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What happened to the Washington Spirit?

From the NWSL’s champs to scraping for a playoff spot. Here’s what’s gone wrong.

By André Carlisle – @not_carlisle

What happened to the Washington Spirit?

Eight months ago, the Washington Spirit were dancing beneath confetti at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville after winning their first NWSL Championship. Three months ago they finished another championship game as 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup runners up. Now they sit one spot from the bottom of the table. What and I cannot stress this enough the heck happened.

 

An early schedule from Hell

The Spirit’s early schedule was borderline inhumane. Washington played 10 of their 22 regular season games across just 48 days. That’s right, one game shy of half their entire season was played within the span of a month and a half. The aforementioned 2022 Challenge Cup bled into the schedule as well, as the Spirit played both a semifinal and final within this period as well.

 

Venue drama

Part of the scheduling issues had to do with splitting games across two venues. Previous Spirit ownership wanted games at Audi Field and the compromise was to split them between Audi and Segra Field in Leesburg, VA. The Segra Field surface is completely turf, contains about 900 billion rubber pellets, and is never watered unless the good Lord does it.

It’s a poor playing surface for any professional team, but especially bad for a possession team that prefers passes to space rather than feet. The Segra surface deadens the ball, making it difficult to measure the proper weight to put on longer passes, or to build play through the back. A pass that rolls into a mound of pellets can quickly become a transition moment for the opposition, likewise, lofted passes tend to bounce straight up regardless of the spin placed on the ball.

Washington’s all-time record at Segra Field is a dismal two wins, three draws, and six losses.

 

Injuries

In the beginning of the season, injuries forced head coach Kris Ward to rely on a more rigid set of players than initially hoped, as new signing Gaby Vincent and second-year star Tara McKeown were shut down until the international break. Jordan Baggett suffered a concussion in a scary collision during the Challenge Cup Final and was held out until after the international break. USWNT stars Emily Sonnett (broken ribs), Kelley O’Hara (hamstring) and Andi Sullivan (calf) also missed time.

At its most alarming peak, the Spirit’s list of players too injured to compete swelled to eight. With NWSL rosters limited to a max of 24 players, this meant the Spirit were missing one-third of their roster.

 

However, now that the injury report is clear, the Spirit are still short-staffed as seven players are in Mexico with the USWNT for the World Cup qualifying. Whereas the early season required a reliance on rest, recovery and survival above training, this period of normalcy is seeing Ward coach a much different set of players.

All of this may seem like excuse-making rather than reasoning. After all, the Spirit have also dropped a lot of points from good positions, including a 90+8 equalizer versus Orlando, a 90+2 winner from North Carolina, and an 88th minute equalizer from Louisville. But it’s all relevant, and combined it’s meant a nearly incomprehensible position on the table for last year’s champions.

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