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Spirit set to open season with renewed optimism, permanent home at Audi Field

Ashley Sanchez (10) and the Spirit open their 2023 season against defending NWSL Shield winner OL Reign on Sunday. (Tony Quinn for The Washington Post)
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When Mark Parsons coached his first match for the Washington Spirit, the National Women’s Soccer League was barely three months old.

The crowd at Maryland SoccerPlex was just shy of 2,500 on a weekday night in July 2013, and Parsons, called up on short notice from coaching the club’s reserves, had less than two days to get to know the team and prepare for its opponent.

Parsons stayed with the Spirit until 2015 and went on to lead the Portland Thorns to two NWSL Shields — awarded to the team with the best regular season record — and coach the Dutch women’s national team. This past November, he was hired again by Washington.

Mark Parsons returns as Washington Spirit head coach

On Sunday, the Spirit will open the season at 20,000-capacity Audi Field against the OL Reign. The team that Parsons oversees on the field will have the same name it did 10 years ago, but nearly everything else about the club will look quite different.

After a tumultuous two years — a stretch that included a league championship, a contentious ownership battle, multiple coaching changes and a disappointing finish last season — the Spirit spent this offseason investing in all facets of its operation, hoping to push forward into a new era for both the club and the sport.

“When you have quality people and quality players working together, you’re going to get to a special place,” Parsons said.

After a memorable run to the NWSL title in 2021, the Spirit limped to a 3-9-10 record in 2022 and went 16 league matches without a win. Coach Kris Ward was fired in August after players raised concerns about verbal abuse and emotional misconduct. (The allegations were substantiated by an NWSL investigation in January.)

Facing her first full preseason at the helm since becoming the club’s controlling owner last March, Y. Michele Kang has a clear goal.

“The first thing I did was to focus on the product,” Kang said. “There’s been a lot of drama, but we’re here to play soccer. So I needed to build the best soccer infrastructure.”

She and General Manager Mark Krikorian, who was brought on in June, quickly got to work. In November, the Spirit hired Parsons. In December, it added Dawn Scott, the former head of sports science for the U.S. and English women’s national teams.

Spirit set to play all home matches at Audi Field under new deal

The club reached a deal with D.C. United to play every home game this season at Audi Field, after years of splitting games between the soccer-specific stadium in the District and subpar venues in Virginia and Maryland. In March, it unveiled a new black-and-white color scheme — a first step in a rebrand process, Kang said.

This winter, the team spent four weeks training in Florida with more resources than many of its players had previously seen. Scott has built a staff of sports science specialists and health experts to modernize the club’s performance arm — the advances range from individualized physical testing and data collection to education about menstrual cycles and recovery.

After past offseasons marred by tense environments or off-field events, this year brought a welcome change for the players.

“I just feel like the culture overall is just so much better, whereas I feel like last year the expectations were not clear,” midfielder Ashley Sanchez said. “The culture, not that it was bad, but everyone was just very defensive. I feel like Mark encourages growth.”

On the field, much of the Spirit’s core remains in place. The biggest offseason departures involved two U.S. national team defenders who helped lead Washington to the 2021 title. Free agent Kelley O’Hara signed with NJ/NY Gotham FC, and Emily Sonnett was traded to OL Reign on draft night in January.

USWNT drawn with Netherlands in World Cup group stage

The club’s other U.S. national team regulars will return: Sanchez and fellow midfielder Andi Sullivan, plus forward Ashley Hatch and Ballon d’Or nominee Trinity Rodman. The trio of Sanchez, Rodman and Hatch combined for 28 of the Spirit’s 38 goals last season.

With a young roster — and the likelihood that internationals will be pulled away from the club for this summer’s World Cup — the team’s biggest question is depth.

Parsons has offered glimpses into how those challenges might be solved. Tara McKeown, who played primarily as a forward the past two years, trained this preseason as a center back. Dorian Bailey shifted from the midfield to the back line. (Defender Anna Heilferty, who made 18 starts last year, is out for the season with a leg injury.)

In addition to signing six rookies after the draft, the Spirit brought in Gabrielle Carle, a Canadian international who is a probable starter at left back; French midfielder Inès Jaurena; and 15-year-old midfielder Chloe Ricketts.

Sunday’s opener should provide an immediate test. Seattle-based OL Reign won the NWSL Shield last season and has one of the league’s deepest squads, led by U.S. national team stars Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle.

Entering its 11th season, the NWSL also has followed a turbulent stretch with an offseason of growth. The league announced new sites for expansion, debuted in the “FIFA 23” video game and expects record crowds in its opening weekend of matches — which, for the first time, will also include video assistant referee.

For the Spirit, how quickly the off-field changes translate to on-field results remains to be seen. Those on the club, though, are motivated by a renewed feeling of optimism.

“I would say I’ve never been more proud to play for the Spirit,” goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury said. “Honestly, there were times in the past when, not to beat on the past, but I didn’t have much pride in putting on the crest. And now, the vision, starting from Michele at the top, I want to get behind her. … I hope that we can now deliver.”