A look back: WTOP Sports team’s top sports stories of 2023

Just as we did last year, the WTOP sports team has assembled Avengers-style to bring you the top sports stories of 2023.

If 2022 was the year of accountability in sports, then 2023 was about renewal. Josh Harris and his group are expected to sweep out the remnants of Dan Snyder’s toxic ownership of the Commanders, and the Washington Spirit is in its second year of a similar housecleaning (more on that below).

Our sports staff is rich with insider expertise. Ben Raby is the host of Capitals radio broadcasts for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, George Wallace is WTOP’s longtime Washington Commanders beat reporter and Dave Preston is an AP Top 25 voter for both college basketball and college football.

Rob Woodfork has written hundreds of NFL columns for a variety of outlets (including more than a decade here at WTOP) and WTOP digital editor José Umaña — an honorary member of the sports team — did extensive work covering soccer (also a NWSL Media Association member) and high school sports around the D.C. region.

(Editor’s note: Check out a special episode of the D.C. Sports Huddle for more!)

Without further adieu, here are the top sports stories of 2023, in no particular order:

Josh Harris buys the Washington Commanders in a record transaction

As in years past, the biggest Commanders story of the year occurred off the field.

This time, however, the biggest off-the-field story was one that fans have been waiting 24 years for.

After agreeing to a deal in April for a record $6.05 billion, the NFL’s owners unanimously approved the sale of the Commanders, making Josh Harris the team’s majority owner. The $6.05 billion purchase made by Harris’ ownership group is the most expensive in league history, topping Rob Walton’s $4.6 billion acquisition of the Denver Broncos last year.

The group held a welcome party at FedEx Field on July 21, and the energy in Landover that day was something that was 24 years in the making. The enthusiasm from the fans and the Harris group was something that hadn’t been seen since 2012, when Robert Griffin III took over D.C. for a season.

The excitement was felt at the stadium and all across the D.C. region. It was unmatched, and the unanimous feeling was that fans had gotten their football team back.

Whatever happened on the field in 2023 would be a distant second to what happened off the field in July.

— George Wallace

The rise and fall of Sam Howell and the Commanders

From 2-0 with an answer at quarterback to 4-11 entering Week 17 and a virtual lock to pick in the 2024 draft’s top three selections, the Washington Commanders have given their fans (and, frankly, the new ownership group) the gift of leaving no doubt that change is coming in the new year.

If you squinted at the right time, Sam Howell looked like a franchise quarterback. In the season’s first eight weeks, he had a 90.1 passer rating and was among the league leaders in completion percentage (66.9) and passing yardage (268.3 per game), playing his best games against the reigning NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. Since Week 9, his passer rating plummeted 75.5 even before his eyesore in New York:

Howell has also taken a whopping 60 sacks, which is no longer on pace to set a new single-season NFL record, but still signals a huge problem as his first full season as a starter comes into focus. At this point, Howell being a journeyman backup akin to Gardner Minshew feels like a best-case scenario. It doesn’t help that an actual journeyman backup, Jacoby Brissett, vastly outplayed Howell in two straight relief appearances.

It’s unclear if the rest of the roster is as bad as the 4-11 record suggests or if a new coach can do better (a coach like Mike Tomlin with a track record for doing more with less), but we can count the days until the Commanders undergo a much-needed reset. The new direction will undoubtedly be among the biggest storylines of the 2024 version of this gallery.

— Rob Woodfork

Nicklas Backstrom steps away from the Capitals

Those in attendance for a late-October Sunday matinee against the San Jose Sharks had no way of knowing it at the time, but they likely saw the last game for a D.C. sports legend.

Days after Nicklas Backstrom skated a modest 12:24 against the Sharks, the 17-year veteran said he was stepping away from the game. While not an official retirement announcement, few expect Backstrom to return from the chronic hip issues that led to the difficult decision.

If this is the end for the Capitals’ No. 2 all-time scoring leader and a key cog on the 2018 Cup champs, he left with little fanfare given the abrupt nature of his departure. There was no farewell tour or ‘Nicklas Backstrom Appreciation Night.’ But that’s perhaps fitting for a player who spent so much of his career playing in Alex Ovechkin’s shadow and was just fine staying out of the spotlight.

