‘Back to basics’: Washington Spirit look to focus on soccer in 2023 NWSL season

After winning its first National Women’s Soccer League Championship in 2021, the Washington Spirit fell back to Earth in 2022. The club struggled through a 15-game winless streak and fired coach Kris Ward at midseason following accusations that he verbally abused a player.

Heading into the 2023 season, the Spirit’s front office made multiple moves to change the team’s culture. Among them: hiring head coach Mark Parsons, who won the 2017 NWSL title in Portland, and boosting his support staff.

Players who arrived for preseason did not have to worry about the leadership scandals that plagued the club for the past two seasons.

Instead, they got to focus on playing soccer.

“It’s been incredible,” team captain and midfielder Andi Sullivan said. “…I’m just focusing on our tactics, our recovery, my individual role, and I think it’s showing a lot in my play and how I feel, and that’s ultimately gonna help me. It’s gonna help the team. So it’s nice that that’s actually happening.”

With multiple changes surrounding the club on and off the field, the Spirit look to regain their championship swagger back in 2023, starting with its season opener against OL Reign Sunday afternoon at Audi Field.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – JANUARY 12: Washington Spirit head coach Mark Parsons looks on during the 2023 NWSL Draft at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on January 12, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

With Parsons at the helm, players return to the ‘classroom’

On the field, Parsons plans to implement a tactical change as well: introducing a more high-pressing, possessive style of play that differs from the fast-paced, more counterattacking style attempted last season.

To be sure his players understand the new playing style, Parsons meets with them in multiple one-on-one and group sessions before working on it on the field. Sullivan compared the meetings and breakaway sessions to returning to school and a ‘classroom sense’ of thinking.

Forward Ashley Hatch said she welcomes the style change, but it will be an adjustment. In 2021, under a similar high-pressing system that created more vertical plays, the striker had a career year, scoring 10 goals in 20 games to become the league’s Golden Boot winner. Hatch scored nine goals (41 on-target shots) last year, but looks to capitalize on more opportunities in 2023. 

“It’s definitely a style of play that I’ve enjoyed playing throughout my career,” Hatch said. “So I’m excited about it, and just looking forward to continuing to develop myself and also … develop those connections with players around me.”

Parsons agrees, adding that his three main attackers, Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez and Hatch, will be vital in the Spirit’s offense.

'Bring your quality': Spirit head coach Mark Parsons on what he expects from his three attackers this season

Washington’s new style meant a position shift for three players — Dorian Bailey, Maddie Elwell and Tara McKeown. All three played more on the offensive side but will now shift over to the back line following the departure of four defenders, including U.S. women’s national team star Kelley O’Hara.

While Bailey and Elwell have spent time playing defensively as midfielders throughout their career, McKeown has only ever featured as a forward in both college and the pros. Parsons said he spoke to the 23-year-old about moving her to center back shortly after being hired, saying he believes she has all the qualities to excel as a defender who can set up an attack from the back line.

“She can play with both feet; she can dribble and then play around opponents,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want to be in a one-on-one duel with her; she’s technically very good with her one v. one defending, and it’s gonna take a lot to beat her.”

A young addition gets all the attention

In February, the Spirit signed 15-year-old midfielder Chloe Ricketts, who became (at the time) the youngest player to sign a NWSL contract in league history. The high school sophomore from Dexter, Michigan, originally joined the Spirit for preseason training in January as a non-roster player before signing.

Ricketts brings “intensity” whenever she is on the field, Parsons said, adding that she is a great dribbler and loves to go around defenders when attacking. He expects her to contribute “at the right time and the right place” throughout the season for Washington.

Sanchez echoed her coach’s sentiments, saying that Ricketts came into training with energy and aggression, which earned her teammates’ respect.

“Chloe stepped in and was decking people, which I think shows that she’s not afraid of anything,” Sullivan said. “And I think that fearless mindset will carry her a long way.”

The teen’s signing overshadowed the rest of Washington’s offseason additions, which included the signing of midfielder Inès Jaurena to a one-year deal. The French international, 31, has played in France for the last 10 years. She spent last season with Division 1 Féminine club Lyon. Before going pro, she played four years of college soccer at Florida State with Spirit club president Mark Krikorian as her head coach.

The Spirit also signed five of their six NWSL Draft picks: goalkeeper Lyza Bosselmann, midfielders Nicole Douglas and Riley Tanner, and forwards Civana Kuhlmann and Lena Silano.

Washington Spirit players in training camp in Florida during the preseason. (Courtesy Washington Spirit)

Spirit looking for culture change

During the team’s jersey unveiling event on March 1, owner Michele Kang said she wanted to start fresh after two years of coaching scandals. Along with making D.C. Audi Field the club’s permanent home field for the 2022 season, the Spirit is also considering a rebrand.

While the front office is still adding staff, Washington hired Dawn Scott as its first-ever director of performance, medical and innovation. Well-regarded for her work with the U.S. women’s national team, Scott is building a performance department to improve the players’ health and fitness, including adding a strength and conditioning coach, a physical therapist, and a performance nutritionist/dietitian, among others.

For some players, like Hatch, the new performance department is already having an impact.

“They’re just helping us stay on top of supplements, nutrition, strength and conditioning, training, our pre-hab exercises, just our overall health of our body and mind and everything, especially focusing on women’s health,” Hatch said. “I think that’s something that a lot of us haven’t had a ton of attention throughout our career.”

While the off-the-field changes are immediate, Parsons said time will tell if it can produce a winning team on the field. Washington tasted success in 2021, and the pressure is on to help the club return back to its winning ways.

“I [feel] this team has the qualities but also the mentality to go and cause some problems this year,” Parsons said. “I’m looking forward to us playing real opponents and seeing seeing these players get their teeth into some people.”

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Jose Umana

José Umaña is a digital editor for WTOP. He’s been working as a journalist for almost a decade, covering local news, education and sports. His work has appeared in The Prince George’s Sentinel, The Montgomery Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, PressBox and The Diamondback.

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