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NWSL season team-by-team preview: How are teams spending all that money coming in?

The National Women's Soccer League is embarking on its biggest and most important season to date. That might seem like a bold claim, but a quick look around the league shows how much the stakes in the 12-year-old NWSL have grown.

Two new expansion teams will enter the fray for 2024, bringing the NWSL to a league-high 14 teams. One of them is Bay FC, the new Northern California-based team that is being spearheaded by former U.S. women's national team legend Brandi Chastain, among others. The other is the Utah Royals -- although a team under the same name previously played in the NWSL before relocating, this iteration is a new team sharing co-owners with the likes of the Premier League's Crystal Palace and the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.

Two of the league's founding teams, meanwhile, completed sales to new owners going into this season, removing the last high-profile decision-makers to be found culpable in the abuse scandal that rocked the league in 2021 and 2022. The Portland Thorns were sold to the lead investors of the Sacramento Kings, while the Chicago Red Stars were sold to the investors behind the Chicago Cubs.

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On top of that, when the NWSL's regular seasons begins on Saturday on ABC and ESPN+, that opener will be the debut of a new broadcast deal worth a reported $240 million. As such, salaries and transfer fees have taken a sharp turn upward headed into this 2024 season.

Bay FC paid nearly $800,000 to sign Zambia striker Racheal Kundananji from Madrid CFF, a world record fee in women's soccer. The Orlando Pride nearly matched that three weeks later in signing Zambia's Barbra Banda. A new normal for what NWSL teams are willing to pay is being established in a league that is shedding its shoestring, penny-pinching past.

This investment and higher spending comes at a time when the NWSL is facing new competition from other leagues around the world. Fresh off of the USWNT's shocking exit at the Women's World Cup last year, there may be more questions than ever about the NWSL and whether the majority of U.S. women's national team players should continue competing in the league rather than going to, say, England's WSL or Spain's Liga F.

NJ/NY Gotham FC won the 2023 NWSL Championship, and it has spent this offseason signing a slew of notable players from the United States women's national soccer team. Will it again be the team to beat when the NWSL season kicks off on Saturday? Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports

With the investment that the NWSL is seeing across the board and with more on the way -- commissioner Jessica Berman says the NWSL will expand to 16 teams by 2026 -- the NWSL has all the pieces in place to hold onto its claim as the most competitive women's soccer league in the world.

Who will be competing this season, how are teams are one-upping each other and who should be considered the favorite? We dig into all 14 NWSL teams ahead of the new season.

-Live on ESPN+: NWSL 2024 opener, KC vs. Portland (March 16, 1 p.m. ET)

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Biggest offseason moves: It's all about the youth movement in Los Angeles. Okay, fine, it's not all about that. New addition Messiah Bright is 24, though she was a rookie last year. Rocky Rodríguez is 30. But the most interesting offseason moves came in the form of teenagers Gisele Thompson and Casey Phair.

At just 18, the younger Thompson sister is a promising outside back. Phair, for her part, became the youngest player in Women's World Cup history with South Korea last summer. She's just 16. Along with Alyssa Thompson, 19, Angel City's youngsters are worth watching.

The big question going into 2024: Can Alyssa Thompson take the next step? No Angel City player scored more than four goals in the regular season last year, so a ringleader needs to emerge in the attack. Manager Becki Tweed has real talent at her disposal. But with Jun Endo out for the year with an ACL injury and Savannah McCaskill moved on, the supply line into the attack is damaged. That's where Thompson comes into play. With her elite speed and dribbling, the USWNT winger can change games on her own. A more consistent Thompson will mean a more dangerous Angel City.

2024 will be a success if... they win a playoff game. It's a simple, never-before-accomplished goal for Angel City. In the club's expansion season in 2022, they didn't make it into the playoff field. Last year, they qualified for the postseason, but bowed out to the Reign in the first round. The next step for this team, then, isn't just to qualify for the playoffs -- that will be an easier feat, anyway, with 57% of the league qualifying in the new format compared to 50% last year.

No, it's to win a playoff game. -- Joseph Lowery

Alyssa Thompson, being carried, had a big rookie season last year, scoring four goals in league play and earning a spot on the USWNT's World Cup team off the back of her performances with Angel City. Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports

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Biggest offseason moves: Heading into their expansion season, Bay FC and general manager Lucy Rushton didn't skimp on the attack. Star Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala signed from Barcelona. Star forward Racheal Kundananji joined in a world-record deal, though she recently went down with a knee injury while playing for Zambia.

Regardless of Kundananji's availability, ambition clearly isn't going to be an issue for one of the league's two new clubs. Expect a possession-heavy tactical approach from manager Albertin Montoya that tries to feed his frontline as often as possible.

