WASHINGTON — With their new seasons quickly approaching, Washington’s two professional soccer teams hope to build on last year’s successes with the help of some promising new signings.
But while D.C. United have a good chance to best last year’s first-round playoff exit with the help of strong recruits and few personnel losses, their female counterpart, the Washington Spirit, face a much more serious challenge.
Despite some talented new additions, last year’s National Women’s Soccer League runners-up lost a number of critical players during the offseason, including three world-class internationals in Crystal Dunn, Ali Krieger and Diana Matheson.
Dunn, the 2015 league MVP and leading scorer, joined English outfit Chelsea Ladies in January, following World Cup-winning defender Krieger’s November move to the Orlando Pride.
Canadian National Team midfielder Matheson, a skillful playmaker who in her four years with the Spirit notched a club-leading 23 goals and 12 assists, was recently traded to the Seattle Reign.
The Spirit, who begin regular-season play in April, are also losing Christine Nairn, Estefania Banini and Megan Oyster.
Despite some talk that the exodus had to do with players’ dissatisfaction with club politics, most of those leaving have insisted their departures have to do primarily with wanting a taste of something new.
“My decision is based on trying a new environment,” Dunn told The Washington Post in January. “I absolutely loved the Spirit. It was a hard decision, but it’s the right time for me.”
Former captain and fan-favorite Krieger, though, did not leave voluntarily.
“Although the Washington Spirit’s decision to trade me comes as a surprise, I remain very grateful for the opportunity to play professional soccer in my hometown,” Krieger wrote on Instagram. But she added, “I do think change can be a good thing.”
The Spirit saw controversy last fall when owner Bill Lynch decided to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before teams took the field in a home game against the Seattle Reign — presumably in an effort to keep Reign winger Megan Rapinoe from kneeling during the national anthem.
In response, Spirit players, led by Krieger, published a statement on the club’s website, expressing their concerns over Lynch’s choice.
Now, there’s legitimate concern that the Spirit organization has been in contention with some of its players for off-field reasons, and as a result is alienating portions of its fan base.
That’s a worry, especially considering the challenges women’s professional soccer leagues have faced historically to maintain staying power in this country. The NWSL, now entering its fifth season, is the third attempt at a women’s pro league in the United States. (Its two predecessors, the WUSA and WPS, lasted just three seasons each.)
The Spirit are making positive steps with new signings, which should help fill the considerable void left in the roster.
In November, the Washington franchise, which plays its home games at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, announced the signing of Kristie Mewis from the Boston Breakers, who has also seen time with the U.S. National Team.
At the NWSL College Draft on Jan. 12, the Spirit picked up some more highly-rated attacking players: Ohio State star forward Lindsay Agnew and midfielders Meggie Dougherty Howard and Cameron Castleberry, two standouts from NCAA powerhouses Florida and UNC Chapel Hill, respectively.
“We are very pleased with how the draft went,” Spirit head coach and general manager Jim Gabarra said in an interview for the Spirit’s website. “(The draftees) will all be good fits for our needs and our team.”
United Coach Ben Olsen also seems pleased with his team’s offseason acquisitions.
“We’re going to try to continue to be very competitive, and (to) make a better run at the playoffs,” Olsen said in a Jan. 24 press conference, two days before his team departed for preseason training in Florida.
United, who engineered a thrilling second-half comeback campaign last season – before losing to the Montreal Impact in the first playoff round – made headlines on Jan. 23 when they announced the signing of 2016 MAC Hermann Trophy winner Ian Harkes.
Harkes, a D.C. United Academy product and the son of U.S. National Team legend John Harkes, led Wake Forest to last year’s College Cup Final. He has widely been hailed as one of the most promising players coming out of the men’s college game.
“I’ve known Ian nearly his entire life and have watched him develop into one of the nation’s best young talents,” Olsen said of Harkes in an article on the club’s website. “He has all the tools to succeed at the next level.”
United also had success at the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 13, picking up standout Maryland defender Chris Odoi-Atsem (the 12th overall pick), as well as goalkeeper Eric Klenofsky and defender Jo Vetle Rimstad.
In addition, United have agreed to a one-year deal with seasoned French forward Sebastien Le Toux, who at 33 is one of just 16 MLS players with 50 goals and 50 assists.
These additions, along with impact signings from last year like Luciano Acosta, Patrick Nyarko and Patrick Mullins, should help continue United’s move toward being a more creative, attacking team.
“They’re building a great culture,” Odoi-Atsem said of his new team during media time at the SuperDraft. “I think I can fit in with the guys so I’m really excited to join them.”
United will continue their preseason preparation in Florida – with a brief trip back to Washington – for the next several weeks, before opening regular season play at home against Sporting Kansas City on March 4.
The Spirit open preseason play against Penn State University on March 18.