Washington Spirit finishes losing first season in NWSL with many gains


The Washington Spirit, shown during practice in April, averaged 3,626 fans per game — fourth best in the NWSL. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)
August 18, 2013

By several measures, the Washington Spirit succeeded in reintroducing women’s pro soccer to the area.

Attendance surpassed expectations. Without a grass blade out of place, Maryland SoccerPlex offered the finest playing surface and one of the most welcoming settings in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Diana Matheson, a pocket-size playmaker, turned into an expert scorer, and the team closed its maiden campaign unbeaten in three consecutive matches.

But then there was the matter of a 2½-month winless streak . . . and league-worst record . . . and terrible scoring rut . . . and midseason coaching change.

So when the players thanked their supporters after a 1-1 draw with Sky Blue FC on Sunday, there was a sense of some gains and many shortcomings.

The Spirit (3-14-5) ended the season on an upbeat note, gaining a point against the playoff-bound visitors from New Jersey (10-6-6). Washington’s Stephanie Ochs scored late in the first half, but Taylor Lytle equalized in the 83rd minute.

“This is moving in a positive direction — it can’t get much worse than we had on the field,” midfielder Lori Lindsey, 33, said, smiling. “It’s the wildest season I’ve ever been involved in, and I’ve been around awhile, but we ended on a good, positive note.”

The turnout on a gray day was 4,241, raising the team’s 11-game home attendance average to 3,626 — fourth best in the NWSL. The Portland Thorns averaged 13,320, an outlier in a league that set modest goals and averaged crowds of about 4,300 in the regular season. (Without Portland’s input, the figure dropped to 2,900.)

The four-team playoffs will begin next weekend with Sky Blue visiting the top-seeded Western New York Flash and FC Kansas City hosting Portland.

Before the season, Spirit owner Bill Lynch targeted 3,000 fans per game at SoccerPlex. “It’s a great place to build from, for sure,” he said of surpassing the outlook. Despite the team’s poor record, “I was reasonably convinced the fans were here anyway.”

Without delving into financial specifics, Lynch said he was “not far off” from breaking even.

Although the U.S. Soccer Federation and its counterparts in Canada and Mexico subsidized the NWSL by paying the contracts of about 40 players, individual owners were responsible for the remainder of payroll as well as operations and travel.

The NWSL is the third attempt at sustaining a first-division women’s league. Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer were riddled by financial and organizational issues from 2001 to ’03 and 2009 to ’11, respectively.

Lynch, a Northern Virginia businessman previously involved in low-scale area soccer endeavors, said he and the other seven owners are committed to next season. “I am prepared to ride it until it’s successful,” he said.

Fans turned out despite a dearth of marquee players, goals and victories. In the allocation process, Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and others from the U.S. Olympic gold-medal squad landed elsewhere.

Washington’s reliance on young forwards backfired, and with heavy pressure and injuries damaging the back line, the Spirit was outscored 13-0 over five defeats. Coach Mike Jorden was fired with a 1-7-3 mark.

Over 10 games bridging the coaching move, the Spirit scored twice, both on penalty kicks. The winless streak reached 13 games before an encouraging finish under Englishman Mark Parsons, the Spirit’s reserve team coach with six years’ experience with the Chelsea women’s program.

“It leaves us in a really healthy place in regards to [everyone] being excited,” he said. “That can carry us for next season.”

Several players will compete overseas during the NWSL’s offseason. The club plans to begin signing new players next month, and because of the last-place finish, it will have the first selection in multiple acquisition processes.

With a positive end to the season, eight-goal scorer Matheson said, “It’s a good jumping-off point.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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