NWSL 2023: Washington Spirit seeks fresh start

The Washington Spirit recently began preparations for 2023 looking to bounce back under new leadership. After it finished as the runner-up in the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup, the Spirit’s form took a nosedive in the regular season. It finished in second to last place with a 3-9-10 record (19 points).

That performance came in the wake of a first NWSL championship winning campaign in 2021, during which forwards Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman emerged as stars with the former winning the Golden Boot award and the latter being named Rookie of the Year.

Washington started last year with high expectations. The club hired former longtime Florida State University women’s head coach Mark Krikorian as its new president of soccer operations and general manager. However, the team got off to a rough start, firing head coach Kris Ward in August following an incident at training.

In 2021, Ward took over as head coach on an interim basis following the team’s midseason firing of former coach Richie Burke due to allegations of harassment and abuse towards players. In early 2023, the NWSL banned Burke from working in the league and Ward is not be allowed to work in the league “in any capacity unless or until approved by the commissioner.”

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Ben Wiley's NWSL 2023 Previews:
Angel City FC | Houston | KC Current
NC Courage | Orlando | San Diego

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Coaches Angela Salem (one game) and Albertin Montoya (five games) guided the Spirit through the remainder of the season. In November, it announced the return of head coach Mark Parsons, who previously served as the Spirit’s first-ever boss from 2013-2015. Since then, he led the Portland Thorns from 2016 to 2021 and most recently spent a year in charge of the Netherlands women’s team. Salem is staying on staff, while Morinao Imaizumi, a Japanese native who spent many years assisting Krikorian at FSU, joins as the team’s new player development coach. Dawn Scott, who formerly worked with the U.S. women's national team when it won the 2015 and 2019 World Cup titles, is another new addition as the Spirit’s first-ever director of performance, medical and innovation. 

Washington kept a large chunk of the title winning team together for seasons to come by giving multi-year extensions to some key players. Defender Sam Staab received a three-year contract extension. She played every minute for the Spirit in the 2022 season. The team also gave midfielders Jordan Baggett and Anna Heilferty new two-year contracts with team options for 2025. Baggett missed time last year with an injury, accumulating one goal and one assist in only 12 games. On the other hand, Heilferty appeared in all but one of her team’s matches in her second professional season. 

Bolstering the midfield, Dorian Bailey re-signed for three years after playing in 17 games last season. Lastly, forward Tara McKeown landed a three-year contract extension with a team option for 2026. The USC alum recovered from injury to reinforce the Spirit offense in the second half of the season, taking the most shots and scoring the second-most goals (3) on the team during that period.

The club picked up 2023 options for forward Maddie Elwell and midfielder Bayley Feist, who returned from an ACL injury to play in almost every game last year. Defender Camryn Biegalski, one of last year’s breakout performers, and backup midfielder Marissa Sheva re-signed on new one-year contracts since their previous contracts expired at the end of last year.

The Spirit made sure its goalkeeping room was set for the next few years. Starting goalie Aubrey Kingsbury’s contract was due to end after this year. So, the club gave the 2021 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year and championship game MVP a new three-year contract with a team option for 2026. Kingsbury’s backup, former USWNT keeper Nicole Barnhart, is staying in Washington for a second season as the free-agent agreed to a one-year deal.

Along with Barnhart, the Spirit brought back two other key free-agents on one-year contracts. Defender Amber Brooks returns after playing in 16 games, scoring two goals in an upset of first-place San Diego, while one of the team’s original players, co-captain and current president of the NWSL Players Association midfielder Tori Huster is staying with the only club she has ever played for. 

To fortify its roster, Washington made a couple shrewd international transfers. Canadian defender Gabrielle Carle is joining the club on a two-year contract with a team option for 2025, reuniting with her collegiate coach, Krikorian, after spending last season with Swedish club Kristianstads DFF. Another former FSU player, Ines Jaurena, signed a one-year contract to improve an already strong Spirit midfield that features U.S. women’s national team players Andi Sullivan and Ashley Sanchez. The Paris native has made 174 French league appearances for Issy, Paris FC, Bordeaux and Lyon over the past 10 seasons.

The returns of Biegalski and Brooks and the addition of Carle are especially important because of the defensive losses the Spirit endured this offseason. Longtime USWNT and NWSL right-back Kelley O’Hara left for Gotham FC, making league history as the first-ever free-agent to sign with a new team. Additionally, the Spirit traded versatile veteran defender Emily Sonnett to OL Reign in exchange for the 32nd pick and Reign’s first-round pick next year. Defender Julia Rodder, who started all 15 games she played last year, now plays for the club Hammerby in her native Sweden.

Furthermore, the Spirit lost some fringe players who were not part of the team’s plans moving forward. Reserve goalkeeper Devon Kerr signed with the Houston Dash once her contract expired. Other departing players include defenders Karina Rodriguez and Alia Martin, midfielders Taylor Aylmer and Gaby Vincent and forwards Averie Collins and Audrey Harding.

To replace some of these prospects, the Spirit made six selections in January’s draft. First, the club drafted Arizona State forward Nicole Douglas, the 2022 Pac-12 forward of the year. Joining Douglas in Washington’s draft class are the following accomplished collegiate players: Gonzaga goalkeeper Lyza Bosselmann, Alabama forward Riley Tanner (who just helped Panama qualify for the World Cup), Long Beach State forward Lena Silano, Colorado forward Civana Kuhlmann and Duke midfielder Delaney Graham.   

In preseason training, Heilferty suffered a season-ending knee injury. Huster is not yet a full participant in team training as she continues to return to full fitness after missing last season with an Achilles tendon injury.

Washington Spirit Roster:
Goalkeepers (2):
Nicole Barnhart, Aubrey Kingsbury
Defenders (5): Camryn Biegalski, Amber Brooks, Gabrielle Carle (Kristianstads DFF, Sweden), Anna Heilferty, Sam Staab.
Midfielders (8): Jordan Baggett, Dorian Bailey, Bayley Feist, Tori Huster, Ashley Sanchez, Marissa Sheva, Andi Sullivan, Ines Jaurena (Lyon, France)
Forwards (4): Maddie Elwell, Ashley Hatch, Tara McKeown, Trinity Rodman

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