The Washington Spirit carved out their most successful season ever in 2016, and came within a few precious seconds (followed by some PK-shootout agony) of winning the NWSL championship. But you probably wouldn’t know it by the tone and tenor around the club this winter.
Last year’s achievement have quickly been overshadowed by a litany of head-turning offseason transactions involving some of the Spirit’s biggest names. Tuesday’s announcement that star speedster Crystal Dunn has moved to English side Chelsea FC marks the fourth high-profile departure of the past few months. Megan Oyster, Estefania Banini, Christine Nairn and fan favorite Ali Krieger had already left Washington, not to mention serious knee injuries that will rule out Caprice Dydasco and Kelsey Wys for some or all of the upcoming season.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Krieger and Dunn were “among a group of players who had grown disenchanted with the Spirit organization” amid “a toxic atmosphere” in 2016. The memory of last year’s national-anthem controversy involving owner Bill Lynch and Seattle Reign star Megan Rapinoe hangs heavy.
Given all that, it’s understandable if many of the Spirit’s most devoted supporters presently fall somewhere on a spectrum between “nervous” and “in open revolt.” But Washington coach and general manager Jim Gabarra has asked fans to be patient and calm as he leads a process of evaluation and evolution towards a 2017 season dogged by leaguewide uncertainty.
In the wake of Dunn’s departure, Gabarra spoke to SoccerWire.com in depth about the winds of change blowing across the Maryland SoccerPlex and NWSL.
SoccerWire.com: What’s your personal reaction to Crystal Dunn’s departure for Chelsea, and the reports of tumult behind the scenes?
Jim Gabarra: It’s always difficult to lose a good player. But we have a lot of good players on our team, we have a very deep roster and we had pretty balanced scoring last year. … This was the only time that Crystal could try to take on this European experience. She expressed to me that she’s committed to growing the league and she’s doing it with the Spirit. And she bought a home here, so most likely – hopefully – we’ll see her back in a Spirit uniform in a short time.
A lot of people have no idea what’s going on within our club or our organization and make it seem like everybody wanted out. That’s simply just not the case.
SW: With no resolution in sight to the collective bargaining agreement talks between U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Women’s National Team, there seems to be so much up in the air for NWSL 2017. Do all these variables affect your preparation?
JG: That’s one of the first things you load into the parameters of how you’re going to build your team, if you have that uncertainty. As much heat as we took for Ali being traded, that was really a preparation for all that uncertainty and trying to get out in front and get the next best allocated or funded player [in November Washington acquired the top spot in the NWSL’s “Distribution Ranking Order,” which gives them first access to any newly allocated U.S. or Canadian national-team players]. It’s been out there. That’s maybe the second thing you look at after evaluating how players did last year and what improvements you need to make.
SW: I ask you this next one not only as the coach of the Spirit but a longtime veteran of women’s professional soccer – with the CBA and everything else, are we headed for significant changes in the near future?
JG: I’m optimistic that it’s change and evolution and growth in the right direction, that we’re going to have hopefully a longer season, higher-paid players, being able to compete for the best players in the world, and the relationship with our U.S. National Team players and our league, I think that’s changing. I think the league is going to be more important not only to get into the national team but to continue to get called in. I think it’s slowly changing to be more of a normal situation where your performance with your club dictates whether you’re called into the national team, and your performance there dictates how much you play. I think it’s a hard thing coming out of the structure that we’ve had in the past, but it is slowly changing.
SW: What would you say to Spirit fans who are frustrated or dubious about the player departures and other moves that have transpired thus far this offseason?
JG: It’s a cycle. And every year or two years is different in building teams. In our league, there’s very little opportunity for players to make moves. And then when players come out of contract, that’s the time when they get to move. That was kind of the case with Christine Nairn, and Crystal, she’s not really under contract with the Spirit, she’s under contract with U.S. Soccer. Same with Ali. So there’s a lot of different levels and phases for how we acquire players.
But we have a deep group, we’ve added some good players who are going to be in a different environment and have the opportunity to improve. I think we’ve improved our roster and it’s always hard to lose players who’ve been here, but three or four years, it’s something that’s really not been confronted, that we haven’t seen in our leagues, where players have been with teams for four years. It’s kind of natural. It is professional soccer and players are going to move – whether it’s them wanting a move, or whether the club decides to move them on because they think they can make improvements in other areas that are necessary moving forward.
SW: Just to be clear, did Nairn ask for a move?
JG: She wanted to be traded. She didn’t want to come back to the Spirit. And that’s a time where she has a choice. Once you sign a contract, you’re locked in to that team for a couple of years and it was certainly one of the places she wanted to go. It wasn’t the only place she wanted to go, and she was also exploring options of playing in Europe.
SW: This week we saw Canadian international Ashley Lawrence sign with Paris St-Germain in France instead of joining the NWSL out of West Virginia University, while her teammate Kadeisha Buchanan is expected to make a similar move soon. Do you have any more clarity about Canadian national teamers and the NWSL than you do the USWNTers?
— PSG Féminines (@PSG_Feminines) January 3, 2017
JG: I don’t expect any others … but that can always change in the next couple of weeks. I don’t think it’ll be something where we see an inordinate number leave, it’ll be just like the U.S. players – a couple are going to go if it’s right for them personally and for their career, and their national-team coach is comfortable with it and they can still be involved in the national team. This is kind of the only year that they can realistically give it a shot, because next season is 2018; it’ll be qualifying and it will be more important for them to be in the league, to be more connected with the national team.
SW: Do you know yet if the Spirit’s current group of CanWNTers will return for this season?
JG: They’re still on our roster and we’ll see in the next couple of weeks exactly if they’re definitely coming back or not.
SW: Amid all these changes, do you plan and expect the Spirit to maintain the style and tactics that worked so well in 2016?
JG: We’d like to play the same way, yeah. It’s something that takes a lot of time. It took a lot of the season for the players to get comfortable and understand it, and we’re bringing back most of those players. Unless there’s some other drastic moves where other players are moved, which I don’t anticipate, we’re going to try to play the same way.
SW: Will the Spirit be active on and around draft day next week?
JG: I think the draft class is OK [but] obviously we traded out, we went for getting more certainty than the uncertainty these drafted players have, getting [Kristie Mewis and Kassey Kallman from Boston via trade] and also getting the No. 1 pick in the distribution order ranking. It’s a choice we made and I think there’s a possibility of a handful of players not signing up for the draft and going abroad and not being available, so that adds to the uncertainty. With players like Mewis and Kallman and hopefully a top funded national-team level player, those are known quantities and known additions.
SW: Did you pick up that top allocation spot in anticipation of a specific player, or more for longer-range positioning?
JG: It’s more to get in position for something. There’s always possibility and there’s always a player or two you would like. It’s still a little early for that, but it’s really just to get into that top position because that maybe could make the difference in a player deciding to make the next step or not.