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Washington Spirit was almost NWSL champ last year. So why was it gutted?

Jim Gabarra, Washington Spirit general manager and head coach. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The Washington Spirit underwent the type of offseason changes you’d expect from a downtrodden organization, not one that had sat in first place most of the year and come within 25 seconds and one defensive stand of winning the National Women’s Soccer League title last fall.

Ali Krieger, captain and local hero, was traded. Crystal Dunn, U.S. national team attacker and 2015 league MVP, signed overseas. Christine Nairn, coming off a breakout season, was traded.

Estefania Banini, the leading scorer, signed overseas. Megan Oyster, a national team prospect, was traded. Diana Matheson, a two-time Canadian Olympic bronze medalist, was traded.

Jim Gabarra, entering his second season as general manager and coach, is quick to point out that most of the squad has returned for the 2017 campaign, which will open Saturday afternoon at Maryland SoccerPlex against the North Carolina Courage (formerly the Western New York Flash).

The star power, however, is gone. Washington is the only NWSL side without any players from the world champion U.S. national team, which forms the foundation of the 10-team league. The Portland Thorns employ five, the Chicago Red Stars four.

The Orlando Pride this month signed Brazilian forward Marta, a five-time FIFA player of the year. The Spirit added no one from overseas.

“Star players are great for our league, but last year, even with stars, we were a team and everyone bought into team first. It’s going to be the same now,” Gabarra said. “Other people will be able to step up and be stars. … People have a chance here to see them make that journey and take that step.”

Team officials say season ticket sales are comparable to last year, when the Spirit averaged 3,782, sixth in the league. They said, however, they’re bracing for a subpar opening turnout Saturday, in large part because of the holiday weekend.

“Although we might not have big names anymore, collectively as a group we can push some boundaries and win some games,” midfielder Tori Huster said. “We have a mentality that no one is going to outwork us. It’s been fun to grow as a team this preseason.”

So why did the Spirit gut the roster?

There’s no blanket explanation, though discontent played a role in several departures. Krieger, a national team defender from Northern Virginia, clashed with Gabarra and team management over a number of issues and was sent to Orlando.

Nairn and Banini weren’t happy and wanted to leave. They ended up in Seattle and Spain, respectively.

Dunn was eager to explore European opportunities and joined English club Chelsea. The Spirit has retained her NWSL rights in anticipation of her return in 2018 or ’19.

Oyster was dealt to Boston in a complex deal that yielded the top position to claim a future national team player entering the league. No longer in Gabarra’s long-term plans after four years here, Matheson, 33, was shipped to Seattle.

Asked to explain the turnover, Gabarra said: “We had some players we chose to move and some we would’ve chose to keep. I couldn’t be happier with the players we traded for and brought in. They have completely bought into our style of play.”

Addressing the absence of U.S. national team players, he said: “If you look at the national team, there’s a generational shift going on. It’s my job to look ahead and say, ‘How does it affect the club and how can we best position the club to make sure that transition is not something that hurts us?’

“And actually, it’s the opposite: Can we find a way to get ahead of it and get more of the top players coming in and at a younger age?”

Washington is first in line if rising star Mallory Pugh, 18, turns pro. The Spirit also has had a close eye on U.S. prospect Andi Sullivan, a Stanford junior midfielder from Lorton, Va., but a knee injury in the fall delayed a possible jump to the NWSL.

Washington’s place atop the distribution ranking order is good through the end of the season.

Meantime, Gabarra says he sees national team potential in several returning and arriving players. He also retained Canadian national team goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and defender Shelina Zadorsky; added Canadian prospect Lindsay Agnew; and welcomed back Nigeria’s Francisca Ordega and Denmark’s Line Sigvardsen Jensen.

Longtime pros Huster and Joanna Lohman anchor the squad. Three returning players, though, are rehabbing major knee injuries: goalkeeper Kelsey Wys, defender Caprice Dydasco and forward Cali Farquharson.

In all, Saturday’s lineup will include only three or four starters from the 2016 championship match, won by Western New York on penalty kicks after Washington conceded the equalizer deep into stoppage time.

“It’s a new group, it’s a new season,” Gabarra said, “it’s a new journey.”


Washington Spirit vs. North Carolina Courage

Where: Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.

When: 3 p.m. Saturday.

Spirit roster

Goalkeepers: DiDi Haracic (Round Hill, Va.), Stephanie Labbe (Edmonton), Kelsey Wys (Coral Springs, Fla.).

Defenders: Whitney Church (Ashburn, Va.), Caprice Dydasco (Honolulu), Estelle Johnson (Fort Collins, Colo.), Kassey Kallman (Woodbury, Minn.), Alyssa Kleiner (Las Vegas), Shelina Zadorsky (London, Ontario).

Midfielders: Cameron Castleberry (Raleigh, N.C.), Meggie Dougherty Howard (Largo, Fla.), Tori Huster (Cincinnati), Joanna Lohman (Silver Spring, Md.), Kristie Mewis (Hanson, Mass.), Line Sigvardsen Jensen (Farso, Denmark).

Forwards: Lindsay Agnew (Dublin, Ohio), Cali Farquharson (Phoenix), Francisca Ordega (Gboko, Nigeria), Arielle Ship (Westlake Village, Calif.), Havana Solaun (Gainesville, Fla.), Katie Stengel (Melbourne, Fla.), Cheyna Williams (Hampton, Ga.).