2023 S-2 Briefing: Washington Spirit

We’re almost done with our look at this coming season’s opponents, and since we’re going in reverse finishing order now we’re pretty far down in the weeds.

Which is, given this club, genuinely surprising, since it’s kind of shocking to find that one of the tusslers for 2022’s Wooden Spoon was the…

Washington Spirit

Year formed: 2012
The Spirit are one of the Original Eight founding clubs.

There had been a “Washington Freedom” that played in the WUSA back in the early Oughts. The club lingered on in the minors and semi-pro leagues until 2010, but the NWSL club that was organized by original owner Bill Lynch had no real connection to the older WoSo tradition.

The Spirit have always been a very weird club. Like Churchill is supposed to have said of the Germans, they were either at your feet or at your throat.

(Speaking of which…Timber Dave in the comments on the previous post asked whether the Thorns had beaten Orlando more than any other club. That got me wondering, so I ran down the season records to see what we’d done to each club. I excluded 2020 because, well, 2020. Here’s how things look over the rest, with the cumulative Thorns W-L-D and seasons played:

FCKC: 4-6-4 over five seasons (moved – after 2017 separately as Utah)
SEA: 8-13-6 over nine seasons
CRS: 12-2-10 over nine seasons
WAS: 12-3-7 over nine seasons
GOT: 11-6-7 over nine seasons (includes record as Sky Blue)
BOS: 8-5-1 over five seasons (folded after 2017)
NCC: 9-10-5 over nine seasons (includes record as Western New York)
HOU: 14-4-3 over eight seasons
ORL: 12-2-2 over seven seasons
UTA: 5-1-5 over four seasons (includes record as Kansas City Current)
LOU: 4-0-0 over two seasons
ACFC: 1-0-1 over one season
SDW: 0-1-1 over one season

So the biggest cumulative punching bag was Houston, but Orlando is a very close second.

The biggest enemy? Seattle – indeed, if you take out their horrible 2013 (0-4-0) they go to 4-13-6, winning 56%, highest of any opponent. So maybe they ARE our biggest rivals! Obviously The Damned are right behind them.

Chicago is deeply weird. We hardly ever lose to them but they draw the shit out of us. When they were in Kansas City we tended to lose to FCKC, but after the move to Utah they became more like Chicago, draw-ers extraordinare (what’s why I split them out but lumped Gotham/Sky Blue and NCC/WNY).

Anyway, thought you might be interested in this. It was a fun hour or so for me.)

Back to Washington.

Mark Parsons (hi, MP!) took over at the end of 2013 and took the Spirit to the semifinals over the next two seasons, but lost there both years. It didn’t hurt that the club picked up some people like Jodie Taylor (in 2014) and Crystal Dunn (in her golden boot season of 2015) to help improve on the 2013 squad.

After Parsons handed the club over to Jim Gabarra the Spirit finally broke the Curse of the Semifinal…but dropped the Final to Riley (spit!) and Western New York on PKs in 2016.

The 2017-2019 period was a bad patch. From runners-up in 2016 they Spirit dropped to dead last in 2017 and were 8th out of 9 in 2018 and got Gabarra canned.

His replacement was Richie Burke.

We know all about Burke – now, we do, anyway – and despite being a right bastard he was, like his pals Riley and Dames, a bastard who could win things. Burke got the Spirit up to 5th of 9 in 2019, just below the red line, and then up to 3rd in 2021 and to the top step.

And then got fired for being a right bastard.

In 2022 under new manager Kris Ward the Spirit more-or-less repeated the crash of 2017; from fighting for the Final match to fighting over the Wooden Spoon.

Owners: Michelle Kang
The Washington Spirit story in 2021 was Steve Baldwin vs Michelle Kang.

Baldwin had bought the majority stake from Lynch in 2018. As such he’d also bought a piece of the responsibility for Burke and was such a dick about that that the fan ire in D.C. was equal or more intense that here. “Sell The Team Steve” signs showed up all over the stands during the 2021 season.

FWIW, everyone involved appears to be some flavor of the usual “capital management/finance” tycoon; Lynch and Baldwin are techbros, and Kang runs something called Cognosante, a “…trusted provider of innovative health technology solutions”.

The sale was exceptionally ugly, and I suspect that the league may have leaned on Baldwin to finally make it happen. Whatever it took, the club now has a new owner and one that appears well-intentioned and popular with fans and players alike.

Head Coach: Mark Parsons
I presume I don’t have to tell you anything about this guy.

The thing I find interesting about Parsons is that if you take out two seasons – 2016 and 2017 – you’re kind of stuck with the dude who was knocked for always getting to the postseason but not being able to get to the top step. And sure enough, Parsons Washington got knocked out in the semi in ’14 and ’15, and his Portland got booted from there in ’19 and ’21.

And no, I don’t count 2016, fuck you very much, Marco Vega.

Is that a pattern for the guy? He’s got a great reputation for building “club character”; his Washington and Portland squads always seemed to have a lot of heart. What they seemed to lack was head; the tactical nous sometimes seemed unable to solve opponents that presented a tough problem in the knockouts.

