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Washington Spirit betting big on Andi Sullivan as captain and primary playmaker

Sullivan had a disappointing rookie year, but she’s been handed a huge new role for her sophomore campaign.

Soccer: International Friendly Women’s Soccer-Mexico at USA Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Spirit are coming off a 2018 season in which they scored just 12 goals in 24 games. But they’re entering 2019 with a new style of play, and they’ll be led by a new captain — 23-year-old Andi Sullivan.

It’s a decision that caught fans by surprise, given Sullivan’s age and lack of pro experience, but Spirit head coach Richie Burke has wanted Sullivan to be his captain since he was approached about taking the job.

“I made that decision in November when they first started talking to me,” Burke says.

He adds, “we wanted to make sure that Andi was in a confident place. In that dressing room, they look to her in so many ways. For inspiration, for leadership, and for decision-making. So she was a huge piece of what we wanted to do.”

Sullivan doesn’t show any signs of feeling pressure, or any lack of confidence about taking over a leadership role. “He wouldn’t have given me that responsibility if I wasn’t qualified and wasn’t demonstrating that last year as well,” she says about Burke giving her the armband.

The Spirit coaching staff and locker room might have huge faith in Sullivan, but she still has a lot to prove after a rookie season where she didn’t quite live up to big expectations. She came into NWSL fresh off an NCAA national championship and a Hermann Trophy, leading to her getting selected first overall in the NWSL draft. But the Spirit struggled as a team, and Sullivan was no individual exception.

“Last year was the hardest individual experience that I’ve had as a person and as a player,” Sullivan says. “It weighed very heavily on me to under-perform as an individual, and also not get wins.”

“Everyone on the team and everyone in the league is extremely competitive and wants to win, so when that’s not happening, it makes you question your identity,” she continues. “It was hard on me and took some time to regroup and get over it, but I put a lot of time and effort into that, and I think that having the changes that we’ve had have really helped that, and I feel better than ever.”

Despite the disappointments of last season, Sullivan feels like she had experiences that proved she’s ready to take on a bigger role in the team.

“Going into my rookie year I was looking forward to following other people’s leads because I knew I had a lot to learn. I still do. But I was looking forward to not having that pressure and responsibility in my rookie year. But that wasn’t really the case. I stepped in and was immediately asked to do similar things,” Sullivan says.

When asked if the captaincy means she has to change her attitude or demeanor at all, Sullivan says she’s going to act the same way she thinks she would if she didn’t have the armband.

“I just want to be my best and help others be their best, and that’s always what I’ve tried to focus on. I was a little surprised, I know I’m young and there are other great personalities and leaders on the team, but then I thought about it and decided I’m going to act the same way regardless,” she says.

Part of Sullivan’s role has also been helping to get her new teammates integrated into the team on the pitch. “The thing that’s interesting is we have a lot of new people, so I have to figure out what works for them, what their strengths are, and what they’re looking to do,” she says. “That’s been a fun little challenge.”

The Spirit have parted ways with 12 players from last season’s roster, including their entire starting defense. Three rookies — Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady and Jordan DiBiasi — are expected to start most of the Spirit’s games, and Sullivan will quickly need to strike up an understanding with star Australian midfielder Chloe Logarzo.

Sullivan’s new role in the locker room will also come with added in-game responsibility as well. In the two preseason games that she played with the Spirit, Sullivan started in a deeper starting position than she had at any point under previous management. She was the point person for the start of the Spirit’s attacks, dropping between her center backs and vocally calling the shots as her team built out of the back.

It might seem like a very subtle tactical tweak, but it’s a significant one. Instead of being one of three midfielders with equal responsibility, Sullivan looks likely to get significantly more touches than anyone else on the Spirit, and she’ll be the team’s key decision-maker with the ball at her feet. She’s excited for the role and thinks it suits her well.

“I love having the role of being the initiator of the attack, and the organizer. I think that’s one of my strengths as a player, communicating and organizing. I like to be the link, I like to connect, so I like to know what everyone else’s job is. I like to run the show a little,” Sullivan says.

Burke doesn’t want anyone to think of Sullivan as just a deep-lying distributor, though. He’s hoping that she can have a big impact in finishing off plays as well, once the Spirit establish possession in their opponents’ end.

“I expect her to score goals,” Burke says. “Part of our conversation has been about getting herself in that position, she strikes an unbelievable ball. We’re looking to have her hit 25 yarders, 30 yarders. Out of that deep-lying 6 role, she’s not limited. She’s not there to just be a prompt to get us going. She’s got so much more to her game.”

Alongside all of this optimism, Burke and Sullivan did offer up dashes of realism, noting that they did not expect the team to look like the best version of themselves until after the World Cup break. And a one-season turnaround from having the worst attack in the league to comfortably making the playoffs — especially in a World Cup year, when Sullivan, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh will miss significant time due to national team duty — is highly unlikely.

But the Spirit believe they have the pieces a team that can get back into contention very soon, and they’re counting on Sullivan to be their cornerstone, both in-game and in the locker room.