When the WUSA went away, Jim Gabarra stayed.
He coached a mix of kids and pros who were hanging around D.C., still wearing the name Washington Freedom. He lugged ball bags around the Maryland SoccerPlex. Along with longtime D.C.-area youth coach Clyde Watson, he worked with local youth clubs to create something of a club system. When pro women’s soccer came back in 2009 after a five-year absence, he remained in charge. He finally resigned after the 2010 season, but the Freedom didn’t continue without him, packing up for south Florida to spend a colorful year under the name magicJack.
He was busy with Sky Blue in New Jersey when the next women’s league launched in 2013. But when Portland lured away coaching phenom Mark Parsons after the 2015 season, he returned to the Plex to take up his familiar position on the sideline.
Today, the Washington Spirit fired Gabarra, who leaves behind a underperforming club with bright attacking stars, an in-form goalkeeper and two big questions:
- Given Gabarra’s long service to D.C. women’s soccer, did he deserve better than to be dismissed with three games remaining in the season — all at home, one of them at D.C. United’s new Audi Field?
- Will firing Gabarra solve anything at a club that has fizzled horribly since it was seconds away from winning the NWSL championship in his first season less than two years ago?
Former Spirit trainer Pierre Soubrier — also the fiance of Crystal Dunn, who won MVP honors with the Spirit in 2015 before moving on — threw what the kids would call “shade.” Then he deleted his tweet. Gotta love screenshots.
An anonymous source gave The Washington Post’s Steven Goff the standard “lost the locker room” quote. Hard to tell how much stock to put in that. In “locker room vs. coach” disputes, the natural inclination is to side with the locker room, but it’s not always right.
The biggest issue, of course, is the scoreboard. The Spirit have two wins, four draws and 15 losses — kept out of the bottom only by winless Sky Blue, coached by former Gabarra assistant Denise Reddy. They’ll need a few results to match or beat their abysmal 2013 season, where a late surge under midseason replacement Parsons saw them move up to 3-5-14. If young superstars Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle had been healthy for more of the season, perhaps the team would have more of a cushion above the NWSL basement, but it’s unlikely that the Spirit would’ve made a playoff run.
The timing of Gabarra’s ouster could be related to the upcoming downtown debut at Audi Field. Interim coach Tom Torres surely can’t turn the Spirit into a monster team in five days, but perhaps the recent 4-0 loss in Houston was the sign of a team that had quit on its coach. Maybe a nice, hard-fought 1-0 loss will do more to win over any newcomers to a Spirit game.
Spirit president Chris Hummer, who now assumes the general manager role he also held in 2013 before a two-year exile (disclaimer: I’ve written for Hummer’s SoccerWire in the past), called Gabarra “100% class” and explained the move as such:
We have a horrible record and everyone is responsible top to bottom. 2017 was to be a re-build. 2018 we had a roster that scared a lot of people on paper, but then never got them all on the field at the same time between injuries and call ups. 2019 has to be better, so we just decided to start that process now so we can learn what we can from coaches and players alike in these remaining weeks. All eyes forward.
We have exciting players and a competitive team that has the capability to be very dangerous, potentially in short order. We’re all looking forward to having a BIG night at Audi for our fans and to carry that excitement into 2019 with a winning team again.
We still don’t know if the former U.S. outdoor/indoor national teamer (he was the second-leading scorer, behind Peter Vermes, on the 1989 futsal team that claimed third place in the World Cup) was offered a more graceful exit — maybe a move elsewhere in the organization in advance of three-game swan song that would include the Audi Field game.
We also don’t know how many of the Spirit’s myriad problems can be laid at Gabarra’s feet. We just know the list goes on for a while:
– The defense is nowhere near NWSL standard. Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe is the league’s runaway leader in saves with 99, many of them spectacular. (It’s a credit to Bledsoe that the Spirit have only conceded 32 goals, one better than the perplexing Orlando Pride and six better than Sky Blue.)
– The attackers have managed only 11 goals, none since July 7. In an 0-1 loss to Utah, they managed seven shots, none on goal.
– A trade sending Dunn’s rights to North Carolina for then-national teamers Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith has backfired, with neither player now figuring prominently in U.S. coach Jill Ellis’ plans.
– Top-three draft picks Andi Sullivan and Rebecca Quinn, the former a D.C.-area local who played for the Spirit’s reserves in her summers while in high school and at Stanford, have had little impact, a reminder of the 2013 season in which several players with glittering college resumes weren’t ready to lead the team in the bruising NWSL.
– The reserve team boasted fewer big names than usual, winning four of six games in the anemic WPSL Colonial Conference but losing a 3-0 decision in its playoff opener. (Still, it’s a program that many NWSL clubs lack.)
– The teams entered in the first year of the girls’ Development Academy lagged behind their peers in the D.C. area, let alone other professional clubs’ academies. Starting a program of this sort in a hypercompetitive area is difficult, but that just makes me wonder why Gabarra wasn’t reassigned to an academy role, where he could use his long-standing D.C. youth contacts to win over the scores of skeptical clubs who didn’t want to get involved with the Spirit’s academies in Virginia and Maryland.
The latter two issues won’t draw much attention, but building from within is part of this club’s identity. It worked with the 2013 midseason promotion of reserve coach Parsons, who ditched the club’s overreliance on youth and brought in more experienced players to lead the way to playoff appearances the next two years. It will probably work in the long run with Sullivan, who isn’t yet back to her “old” self since suffering an ACL tear in late 2016 but has already reached the national team and has tremendous potential.
One example of how oddly things have gone this year is the curious case of Maddie Huster, longtime reserve player and younger sister of the Spirit’s last remaining original player, Tori Huster. The Spirit drafted her, brought her in as a national team replacement player in early June, signed her as a full roster player June 29, then waived her July 25.
With so many oddities and mistakes over the past couple of years, the overarching question is how much blame to spread out between Gabarra, Hummer and owner Bill Lynch. The postmortem won’t be fun, but it may be a necessary step in rebuilding the club moving forward. The Spirit should have learned in 2013 that it can’t rely on youth, even if Lavelle and Pugh are world-class players bound for the World Cup next year. They’ll need to convince free agents to come to the SoccerPlex, which has excellent training facilities and a dedicated supporters group but isn’t as glamorous as MLS-affiliated clubs in Portland, Utah and Orlando.
Maybe Gabarra deserved better. The supporters certainly do.
In case you didn’t know, I wrote a book about the Spirit’s debut season, attending most games and roughly 30 practices. I’ve changed the Kindle price to $2.99, but it doesn’t appear to have kicked in yet. Should be changed within 72 hours (by Friday).