Fans are the lifeblood of every professional athlete, first-year Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke said. Players “absolutely thrive when they hear that roar behind them, chanting their name.” But after making consecutive National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) playoff appearances in 2015-16, including a run to the championship game in 2016, Spirit followers haven’t had much to cheer about the past two seasons—Washington compiled a 7-32-9 record in 2017-18.
Now, however, with its 2-0 victory over Utah Royals FC on June 1 in front of a season-high crowd of 4,575 at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds and 1-1 draw against Reign FC on the road in Tacoma, Washington, June 15, The Spirit (5-1-2) maintains sole possession of first place in the NWSL standings. The top four teams at the end of the regular season in mid-October qualify for playoffs. The Spirit, amid a franchise-record six-game unbeaten streak, currently has a 17-16 advantage over Utah in second place (as of June 17); Portland Thorns FC is in third with 15 points, followed by defending league champion, North Carolina Courage in fourth with 13 points.
This season’s success has brought a renewed energy and outlook to The Spirit players and fans alike.
“There have been a lot of changes, some really great changes; it’s been kind of a fresh start, maybe a little bit of a makeover, so to speak, and it’s been really positive and refreshing,” said The Spirit veteran Tori Huster. “There’s definitely a different feel (in the stadium). We’re seeing people out here that we haven’t seen before and it’s awesome to get new faces out here. I think the brand of soccer that we play, it’s going to make people come back. I’m excited about that and I’m excited that people know even some of the younger players, fans know their names already and that’s a credit to our social media team and the off-field marketing we’ve done.”
Lack of talent has never been an issue for Washington, but Huster and second-year goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, who was one of four Washington Spirit players named to the NWSL May Team of the Month, agreed that improved off-field camaraderie and cohesiveness—including players’ relationships with the front office—has translated on the field.
“Last year we had the talent, but the self belief wasn’t there; we weren’t confident, collectively, and we weren’t getting the best out of each other,” Bledsoe said. “This year we are getting the best and more out of each other, and it shows. We are playing for each other, we believe in each other, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Led by Ashley Hatch (three goals), Jordan DiBiasi (two) and Cheyna Matthews (two), The Spirit has already scored more goals—13—through eight games this year than the entire 2018 season. Lorton, Virginia, native and midfielder Andi Sullivan picked up her first goal of the season in Tacoma. Defensively, Washington is tied with Utah for fewest goals allowed: five. With 40 saves, Bledsoe is only averaging a .625 goals against average. And while she was quick to credit the team’s attackers for their ability to defend from the top, Hatch said Washington’s stingy defense has played an integral role in its offensive production.
Following the win over Utah, Burke said he was pleased with the team’s patience with the ball, and the Spirit’s efficiency in maintaining possession. On average, Washington has controlled possession for 55 percent of its games and is passing at a 79.1 percent success rate.
As women’s soccer is in the spotlight while the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) competes in France to defend its 2015 World Cup title—Washington midfielder Rose Lavelle and forward Mallory Pugh earned their first World Cup starts and combined for three goals in the USWNT’s first two games—The Spirit are hoping to build upon increased awareness of the sport. And their success will surely help attract a wider audience. Competing in a league that is perennially virtually up for grabs, Bledsoe said picking up as many points as possible while teams are without their World Cup players, and separating themselves from the pack, will bode well for The Spirit.
“The great thing about our players is they’re great humans as well,” Burke said. “They reach out to the younger players (in our community) and go out and visit them. They realize the value of these younger players. … Our fans have been out in force and our players have responded to that. So, long may it continue and hopefully our fanbase will grow and people will come take a look at our product and say, ‘Hey, that’s a great soccer team.’ We’ve got some great characters and some great people on this team. It’s easy to get behind these players.”