Backstrom will eventually be celebrated with a jersey retirement and potential Hall of Fame induction. For now, his departure is another reminder that for the Capitals’ aging core, the finish line to legendary careers is approaching.

— Ben Raby

The Strasburg retirement that wasn’t

One of the big stories of the year is the one that didn’t even occur.

In early September, weren’t we supposed to celebrate Stephen Strasburg’s retirement? The day and ceremony were a done deal but then canceled by the team. No word was ever given about a make up date or talk of a day to recognize this pitcher, a former MVP of the Nats’ lone World Series title.

Are we really going to ignore a future Hall of Famer — especially while the 2023 Nationals roster can only be described as a long-term work in progress?

As far as optimism for the future, I won’t be bashful in saying the Nationals’ 2023 draft may have been one of the most productive in years. Outfielder Dylan Crews could be the star of 2024. James Wood may be the perfect addition to the Nats outfield, as 2023 also featured contract extensions for Mike Rizzo and Dave Martinez. Bottom line: 71 wins in 2023 isn’t acceptable but should change for the better in 2024.

— Steve Dresner

Men’s College Basketball- Turnover at Georgetown

The Hoyas followed up their dream run through the 2021 Big East Tournament with a pair of nightmare seasons, and even though they snapped a 29-game regular season league losing streak they also snatched defeat from the jaws of victory multiple times, up to and including a come-from-ahead loss to eventual National Champion UConn.

Exit Hall of Fame player Patrick Ewing, and enter … former Providence coach Ed Cooley?

The former Friar became the first coach to move from one league school to another and has brought an energy to the program that was lacking in the final days of Ewing’s regime. There will be growing pains, and there’s no guarantee the Hoyas will reach even the heights of former coach John Thompson III, let alone Hall of Fame Coach John Thompson Jr.

But Cooley has brought a sizzle we haven’t seen in some time — the quality of steak is yet to be determined.

Honorable Mentions: Coaching changes at American (Duane Simpkins in/Mike Brennan out) and George Mason (Final Four player Tony Skinn comes back to Fairfax), while Howard ends a 31-year drought with its first trip to the NCAA Tournament this century.

— Dave Preston

Women’s College Basketball- Hokies hit the big-time

Virginia Tech is a basketball school? You bet. And we’re not even discussing the Men’s 2022 ACC Tournament Champions.

Hokies women’s head coach Kenny Brooks has built a juggernaut in Blacksburg. It took five years for the former James Madison Coach to get the Hokies into the NCAA Tournament, but this past March, behind forward Elizabeth Kitley (18 points and 11 rebounds per game) and guard Georgia Amoore (16 points with 5 assists), VT won the ACC Tournament Championship for the first time in program history. The weekend in Greensboro proved to not be a fluke as the Hokies advanced to the first Women’s Final Four in school history before falling to eventual National Champion LSU.

Brooks mined the transfer portal in the offseason and brought in ex-Michigan State guard Matilda Ekh. Can the Preseason No. 8 team handle being the hunted for the first time?

Honorable Mention: Former Maryland forward Angel Reese won a National Championship at LSU last April as the Tigers got the better of Caitlin Clark and Iowa. Reese isn’t the first Terrapin to transfer, but she’s the first one I can recall who enjoyed more individual and team success at her new stop.

— Dave Preston

College Football- Season of Not Quite in College Park

Maryland entered the 2023 season with hopes of competing for a Big Ten East Division championship, even going so far as saying so during the Conference’s Media Day.

And despite rough starts against Charlotte and Virginia, the Terrapins took a 5-0 record into Columbus and led No. 2 Ohio State 10-0 in the second quarter. But then a pick-six tossed by Taulia Tagovailoa sparked a Buckeyes rally and over the next month the Terps would repeatedly make mistakes, seemingly 95% of which came back to haunt them.

Head coach Mike Locksley’s crew settled down with two victories in their final three games to clinch a third straight winning season, but once again, they are still seeking their first winning Big Ten record since joining the conference in 2014.

Honorable Mentions: Virginia Tech bounces back from a slow start to reach a bowl in the second year of the Brent Pry era, while James Madison’s 11-1 season means a first ever bowl and their coach getting plucked by a Power Five school.