Or was this just correlation not causation? We might see when his 2023 Spirit shows up.

Last season was bad but, unfortunately, far from the worst in Washington history;

2022 – 3-9-10 (29 points; 11th of 12) 26GF 33GA -7GD
Season summary: Well, we kind of knew it was gonna be ugly

The thing is that the Riley firing was seven years in the past when the Thorns season kicked off last spring.

Imagine if, instead, Riley had been exposed for what he was, all his crimes exposed (and the degree to which the ownership knew about them) in October 2015. You’d expect that the Thorns 2016 season would have been…difficult, at least, right?

So seeing Washington never really get going last season wasn’t shocking. There’s no real “story” there other that what we saw; the Spirit beat Seattle on opening day and then stumbled through a grim wasteland of losses and draws. Head Coach Kris Ward was fired in August (and has since been turned in for the usual fuckery); someone named Albertin Montoya took over to see out the season and was canned at the end.

Winless between April and September (going 0-6-10) the poor Spirit finally got back-to-back wins (over the league-leading Wave and the cellar-dwelling Gotham, no less…) before slumping meekly back into three losses to end the season.

Meetings with Portland: 5/18/22 (1-1 road draw), 8/10/22 (1-2 home loss)

Outstanding players: Ashley Hatch has been leading the line in Washington since 2018 and was, again, the leading scorer with 9 goals, no assists, three of three from the penalty spot. From there, though, the Spirit hunted for goals down the roster; rookie spark Trinity Rodman bagged four and two assists, Tara McKeown three and one, and Ashley Sanchez three and five. Overall with 29GF the Spirit got their share.

Anna Heilferty and Bailey Feist were the most-started regulars for the Spirit along with Amber Brooks and Sam Staab and Swedish international Julia Roddar in the defensive midfield and backline. Aubrey Kingsbury was the starting keeper. How’d they do in back, then?

Not too bad.

Team/GoalkeeperxG againstGAGamesxGa/gameD/Diff

The Spirit defense wasn’t terrific but it wasn’t appalling, either, and Kingsbury is a solid keeper; not up there with Haracic and Naeher but saving the Spirit more than they should have conceded based on the looks they gave up.

Washington did tend to drop points from a lead and weren’t great at battling back, either, though.

Looking at their 2022, what jumps out to me is how the Spirit were JUST bad enough and unlucky enough at the wrong times; look at their midseason form:

From Matchday 2 through 17 – amid that welter of draws – they lose six games and every single loss is by one goal. The Spirit got beat only once by multiple goals, the 3-nil beating in Kansas City in September (that final match against Houston was a 1-2 loss).

This wasn’t a tire fire like Louisville or Orlando (or Gotham, as we’ll see). This was a team that just couldn’t buy a break. When they were good – like in July when they put three past Carolina – they were unlucky. When they weren’t good their opponents were just that much better…or at least less-bad.

Tho they scored they didn’t score at the right times – they got blanked seven times, possibly the worst record last season outside punchless Gotham.

It’s hard to say whether this squad could have done better. They weren’t that good. But they weren’t that bad. They sure as hell could have done with some breaks, and they just didn’t get them.

How did they score?

Not much; The Spirit were solidly in the bottom third of the league offensively. But not the worst, either.

Hatch is the big story here. Again, though…look at where the Spirit are on the goal table and look at where they are on the league table; below three clubs they outscored, and two of those clubs – Racing and Orlando – conceded more than the Spirit, as well.

So Washington had a pretty awful season and, to make it worse, they weren’t really a pretty awful team. Bad luck and bad play and pure chance just bodyslammed them. As my drill sergeant used to say; sometime if it wasn’t for shit luck the poor bastards would have no luck at all.

How Did They Look?

This was early season Spirit, playing here in May:

Pretty standard 4-2-3-1; Sanchez at center forward, Feist as ACM with Rodman and Hatch on the wings, Roddar and Amber Brooks as DMs, with Biefalski-Staab-Emily Sonnett-Heilferty across the back. The formation and squad got the road point, Hatch’s goal canceling out a Sophia Smith strike.

In June the Spirit took a tough 2-3 home loss to the Damned Courage:

Same-same, only with Harding in the #9 and Sanchez moved back in place of Feist and Aylmer in place of Brooksie.

By the time we saw them as Audi in August the formation was the same but the names had changed quite a bit:

Now McKeown is the center forward, Bailey replaces Roddar and Sullivan is in the Brooks/Aylmer DM spot, Brooksie moved into the backline because Sonnett has gone down with injury, and Kelly O’Hara replaces Heilferty and swaps sides with Biegalski (back to the left where she started in May…)

This didn’t work as well as it did in May; the Thorns took the rematch 1-2.

Finally here they are in September, in the final big win of 2022 over San Diego 4-3.

Looks like a 4-3-3 with McKeown pulled back to LW beside Hatch and Rodman. In midfield we’ve got a new face (Baggett) alongside a returning Roddar with Sanchez at LM. Heilferty is back at LB, Biegalski swaps back to RB while Brooks is paired up with reliable Sam Staab.

