leadership that is unifying you in a mission. Everyone has really bought into that mission. We are spending good time together off the field. It is a great group of people who are enjoying each other’s company.”
Burke talked about the leadership qualities of the players who will head to France in June. “You’ve listened to the players talk about the support system and [the coaches] being mindful of treating them as professionals, and I reiterate, I am sitting at a table with world class soccer players. It is a joy to have them around, but we have to demand of them because this is a performance industry and we are trying to get wins. Every single player at this table is very competitive in their own right. If they lose a five-a-side game or they miss a shot — they take it personally because they’ve got very high standards. We want to hold them to those standards, and ask even more of them.”
“I expect to win every game we play,” said Burke. “I expect my players to play to the best of their ability every time they are on the fields. I expect my players to represent our brand and our club in the best way possible. If that translates into wins and strong performances then great.”
With the Women’s World Cup creating a month-long period when the best of the best players in the world will leave their NWSL teams to play for their national teams, it creates unique challenges for the club players who must adapt to not having some of their superstars on the pitch for a month in the middle of the NWSL season.
Burke said his staff has broken the 2019 season down into three mini-seasons. “We looked at this season as three mini-seasons; a pre-World Cup, World Cup period, and Post-World Cup season. Fortunately, we will have these players for two of those seasons, and I think we will do very well at that time because we have quality players. And the players at this table will really be able to affect our results this year, and when they are gone, I am hoping that other players will be able to step up the plate and do their job and perform every bit as well as we expect of them. Speaking to other coaches in the league,” he said, “the World Cup period will be a defining time for a lot of these franchises, and I think it will be for us as well.”
One of the players that will not be on the pitch this season is Montgomery County native and fan favorite Joanna Lohman, who announced her retirement from professional soccer earlier this week. However, Lohman is remaining with the Spirit and was a very active participant in Thursday’s open practice for the media.
Burke talked to Germantown Pulse about the importance of Lohman’s new role with the Spirit. “The fact that Joanna Lohman is still with this organization and still training with us is massively important,” said Burke. “She is a pleasure to have around. She is so invaluable to the younger players, so important to the staff because there are things that she sees and can put context to that benefit us greatly. Having her around is a no-brainer.”
He said that he wanted to make sure that, if she did decide to retire, that Lohman would continue to play a role in the Spirit organization. “Finding a balance to what she wanted to do with her post-soccer life and keeping a hold of her as much as we could was a big part of our negotiation with her. It would not have been enjoyable for me if she was not a part of what we are doing and building here,” said Burke.
He said that the young players and draft picks have been everything the staff had hoped for when they were signed or drafted in the offseason. “They’ve been embraced by all the players on the team, from the national team and senior players. They are quality players. We didn’t just pick them as arbitrary draft picks, we picked them as specific players for this franchise. There is a specific plan to move forward with younger players who in two or three years’ time are going to be the top players in national team programs and in this league,” said Burke.
Saturday’s game begins at 7:00 pm at Maureen Hendricks Field in the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds. Tickets are available.
Top: Washington Spirit and USWNT forward Mallory Pugh at practice at the Maryland SoccerPlex on Thursday prior to Saturday’s NWSL season opener. The Spirit will host Sky Blue FC at 7:00 pm.
Next: New Spirit Head Coach Richie Burke is flanked by USWNT members Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh as they address the media on Thursday.
Next: Australian Women’s National team and Spirit defender Amy Harrison at practice on the stadium field on Thursday.
Next: USWNT and Spirit forward, Mallory Pugh.
Next: USWNT and Spirit midfielder, Andi Sullivan.
Next: Midfielder Tori Huster is the only player on the Spirit to play with the club in each of the six seasons of its existence.
Next: Australian Women’s National team and Spirit forward Chloe Lograzo.
Photos by Germantown Pulse