— Dave Preston 

Crazy for Coco in 2023

When Coco Gauff won the Citi Open in D.C. in August, it was the biggest win of her singles career.

That claim lasted only a month as Gauff would go on to capture the U.S. Open crown in New York City in September. It was the first major title of Gauff’s career and at just 19 years of age, likely the first of many.

Gauff had been on the cusp of becoming the new face of American tennis after turning pro at 14, but she just couldn’t raise a major trophy until the summer of 2023. At the Citi Open, Gauff gained immense confidence with wins over three Top 20 players, and she rolled over world No. 9 Maria Sakkari 6-2 6-3 in the finals. Gauff only lost 19 games in her four matches won in D.C. and undoubtedly used that dominance to package belief as she prepared for the U.S. Open.

In New York, Gauff beat No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka in three grueling sets to become the tenth teenager to win the U.S. Open women’s title and the first since Serena Williams took home the trophy at just 17 in 1999.

Gauff ever aware of the critics thanked the skeptics. “Thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me,” she said. “To those who thought they were putting water on my fire, you were outing gas.”

That fire will only burn brighter in 2024.

Tiafoe’s time

Hyattsville, Maryland, native Frances Tiafoe proclaimed in 2022 that he would one day win the U.S. Open title, but that day did not come in 2023. However, Tiafoe did claim his highest ranking ever when he got all the way up to No. 10 in the world in June.

After making it to the semifinals at the U.S. Open last year, Tiafoe made a solid run to the quarterfinals in 2023, but he was ousted by fellow American Ben Shelton in four sets in New York City.

The quarterfinals were the best result for Tiafoe in a major in 2023 as he made the third round at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.

To start the upcoming ATP season, the 25-year-old will have a new coach in Diego Moyano, who has worked in the past with Coco Gauff.

Maybe this will be the year for Tiafoe to win that elusive major tournament.

— Frank Hanrahan

A rough 2023 season leads DC United to rebuild

In a year when the District was in the American soccer spotlight, its Major League Soccer side failed to measure up in the bright lights.

Despite an entire season under head coach Wayne Rooney, an overhauled roster, and a larger budget, United struggled to find consistency. Under the Englishman, the Black and Red compiled one winning streak in April and only won two of its last eight matches.

D.C. made headlines but not for its play. It let go of forward Taxi Fountas after a second allegation of using a racial slur was found to be credible. When two of its players made the league’s All-Star team, all the attention focused on United dismissing its head trainer for making a discriminatory hand gesture in a team photo.

Everything culminated with United parting ways with Rooney, ending a 15-month adventure with United missing the postseason for a fourth straight season. Change was poorly needed, so after a yearslong search, it hired Ally MacKay as its new general manager, and with ownership’s blessing, he is tasked to usher D.C. into the Lionel Messi era of MLS.

The former Nashville SC assistant general manager has already begun tearing down D.C.’s roster. He dumped nine players, including Virginia native and fan favorite Andy Najar. He traded former homegrown midfielder Chris Durkin to St. Louis and is allowing defender Donovan Pines to test free agency.

Any new additions to the roster must complement striker Christian Benteke, whose 14 goals were the only shining light last season. McKay still needs to find a new head coach to help guide United back up the Eastern Conference.

But how long does he have to complete his full rebuild? D.C.’s last GM, Lucy Rushton, barely lasted two seasons on the job. After 10 years of trophyless seasons, D.C. United needed a proper rebuild, and fans are ready to see something different.

Expect some lean times at Audi Field in 2024.

— José Umaña

Spirit hits reset button for 2024 after midseason collapse

For the Washington Spirit, 2023 is a year of so much promise that ended in disaster.

The return of veteran coach Mark Parsons was supposed to bring stability to a club looking to return to the postseason after a fruitless 2022 season.

A strong start — featuring strong play from midfielder Ashley Sanchez and a makeshift backline featuring midfielder Dorian Bailey and forward Tara McKeown — put Washington in second place in the standings heading into the Women’s World Cup break.

However, while losing six players to tournament play, Washington could not keep up the early-season momentum with its remaining roster of young but inexperienced players. The Spirit were bounced out of the Challenge Cup, and once its starters returned, Washington only won once in its final seven regular season games.