Hard to put a finger on anything wrong there other than what we’ve discussed. The squad is pretty stable, the formations settled and familiar. Again…this looks like a decent team but…they weren’t, and it’s hard to see an immediate explanation for why not.

Changes for 2023

One involves a familiar name. Emily Sonnett was dealt to Seattle.

On the face of it this it’s the second time Mark Parsons has traded Sonnett away. You’d think it was a personal problem…but this piece suggests that it was largely to try and shed some of the US internationals to solve the replacement player glut during the World Cup this summer. I suspect that’s not unlikely; I never got the sense that Parsons had issues with Sonnett the player.

Another move late in 2022 was signing Gabrielle Carle away from Kristianstads in the Damallsvenskan. Carle is a young (2021 FSU grad) defender who looks like she plays mostly at fullback.

If the current Spirit roster page is to be believed the bulk of the 2022 squad is returning.

The Spirit had six picks in the 2023 Draft, but none in the first two rounds. Their low-round choices included:
Nicole Douglas (center forward) – 3rd round #26 – Henderson rated this “A+” for her creativity and general attacking value.
Lyza Bosselman (goalkeeper) – 3nd round #28 – “B-” per Henderson,
Riley Tanner (forward/LW) – 3rd round #30 – described as a playmaker, Henderson wondered if there is really space for her in Washington’s crowded frontline.
Lena Silano (center forward) – 3rd round #34 – another “B”
Civiana Kuhlmann (forward) – 4th round #37 – Henderson liked this as a fourth rounder, and finally
Delaney Graham (right back) – 4th round #40 – another “A”,

Washington seems to have done well in general in the draft; Henderson’s comment was “…you can really feel Krikorian’s college WoSo knowledge on the Spirit’s draft selections. They’re absolutely killing it.” Outside of Kansas City I’d guess that Washington has done the best of the drafting clubs this season.

So a generally solid – if unlucky – veteran squad returning with some promising draftees. Sounds like a recipe for improvement, no?

How they’ll look next year?

I usually lead off with Henderson’s guess, so here it is:

Hmm. I’m not so sure. Several reasons:

  1. last season Washington played a 4-2-3-1 more than a 4-3-3, and Parsons used the 4-2-3-1 a lot here. I’m not sure I buy him going with the 4-3-3 there right out of the gate.
  2. Hatch, McKeown, Harding, and Sanchez all played the #9 last season. I’m not sure I buy throwing the rook up top in front of Sanchez and dropping her back into midfield.
  3. I’m reeeeally not sure I’d feel confident that a fourth-round draftee starts at RB over either Biegalski or Heilferty given their constancy last season.

Nope, here’s my thought:

Just because I don’t have a better guess I’ll go with the rook at the #9, but otherwise it’s a shake-and-bake Parsons 4-2-3-1 with Carle signing in at LB (but Biegalski there wouldn’t shock me) or Heilferty with Biegalski over along the other touchline.

This looks damn decent to me. They’re still gonna struggle when the internationals are gone – but so are we. This looks like a good team…

…but so did 2022’s.

Summing Up

The first-to-almost-worst Washington of 2022 isn’t really surprising when you think of the hits that rained down on this club in 2021 and the tough luck they encountered last season. I know I say “you’re as good as your record says you are”, but this is one case where I’m not so sure; the Spirit seems like it could and should have been better than it’s 2022 record says it was.

Now the same group is back, under a coach who has been a reliable playoff-quality club manager, and with some promising new faces. I think a better finish in 2023 is a near certainty.


I’m going to say playoffs for sure. Once there…will the Parsons Semifinal Curse strike again?

I wouldn’t say I’m sure…but this squad sure had awful luck last season, so…

Will they be dangerous? I think so. I’m going to bet they’re going to be a nuisance to play in 2023.

Can the Thorns beat them? I’ll bet no more than one win in three. Going 1-1-1 against this team wouldn’t shock me, and neither would running into them in the semifinal. I think we need to expect to have to work hard to get results against these people this year.

Next up: Lickin’ the Spoon

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

3 thoughts on “2023 S-2 Briefing: Washington Spirit

  1. I thought the Spirit in 2021 finished better than they really were. They looked like a 4th- or 5th-place team to me, not a team that would finish 3rd make it to the Final. I thought the same thing in 2022, that they’d finish mid-table or slightly above…. and look what happened. I put both of their finishes down to luck; they had a bunch of it in ’21, balanced by too little of it in ’22. Maybe they’ll regress to the mean this season.

    P.S. Your drill sergeant, perhaps unknowingly, may have been quoting bluesman Albert King, who wrote “If it wasn’t for bad luck / You know I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” That’s from “Born under a Bad Sign”, released in 1967.

  2. Not sure where SSG Layne was a blues sort of guy; I think cumbia might have been more his thing.

    And, yeah, I think that Washington has been perhaps the most over- and then under-performing club purely based on roster. I look at them and can’ t see why in 2022 they did so much worse than they did in ’21 except for the Burke and Kang/Baldwin stuff, or just pure shit luck.

  3. I agree this will be dangerous team. I picked them to win it all last year, but everything seemed to go wrong. No excuses this year except their competition will be tougher.


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