The big question going into 2024: How quickly does everything gel? It's the most obvious question for any expansion team, but especially one that wants to keep the ball like Bay FC. Opting for a defense-first approach is the simpler path to solid soccer, but Bay are trying to raise their ceiling with a ball-dominant system.

Alex Loera will have a critical role at the base of midfield as she links defense to attack. How the other 10 players around Loera learn to read and move off each other in possession will define so much of 2024 for this club.

2024 will be a success if... Bay FC become the second club in NWSL history to make the playoffs in their expansion season, while imposing their own style of play. Given Rushton's background in analytics, Bay FC won't judge this season solely based on their qualification for the playoffs. They'll look at the underlying data to evaluate how effectively this group of players controls games and out-creates their opponents. Still, following in the San Diego Wave's expansion footsteps from 2022 by finishing above the playoff line feels imminently possible. -- Lowery

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Nigeria's Asisat Oshoala looks forward to new challenges at Bay FC

Bay FC's new signing Asisat Oshoala discusses what challenges she expects after joining the NWSL expansion team from Barcelona.

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Biggest offseason moves: Under new owner Laura Ricketts, the Chicago Red Stars have a new coach in Lorne Donaldson and a new general manager in Richard Feuz. Fresh faces and financial resources are being put into this club, which is a good sign for fans after Chicago finished dead-last in the NWSL in 2023.

Star USWNT forward Mallory Swanson is sticking around, too. She signed a record-breaking contract over the offseason and will be itching to go after suffering a long-term knee injury last April.

The big question going into 2024: Will the defense stabilize? There are plenty of open questions for the Red Stars, but the biggest one focuses on the defense after Chicago allowed the most goals in the league in 2023. With Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger gone and Alyssa Naeher struggling in goal last season, there's tons of pressure on the defensive additions to shore things up.

Sam Staab, acquired in a trade with Washington, will spearhead that effort from her center back spot. Donaldson will also lean towards a conservative tactical approach that should provide a solid structure for his players.

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2024 will be a success if... Swanson stays healthy and this team hangs near the playoff line. It's too early in the organizational rebuild for lofty expectations in Chicago. The midfield is light on top-end talent and bonds need to be made along the backline. But if Swanson is on the field for close to a full season, she'll be an MVP candidate.

With one of the league's best goal scorers knifing through opposing defenses, the Red Stars could be a threat to finish inside the top eight after a hugely disappointing 2023. -- Lowery

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Biggest offseason moves: Uh, how much time do you have? Four USWNT players signed for Gotham in free agency: Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson, Rose Lavelle, and Emily Sonnett. That's not a bad way to follow up being crowned NWSL champions at the end of last season. Between the new quartet of national teamers and returning high-level talent like Lynn Williams, Midge Purce, Esther González, and Jenna Nighswonger, manager Juan Carlos Amoros won't be short on options.

This club made a huge statement this winter and starts 2024 with equally huge expectations.

The big question going into 2024: How strong are the center backs? With so many elite attackers, Gotham will score goals. The midfield is both more talented and more flexible than it was last year. The same is true at both fullback spots. The middle of the backline, though, looks like the weakness.

Tierna Davidson struggled in Chicago last year after returning from injury. Will she be back to her old self? And is there enough talent next to her? Veteran defender Ali Krieger retired in the offseason. With the deck stacked higher up the field, being a Gotham center back won't be the easiest job.

2024 will be a success if... they repeat as NWSL champions. There's no other acceptable outcome for Gotham FC this year. How could there be? With an overflowing amount of talent added to a group of returners that was already gaining steam at the end of last season, they should expect playoff wins. Let's throw in a first-place regular season finish, too, while we're at it.

Expect a whole lot of fun, brutally effective, winning soccer from Gotham this year. -- Lowery

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Crystal Dunn speaks about the strength of Gotham FC after her move to the club.

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Biggest offseason moves: There's a new manager in Houston: Fran Alonso. The 47-year-old Spanish manager most recently coached Celtic in the Scottish Women's Premier League. Winger Cece Kizer also arrived in a trade with the Kansas City Current that sent Nichelle Prince the other way. Kizer should provide more consistency for a Dash team that desperately needs more attacking production. Houston only scored 13 goals in open play during the entirety of the 2023 regular season, marking one of the worst scoring seasons in league history.

The big question going into 2024: Is María Sánchez elite? The 28-year-old signed the richest contract in league history over the offseason -- or, at least it was until Mallory Swanson put pen to paper in Chicago, and other lucrative deals quickly followed.

Sanchez is clearly a talented player. She's an elite dribbler and has good vision in the final third. But can she take the Dash's attack to the next level this year? Sanchez scored just six combined goals in the last two seasons in Houston. Ideally, she'll get help from Kizer and Diana Ordoñez. But really, this has to be Sanchez's team.

