By John Philip Wyllie
The San Diego Spirit is fortunate to play its soccer in an ideal stadium perfectly situated in a scenic spot overlooking America’s finest city. Unlike the majority of the WUSA teams that swelter under miserably hot and humid East Coast conditions, the Spirit has the luxury of playing its home games in the mild weather that San Diego is noted for. Its roster includes five of the best players in the world, players that starred in the historic 1999 Women’s World Cup. Among them is the U.S. national team captain, Julie Foudy. Spirit fans are considered to be the most enthusiastic and loyal in the league. Yes, the Spirit has just about everything going for it. Well, almost everything.
After two years, the Spirit faithful are still awaiting their first winning season. While last year’s 7-7-7 mark (accomplished only with a late-season surge) had many anticipating better things to come this time around, the team has failed to live up to those expectations.
The Spirit has shown promise at times. Early in the season, the Spirit inflicted one of the just three losses that the Philadelphia Charge suffered all season. Wednesday, in a game in which they had nothing to play for, the Spirit edged last year’s runner-up, the Atlanta Beat 1-0 and in so doing, dealt a huge blow to Atlanta’s playoff hopes.
At 5-11-4, the team is mired at the bottom of the standings, ahead of only the dreadful New York Power. The Spirit mercifully brings its 2002 season to a close on Sunday at 5:00 p.m. when it hosts the playoff bound Carolina Courage.
The Spirit opened its season at home against Carolina. Optimism was running high at that point. Former coach, Carlos Juarez was excited about his team and its chances of competing for a league title. Their mantra: avoid the mistakes made last year and get off to a good start. They didn’t.
They totally outplayed the Courage, but fell 2-1 after failing to capitalize on their many opportunities. Nobody realized it at the time, but missed opportunities would become a recurring nightmare all season long.
Juarez and assistant coach Martin Vasquez were fired in June after the Spirit stumbled out of the starting gate to a 2-4-2 record. General Manager Kevin Crow, a former San Diego Sockers star, took over in the hope that his success as a player might translate into success as a coach. It didn’t. Winning only three of the next 12 games, Crow’s presence failed to turn the team’s fortunes around.
Next, it was time for a goalkeeper change. Jaime Pagliar-ulo was benched in favor of Carly Smolak. While Smolak’s play was far more consistent, the goalkeeper change was not enough to keep the other teams from scoring, not with a defense that was prone to giving up soft goals.
All season long, a variety of players were taken out of and then re-inserted back into the starting lineup. Even Fan Yunjie, the team’s 2001 Defensive Player of the Year and mainstay from the powerful Chinese national team was benched for a time. That didn’t help either. Nothing did.
Crow ultimately decided to take a job in the league office leaving both the General Manager’s position and the head coaching job in limbo. As the team heads into its final match of the season, many of the players are no doubt wondering where or even if they will be playing next year.
Losing teams often undergo wholesale personnel changes during the off-season. That could be the case with the Spirit. Certainly, some of the underutilized foreign players must be ready to move on. Clearly, something needs to be done before San Diego’s highly supportive fans turn on the team like the locals have done with the Padres and Chargers.
If there is a silver lining in what has been a tremendously disappointing season, it is this. Due to its expected seventh place finish, the Spirit will have the second pick through seven of the eight rounds of collegiate drafting next winter (they previously traded away their second round pick). The team will also be giving a high priority to select of any of the new foreign stars that agree to join the league.
That brings us back to Carolina. The Courage was one of the league’s worst teams a year ago. With the advantage of selecting before her rivals, Courage coach Marcia McDermott added impact players such as Danielle Slaton and Birgit Prinz to her existing nucleus and turned Carolina into a very solid team. With a little luck in the playoffs, the Courage could easily complete its metamorphosis from league doormat to league champion. With some major changes, perhaps next year, the Spirit will follow suit.