After sweeping changes, Spirit enters new era with patience and optimism

After sweeping changes, Spirit enters new era with patience and optimism

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

After an underwhelming 2023 campaign ended without a playoff appearance for the second straight year, the Washington Spirit went back to the drawing board this offseason. (In one instance, literally.)

It retooled its roster, losing several big names and loading up on youth. It took a big swing and hired an acclaimed coach from abroad, known for his exciting style of play. It unveiled a new black-and-yellow color scheme — heavy on the millennial nostalgia, for anyone who drew an S in middle school — as the latest phase of a full rebrand coming next year.

As the NWSL season begins this weekend, the Spirit is still a work in progress. For starters: When the whistle blows to kick off Sunday’s season opener at the Seattle Reign, the coach at the center of this picture will be in Spain. Jonatan Giráldez, the 32-year-old Barcelona leader who is set to take over the Spirit, will not arrive in Washington until June, once the Spanish season ends.

But the project is taking shape — and the club is willing to be patient for the results to follow. Entering its third full season under Y. Michele Kang’s ownership, the Spirit has aspirations of building an entertaining brand of soccer that attracts the world’s top talent. An opening test against last season’s runner-up will offer the first glimpse into how those ambitions translate to reality.

“We’ll certainly be willing and able to exhibit great patience, understanding that we’re not going to see the best version of ourselves until we can get everybody here all the time. But that certainly doesn’t stop the fact that we think we’re going to be pretty good,” said Mark Krikorian, the club’s general manager and president of soccer operations. “We have a talented roster, we have a talented staff. And we’ll put them all together and they’ll go and compete and hopefully get better day-to-day.”

Under veteran NWSL coach Mark Parsons last year, the Spirit started strong but sputtered in the season’s latter half and finished eighth, two places from the playoffs. Parsons was fired days after the season finale. In January, Kang made a splash hiring Giráldez, who has helped establish Barcelona as a European powerhouse.

For at least the first 13 games of its season — Barcelona’s final game is June 16 — the Spirit will be led by Adrián González, another Spaniard who was appointed in January to begin implementing Giráldez’s possession-based system. (Parsons’s team played a direct style characterized by long, vertical balls; it ranked last in total passes, touches and pass completion.)

After the turbulence of the past three seasons — coaching changes, an ownership battle and inconsistent on-field results — the appeal of this project is partially in its promise of stability. Giráldez and González joined the Spirit on three-year deals.

“Going into this season with the idea that these are the coaches that are basically going to stay, I think that’s really good to have a team that can be built behind them and their tactics,” said center back Tara McKeown, who will play for her fourth full-time coach since coming to Washington in 2021.

The changes weren’t limited to the club’s sporting staff. Eleven players left the Spirit via moves, waivers or retirement. A pair of draft night trades — center back Sam Staab to the Chicago Red Stars and midfielder Ashley Sanchez to the North Carolina Courage — shook up the team’s core.

Washington used the trades to move up in the draft, selecting a league-most four players in the first round. It signed six rookies to its roster.

No. 3 pick Croix Bethune, an attacking midfielder known for her creativity and flair, is a candidate to earn a starting spot. The Spirit has asked big things of its rookies before — midfielder Andi Sullivan (2018), Staab (2019) and forward Trinity Rodman (2021) were top-four draft picks and contributed immediately as starters. Bethune could be next in line.

Winger Brittany Ratcliffe and U.S. national team defender Casey Krueger joined as free agents in January. Krueger is likely to start at right back but also has experience at center back, where Washington will need depth.

Rodman will not play in the opener against Seattle, serving a suspension for a red card in last season’s final game. (She started five and played in all six of the U.S. national team’s games at the W Gold Cup, which ran from Feb. 20 to March 10.) At 21, she’s hesitant to call herself a veteran, but in this group, Rodman is a leader — and one of just six players remaining from the 2021 championship squad.

“Everyone wants the winning mentality. And not just to say it, but to have the results and to have the proof of a winning team, and a team that progresses each and every year,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest thing with [Giráldez] joining us, is to create that standard for Washington Spirit and to get us to not just keep saying that we are a winning team when we haven’t shown that, and actually putting up the numbers and results.”

Among the other returnees: Sullivan in the midfield; two-time NWSL goalkeeper of the year Aubrey Kingsbury; French winger Ouleymata Sarr; striker Ashley Hatch, who is looking to rebound from a campaign in which she tied the fewest non-penalty goals of her career.

Earlier this offseason, Krikorian said Giráldez’s hiring elevated the caliber of talent the Spirit could attract. The NWSL salary cap has expanded to $2.75 million, and teams around the league have made big moves in the global transfer market. One new international player has signed for Washington, but that deal has yet to be announced. Any additional big-name signings are more likely to occur in the summer, once Giráldez has arrived.

As tempered as expectations may be, they are still high. In its 12th season, the NWSL has expanded to 14 teams and increased the number of playoff spots to eight. Another year on the outside looking in would be a disappointment.

For now, the Spirit is prepared to let its plan come to fruition at a natural pace.

“Every project needs time. This is a process,” González said. “If we try to focus on what we do every day, I’m sure the results are going to come.”

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