Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Chicago Red Stars vs Washington Spirit
Jeffrey Swinger / USA TODAY Sports

Preseason is underway as clubs now prepare for the upcoming 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and regular season. Washington Spirit haven't appeared in an NWSL postseason since 2016 but this offseason they've taken steps to being a contender once again, and 2021 could be the season where they find themselves in the playoff mix again after a four years on the outside looking in at the top four teams.

Since 2017, the Spirit have seen significant growth in several areas organizationally and on the pitch. In 2018, the club drafted top midfield prospect Andi Sullivan out of Stanford, and have continued to build with and around her. After a dreadful eight game losing streak during 2018 and a second to last place finish, the team fired then head coach Jim Gabarra and hired current head coach Richie Burke for the 2019 season. 

In the last two off seasons the club has used the draft to build up its core, bringing in Tegan McGrady, Sam Staab, Jordan DiBiasi, and Ashley Sanchez to play alongside Sullivan. The Spirit made a big leap during 2020, posting impressive Challenge Cup and Fall Series performances. Now after strong drafts, big roster movement and consecutive offseasons in 2019 and 2020 offseason that saw the departures of Mal Pugh and Rose Lavelle -- 2021 has brought the arrivals of Emily Sonnett and Kelley O'Hara, and the Spirit are poised to compete for a title in the new year.

Coaches Perspective

Richie Burke is entering his third season as Washington Spirit head coach after being hired in January 2019. His impact with the team has been noticeable as the organization has gone through various changes. From the ownership level, to facilities, the change has been noticeable for a team building its way to the top. 

After a busy offseason, the long preseason now underway is taking place outside of DC in warmer weather at facilities in Palm Springs, Florida. For Burke and the coaching staff, the initial focus for the team in the early days of preseason has been evaluating players, fitness, and instituting "tactical periodization sessions" to get the team ready for the season.

"In the longest preseason in the history of preseason's, we are holding up quite well. We specifically planned to introduce our tactical periodization sessions during our warm weather camp, holding off for 3-4 weeks so we could create a fitness base," said Burke.

"Players have managed the demands well, establishing a unified physical platform to allow us to move forward with our tactical plans. The mood in the camp is very good. Living away from home in a hotel gives us the chance to bond and get to know the newcomers to the team better."

One thing we don't know

As the team is deep in their second month of preseason, the club signed four of their college draft picks to contracts for the upcoming Challenge Cup and regular season. Anna Heilferty, Sydney Schneider, Mariana Speckmaier, and Trinity Rodman, the second overall pick in the NWSL draft, have all earned contracts during their time in preseason but where or how they will fit into the Spirit's current plans remains to be seen.

"Our four new rookies are still finding their way in the professional game. Lots of adjusting to higher tempo, more challenging tactics and the higher physical demands of the game at this level," says Burke. "But our club is always very strategic about our draft picks and this year is no different. I'd anticipate them contributing over the course of an extended season, but it will be our job to ensure that they are best prepared to do so."

Rodman is perhaps the most intriguing prospect. The 20-year-old was a top draft pick despite not having recorded any minutes at the collegiate level, though she has experience at the U.S. youth levels. Burke rates her as player to build with in the attack.

"Trinity has been great since coming to the club. She's eager to learn and has taken every opportunity to listen to some very senior and experienced players who can influence her growth. Her speed and direct running will definitely give us a different look upfront & I'm keen to see her up against some top defenders in this league."

Three things we know

Forward Ashley Sanchez is in her second year with the team. The club traded up with Sky Blue FC during the 2020 draft to select the UCLA prospect fourth overall. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic impacted her rookie season, but had strong performances in a limited window of games during Challenge Cup and Fall Series matches during 2020.  As the team continues to build over the course of its preseason trainings, Sanchez is appreciative of the extended preseason and is looking forward to the upcoming season.

On the extended preseason with the team: "This preseason has been nice. I think it's allowed us to build from our performances last year and given us real extended time to get used to the new players." 

On potential playing a full 2021 season and evolving tactically with Spirit: "I definitely think our team is going to grow tactically during this 2021 season. We're going to be able to play a lot of games and it'll be awesome getting better each game. I'm most looking forward to my first real season. It was nice getting a little sniff last year but I'm excited to get the opportunity this 2021 season."

On what the team can do to take the next step after impressive 2020: "I think each game we got better during the Challenge Cup and into the fall series. With weekly prep and more time in between games we'll be able to start right where we left off and continue to grow as a team and get even better."

Looking ahead

Preseason will run through April as teams prepare for the upcoming Challenge Cup which will kick off on April 9 with the regular NWSL season following on May 15. During the two month long preseason clubs will likely have scrimmage matches set up with local university and college sides should all appropriate coronavirus protocols be in place and pending league approval.

Washington Spirit have had two preseason scrimmages to date, a victory over Palm Beach Atlantic University where they defeated the opposition 6-0 in a 75 minute match, and a full 90 minute match against IMG Academy where they won 5-0.

The preseason roster

The team currently trimmed down their preseason roster to 24 players earlier in March. NWSL clubs can make preseason roster adjustments ahead of the 2021 Challenge Cup.

Spirit forward Morgan Andrews joined the squad as a non-roster invitee after being waived by OL Reign in February. Forward Averie Collins tore her ACL in late January and is not in camp with the team currently after undergoing successful knee surgery. Defenders Kelley O'Hara and Emily Sonnett and midfielder Andi Sullivan have been allocated by the United States Women's National Team for the 2021 NWSL Season. 

2021 Washington Spirit Preseason Roster

Goalkeepers (3): Aubrey Bledsoe, Devon Kerr, Sydney Schneider (CDP)

Defenders (7): Sam Staab, Natalie Jacobs, Kelley O'Hara (ALL-USA), Emily Sonnett (ALL-USA), Tegan McGrady, Paige Nielsen, Tori Huster

Midfielders (7): Julia Roddar (NYR), Saori Takarada, Jordan DiBiasi (NYR), Andi Sullivan (ALL-USA), Bayley Feist, Dorian Bailey, Anna Heilferty (CDP)

Forwards (7): Trinity Rodman (CDP), Averie Collins, Ashley Sanchez, Kumi Yokoyama, Mariana Speckmaier (CDP), Ashley Hatch, Morgan Andrews (NRI)

Key: CDP – 2021 NWSL Draft pick, NRI – Non-Roster Invitee, NYR – Not Yet Reported to Camp, ALL – 2021 Allocated Player