And after finishing last in the league, winning five of 24 matches, the Spirit has raised excitement and expectation with a refurbished roster featuring a collection of emerging international-caliber players. The opener is Saturday at Seattle, followed by the home debut at Maryland SoccerPlex next Saturday against the Orlando Pride.
Mallory Pugh, 19, returns for her second pro season after becoming the first player to skip NCAA soccer in order to sign with the NWSL. This year, though, she will have a wealth of familiar faces around her.
Midfielder Andi Sullivan, the Hermann Trophy winner from Stanford who had debuted with the U.S. national team in 2016, was the first overall pick in the Jan. 18 draft.
Forward Ashley Hatch, the 2017 rookie of the year, and national team defender Taylor Smith arrived from North Carolina in a trade. And in a late surprise, national team midfielder Rose Lavelle became available when the Boston franchise disbanded.
The harvest was not limited to U.S. players: In the draft, Washington also claimed Duke defender-midfielder Rebecca Quinn, who has served on the Canadian national team for almost four years. All six have eyes on the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.
No one is picking the Spirit to finish anywhere near last this year.
“It’s a privilege to have those expectations put on us,” said Coach Jim Gabarra, entering his third season. “We can’t shy away from it. We just have to say we’re going to do everything we can to be successful and help these players grow and develop and become seasoned professional players and national team players.”
The average age of the six is a shade under 22, and although they’ve combined to play just five pro seasons, they are hardly novices. Quinn, 22, has played 37 times for fourth-ranked Canada. Pugh, 19, has logged 33 appearances for the top-ranked United States. Smith (age 24), Sullivan (22) and Lavelle (22) have combined for 28 U.S. games. Hatch, 22, has received one assignment.
This week, Pugh, Sullivan and Hatch were named to the U.S. roster for two friendlies in early April against Mexico. Quinn likely will rejoin Canada for a friendly at France.
Gabarra will open the season without Lavelle, who is sidelined because of a hamstring injury.
Smith and Pugh will partner on the right flank, and at some point soon, Sullivan and Lavelle will work together in central midfield. Their familiarity from U.S. camps promises to easy the club transition.
“It’s exciting, just so many possibilities, and once we get Rose back, there’s lots of decisions to make,” Gabarra said. “We’ll need to figure out how to set them up.”
Gabarra also will introduce a new goalkeeper, Aubrey Bledsoe, acquired in a trade with Orlando for captain Shelina Zadorsky. Returning players include Nigerian forward Francisca Ordega, Argentine attacker Estefania Banini and American midfielder Tori Huster. Forward Cheyna (Williams) Matthews, who scored five times last year, will miss the season because of pregnancy.
“The young players will grow and learn as we go,” Gabarra said, “but we also have the ability to use veteran players so they are not forced to carry the load themselves.”
The Spirit is among nine teams in the sixth-year league. Besides Boston, Kansas City also ceased operations. A new team, the Utah Royals, inherited many of the K.C. players. The Royals are owned by Real Salt Lake, one of four MLS organizations to operate NWSL teams. The others are in Portland, Houston and Orlando.
The Spirit operates independently of D.C. United but is looking to play the Aug. 25 home match against the defending champion Portland Thorns at Audi Field, United’s 20,000-capacity stadium nearing completion in Southwest D.C. A final decision is expected soon.
Washington Spirit at Seattle Reign
Where: Memorial Stadium.
When: Saturday at 10 p.m.
Live stream: go90.com, nwslsoccer.com
Goalkeepers: Aubrey Bledsoe (Cincinnati), DiDi Haracic (Round Hill, Va.), Kelsey Wys (Coral Springs, Fla).
Defenders: Whitney Church (Ashburn, Va.), Caprice Dydasco (Honolulu), Estelle Johnson (Fort Collins, Colo.), Rebecca Quinn (Toronto), Taylor Smith (Fort Worth, Tex.).
Midfielders: Yanara Aedo (Temuco, Chile), Estefania Banini (Mendoza, Argentina), Meggie Dougherty Howard (Largo, Fla.), Tori Huster (Cincinnati), Rose Lavelle (Cincinnati), Joanna Lohman (Silver Spring, Md.), Morgan Proffitt (Columbus, Ind.), Havana Solaun (Gainesville, Fla.), Andi Sullivan (Lorton, Va.).
Forwards: Cali Farquharson (Phoenix), Ashley Hatch (Gilbert, Ariz.), Cheyna Matthews (Hampton, Ga.), Francisca Ordega (Gboko, Nigeria), Mallory Pugh (Highlands Ranch, Colo.), Arielle Ship (Westlake Village, Calif.), Tiffany Weimer (Bridgeport, Conn).