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A soccer traveler and former stay-at-home dad leads Washington Spirit into NWSL playoffs

Washington Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Before he coached Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, before he won a league championship, before he commuted three hours for a coaching job in New Jersey, before he guided the Washington Spirit to the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs this season, Jim Gabarra was a Warthog.

It was 1993, and Gabarra’s wife, World Cup star Carin (Jennings) Gabarra, had just been hired as the Naval Academy’s first full-time women’s soccer coach. Jim’s long career as a pro indoor player was winding down, and after living with his in-laws while playing for Los Angeles United at the Forum, he joined Carin in Annapolis.

Around that time, Washington Bullets and Capitals owner Abe Pollin was looking to fill summer dates at USAir Arena in Landover by fielding a team in the Continental Indoor Soccer League. Gabarra got the job. The team was called the Warthogs. In the fourth and final year, Gabarra was a player-coach.

They averaged 6,500 fans a game — and had a blast.

“I remember how entertaining and fun the whole product was,” Gabarra said this week at Maryland SoccerPlex, where the Spirit will host the Chicago Red Stars in an NWSL semifinal Friday. “I can still picture the camouflage jersey with the big warthog head. Who would ever think that was a soccer team? But it worked.”

Since those merry days strategizing against the Las Vegas Dustdevils and Indiana Twisters, Gabarra has been a fixture on the women’s soccer scene.

While his wife has amassed 300 career victories, 22 consecutive winning seasons and three NCAA tournament berths at Navy, Jim coached the Washington Freedom for 10 years, bridging pro and amateur leagues, as women’s pro soccer labored through economic instability. He guided Sky Blue FC in the New York area for several years, and when the Spirit job opened last fall, he reconnected with a team based in upper Montgomery County.

His coaching portfolio also includes indoor teams in the 1980s, an international squad that barnstormed with the 1999 World Cup champion U.S. national team on an indoor victory tour, and one year as a volunteer assistant under his wife at Navy.

“I’ve had a few teams,” Gabarra, 57, said with a grin.

In 2003, with a roster featuring the greatest U.S. player of all time (Hamm) and a second-year forward who would go on to become the greatest scorer in international soccer history (Wambach), the Freedom won the Women’s United Soccer Association title.

After the league’s demise shortly thereafter, Gabarra oversaw the club on amateur circuits and stayed aboard when Women’s Professional Soccer launched in 2009. He resigned following his second season because of philosophical differences with management.

Sky Blue offered him its head coaching job, but that meant extended absences from his wife and three children. Often, he would drive home in a silver Corolla after a Saturday night game, delegate next-day conditioning to an assistant and return early Tuesday for a week of workouts.

“It was crappy,” he said, “but it was a sacrifice my family was willing to make so I am happy and working.”

On the plus side, his offseason was Carin’s busy season, so he was in charge of shuttling the kids to practices and activities. He had also been a stay-at-home dad after the Warthogs died.

“It was rewarding and eye-opening,” he said. “A lot of men say, ‘Oh, I wish I could stay home and take care of the kids and the dog all the time.’ It’s hard work.”

Last year, when Mark Parsons left the Spirit for the Portland Thorns, Gabarra was torn: He wanted to live at home full-time, but he also wanted to continue building Sky Blue.

Carin told him: “You are going to interview for the job; you have to act like you are interested and you should take it if you’re offered.”

Said Jim: “I needed my chin lifted up and my eyes opened up, and my wife did that. It was a snap-out-of-it moment.”

Sympathetic to Gabarra’s family situation, Sky Blue didn’t stand in his way. He was offered — and he accepted — the Spirit gig.

“We knew he was a family man and a great guy who would work hard for this organization,” midfielder Joanna Lohman said, “and sometimes that is the foundation to build a great team.”

Ironically, Gabarra puts more miles on his car closer to home than he did working for Sky Blue: Almost-daily round-trips between Arnold, Md., and the SoccerPlex in Boyds are 116 miles; the New Jersey commute was up and back once a week.

“I can see my kids’ high school games,” he said, “and most times can get home for dinner.”

The Gabarras’ son, Tyler, was a two-time first-team All-Met at Broadneck and is now a redshirt freshman forward at North Carolina State. One high school-aged daughter, Abby, is done with soccer, while the other, Talia, plays for Broadneck, the reigning Class 4A girls’ champion.

With a settled family life, Gabarra turned full attention to the Spirit, which sat atop the NWSL standings most of the year before losing its last two regular season matches and settling for second behind Portland with a 12-5-3 record. Washington conceded a league-low five goals in 10 home matches. Gabarra is a finalist for coach of the year honors.

With a victory Friday, the Spirit would advance to the final, Oct. 9 in Houston against the Thorns or Western New York Flash, for the first time in the league’s four seasons.

“I am very satisfied,” Gabarra said. “The goal was to come in and add value to the club, implement a system to become successful and blend the strengths of the returning players with my vision. We got into the playoffs, and we’re hosting a playoff game for the first time. It’s all right there in front of us.”

Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars

What: National Women’s Soccer League semifinal.

Where: Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.

When: 8 p.m. Friday.

TV: FS1.

Live stream: Fox Sports Go,

Records: Spirit 12-5-3, 39 points; Red Stars 9-5-6, 33 points.

Other semifinal: Western New York Flash (9-6-5, 32) at Portland Thorns (12-3-5, 41), Sunday at 5 p.m. ET (FS1).

Championship game: Oct. 9 at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, 5 p.m. (FS1)