2024 will be a success if... they get back to the playoffs. The Houston Dash haven't had much playoff success across their 10 years in the NWSL. In fact, they've only qualified for the postseason once in club history. The squad hasn't improved enough to dream of shooting way up the standings. At minimum, climbing a couple of spots from their 10th-place finish in 2023 to eighth would give the Dash a chance to pull off an upset or two in the postseason. -- Lowery

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ESPN BET odds to win title: +1200

Biggest offseason moves: Vlatko Andonovski's return to the sidelines in Kansas City after coming up well short with the USWNT at last summer's World Cup is a big deal. His tactical and personnel decisions will be scrutinized early and often in 2024.

But you know what's a bigger deal than a new coach? The brand-new CPKC Stadium. The first stadium in the world built for a professional women's sports team, the Current's new home will welcome a capacity crowd of 11,500 for their home opener against the Portland Thorns on Saturday. This place is now a must-visit soccer spot in the United States.

The big question going into 2024: Can this team stay healthy? Injuries hit the Kansas City Current like a truck last season, impacting more than half the players in the squad on the way to finishing only above the Red Stars in the final standings.

If Debinha stays healthy and has warm bodies around her in the attack, no one will count out the Current. If not -- and if the new signings up front don't take pressure off the defense -- they'll struggle.

2024 will be a success if... the 2022 vibes are back. The Kansas City Current don't have to finish atop the NWSL standings for this year to be a successful one. But if they can recapture even some of the vibes from their fifth-place finish and run to the championship two years ago, 2024 will be a smash-hit.

Andonovski shouldn't feel pressured to reinvent the tactical wheel with this team. Simply maximizing the chances for his attackers to run off Debinha and into open space will do quite nicely. -- Lowery

The 2023 season was a frustrating one for Brazilian star Debinha, who often didn't have the supporting cast she needed, and spent much of the season herself injured. Scott Sewell/USA TODAY

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Biggest offseason moves: With star Brazilian forward Kerolin out with an ACL injury, the Courage entered the offseason needing to bolster their attack. Enter: Ashley Sanchez. Signed in a trade with the Washington Spirit, the U.S. international should fit nicely in North Carolina manager Sean Nahas' possession-heavy system, which will rely on Sanchez's creativity to provide an edge in the final third.

Sanchez wasn't the only notable move for this team, though. With Emily Fox off to Arsenal, North Carolina signed left back Feli Rauch from German giants Wolfsburg.

The big question going into 2024: Will all of the possession lead to chances? No team in the NWSL came close to rivaling North Carolina's passing numbers last year. They led the league in possession (59.6%), passes per sequence (3.58), and sequences of 10 or more passes (273), according to Opta. Nahas wants his team to control games with the ball, but that control eventually needs to turn into chances. The Courage finished 10th in the league in expected goals last season. To improve -- or even maintain -- their third-place finish in 2023, the Courage must be more incisive.

2024 will be a success if... the attack starts creating. Casey Murphy is an asset in goal. Three regular starters are back in the defensive line. There's continuity in the midfield. So make no mistake: the attack will define North Carolina's ceiling this year.

If they can manufacture chances even without Kerolin's threat, they'll have no trouble pushing for a home playoff game later this season. But if not? Regression is lurking right around the corner. -- Lowery

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Biggest offseason moves: The Pride signed a number of players this offseason to bolster last year's young, aspirational roster that fell just short of the playoffs on goal differential. Notable additions include exciting Brazilian talents to complement the ones already in house -- namely Angelina from the Seattle Reign and Luana from Corinthians. But no bigger offseason move outshines the acquisition of Zambian forward Barbra Banda, signed from Shanghai Shengli FC in the Chinese Women's Super League, for a whopping $740,000 dollar transfer fee -- the second-highest transfer signing in women's football history.

Turning just 24 this March, Banda has excelled as a goalscorer at both the club and international level, and will be expected to add dynamism to Orlando's attacking line.

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SATURDAY, MARCH 16 (all times ET)• Wolverhampton vs. Coventry (8 a.m.)Swansea City vs. Cardiff City (8 a.m.)Union Berlin vs. Werder Bremen (10 a.m.)Osasuna vs. Real Madrid (11 a.m.)Getafe vs. Girona (1 p.m.)Manchester City vs. Newcastle (1 p.m.)KC Current vs. Portland Thorns (1 p.m.)Miami FC vs. Sac Republic (7 p.m.)Las Vegas Lights vs. FC Tulsa (8 p.m.)

SUNDAY, MARCH 17 (all times ET)• Chelsea vs. Leicester City (8:30 a.m.)Freiburg vs. Bayer Leverkusen (11 a.m.)Man United vs. Liverpool (11 a.m.)Leeds United vs. Millwall (11 a.m.)Borussia Dortmund vs. Eintracht (12 p.m.)PSV Eindhoven vs. FC Twente (3 p.m.)Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona (4 p.m.)