In a must-win situation during its season finale against North Carolina, Washington could not score. Meanwhile, Trinity Rodman, the club’s most famous player, earned her first career red card, leaving the field sobbing as the Spirit’s season ended in another defeat.

With an impending rebrand coming soon, Washington is again hitting the reset button. The club fired Parsons after one season and let go of nine players to start its offseason.

The addition of two more expansion teams in the NWSL in 2024 and a second pro women’s league in the horizon, the Spirit will be dealing with a more competitive women’s soccer environment than years past.

Can Washington stay relevant and make impactful long term moves for its future? With the Paris Olympics on the horizon, will team president and general manager Mark Krikorian assemble a roster that can stay competitive throughout the season?

Whatever the case, changes are coming for a Spirit side looking to regain its 2021 championship swagger and have consistent results in 2024.

— José Umaña

Questions surround the Mystics entering 2024 season

After a historic season for the WNBA, the Washington Mystics enter an offseason filled with uncertainty and questions concerning the future of its franchise star.

In its first year under head coach Eric Thibault, Washington finished in seventh place — three games under .500 — and stuck taking on the New York Liberty in the first round of the playoffs. The Mystics postseason quickly ended on the road following a two-game sweep by the future Eastern Conference champions.

Now, heading into 2023, Washington has critical questions, the largest being the future of star Elena Delle Donne.

The two-time league MVP — who led Washington to its only WNBA title in 2019 and quickly re-signed in 2020 — is an unrestricted free agent along with Natasha Cloud, Tianna Hawkins and Kristi Toliver. It remains unclear if the former Olympian will remain with the Mystics.

In 2023, she averaged 16.7 points a game with a 48.5 field goal percentage and shot almost 40% from 3-point range. However, after the “greatest offseason ever,” the former Delaware star only played 23 games (her fewest in Washington, not including her 2021 injury-plagued season) and only averaged 27.5 minutes a game.

Will Mystics management be willing to sign the 34-year-old to a new deal, understanding that she may be limited due to recurring back injuries? Who else in Washington’s unrestricted free agent list may return next season?

Will former Riverdale Baptist School player and Mystics center Shakira Austin recover from a torn labrum in time for the 2024 season? Lastly, what addition could Washington make with the No. 6 pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft in April?

Meanwhile, the Mystics owners, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, are looking to move its NBA and NHL teams to a new arena in Virginia.

Current plans suggest the Mystics would return to Chinatown and play in Capital One Arena, its former home for over two decades. But do Mystics fans welcome the move after making the cozy confines of Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C. their home?

There are so many questions the Mystics will have to answer before their first regular season game on May 14 against the Liberty.

— José Umaña

The Wizards dipping their toe in Virginia’s Pool(e)

In an act of basketball heresy, Ted Leonsis is taking his Monumental properties out of the District into the warm embrace of Virginia. I’m old enough to remember when Jack Kent Cooke stood at that same Potomac Yard site boasting of a move for his NFL team in Washington that never happened, so who knows if the Wizards and Capitals actually cross the river.

But even discussing the Wizards move out of Washington is treacherous. As many others have stated, basketball is a city game that belongs in a city. Couple that with the fact that the Wizards/Bullets have been completely irrelevant for the better part of five full decades, the NBA should just relegate the franchise to the G-League if it’s separated from its lifeblood.

Late owner Abe Pollin once brought the Bullets to the then-MCI Center in Chinatown in a move that wasn’t of great benefit to him personally to help the city he loved. Shame on Leonsis for being the antithesis of his predecessor.

— Rob Woodfork

On the court, Jordan Poole is coming from Golden State hoping to make a splash for the lowly Wizards, who we all knew would struggle this year (again). And while he is Washington’s most unreliable shooter, just 40% from the field, he’s also shown on-court antics that have, how can I say this, rub some fans the wrong way.

But I find it refreshing, as the former first-round pick adapts to his role as the Wizards lead guard, even saying he isn’t worried about the criticism. And you know what? I’m not either. Look, this team needs someone or something to watch as this long season is only in its first quarter.

So come on in, the water’s fine.

— J. Brooks

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