The big question going into 2024: Do they have the fitness and flexibility to compete? There is a strong returning core to the Pride, who've still appeared in the playoffs just once in program history. That includes the leadership of Brazilian legend, Marta, whose worth ethic and talent should be expected to help shape a still-young team. But recent injuries (Rafaelle Souza and Simone Charley) bring to light line-up questions for a team with competitive depth that will need flexibility and adaptability -- both in their personnel as well as tactics -- to achieve success this season.

2024 will be a success if... they start strong and don't drop easy points along the way. Now entering his second full-season in charge of Orlando, manager Seb Hines has emphasized the need to start strong, as 2023 began with four-straight losses that bit them in the end last season.

Orlando also collected 10 wins in 2023 -- tied for second-highest in the league -- and beat top-of-the-table teams, but dropped points in winnable matches, coming away with only one draw and 11 losses, the third most in the league. -- Megan Swanick

ESPN BET odds to win title: +400

Biggest offseason moves: Portland bid farewell to USWNT star Crystal Dunn, who signed for her hometown club Gotham FC as a free agent. While Dunn will be missed, the Thorns did bring back two other club legends in Christine Sinclair -- the NWSL's second all-time leading goalscorer -- and Becky Sauerbrunn, who bring veteran off-field dynamism to a young roster. But the biggest addition in Portland is Canada's newly installed captain, Jessie Fleming, who joins from English juggernauts Chelsea. Fleming, 26, brings loads of experience to a young, dynamic midfield that includes two exciting U.S. internationals in 18-year-old Olivia Moultrie and 25-year-old Sam Coffey.

The big question going into 2024: Can the youths take it to the next level? Portland are a consistently strong team and, equipped with new ownership, will be expected to challenge again at the top of the table in a competitive league built on parity. But with Dunn gone and other veterans returning on short contracts, 2024 is the time for players like 2023 NWSL Golden Boot winner and USWNT star Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver, Coffey and even Moultrie to take more vocal veteran roles and push toward ever-higher levels.

2024 will be a success if... Smith and Weaver combine for attacking dominance, and players use the league as a proving ground. There's a lot of national team talent here that has something to prove in an Olympic season -- that includes, but isn't limited to, the U.S. national team. With Coffey and Moultrie vying for U.S. roster spots after a strong W Gold Cup, and Smith looking to reclaim her leading role, 2024 will be a success if they tear into the NWSL knowing that incoming USWNT manager Emma Hayes is watching. -- Swanick

With Sophia Smith returning, alongside young USWNT hopefuls Sam Coffey and Olivia Moultrie, plus veterans Christine Sinclair and Becky Sauerbrunn, the Thorns maintain their solid core roster. Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports

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Biggest offseason moves: Perhaps Louisville's biggest offseason move wasn't a player acquisition, but signing Bev Yanez as their head coach. Yanez shifts into the top position after a year as assistant for Racing, and before that she was an as assistant coach with Gotham. Yanez, who played in the NWSL for several seasons, mostly with Seattle, has a strong tactical vision, hoping to bring a more possession-based style of soccer to Kentucky.

On the player front, Racing Louisville signed the 6-foot-1 dynamic midfielder, Taylor Flint (nee Kornieck), who left the NWSL Shield-winning San Diego Wave.

The big question going into 2024: Can they keep building their identity, and stick to it as the harsh realities of the ultra-competitive NWSL take hold? Yanez has called Louisville "a work in progress" this offseason, but seems to believe the one thing that has started to come together is the team's identity, which she described as, "bravery and wanting the ball and wanting to be a part of the action." Sticking with that and executing will be the difficult part.

2024 will be a success if... Louisville reach the playoffs. Entering their fourth season in NWSL, Racing have yet to make the playoffs, but with the players they have returning, like sensational playmaker Savannah DeMelo, it feels like the time has come. Yanez will lean on returning players with growing experience like DeMelo, Carson Pickett, and Ary Borges, along with Flint, to guide the rest of the team, including rookie forward Reilyn Turner, who joins from UCLA. -- Swanick

Savannah DeMelo, being carried, celebrates scoring for Racing Louisville last season. Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports

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Biggest offseason moves: Fewer teams are in a bigger moment of transition than the Seattle Reign, who this season will return to their original name. (The parent group of Olympique Lyon bought the team and renamed it "OL Reign" in 2020, but are in the process of reselling to local owners.) For the first full season since Reign started play in 2013, club legend Megan Rapinoe will not be on the roster after her retirement.

Returning manager Laura Harvey has other starting line-up holes to fill with a pair of USWNT stars, midfielder Rose Lavelle and defender/midfielder Emily Sonnett, both signing for Gotham in free agency.

The big question going into 2024: Will the continuity of Harvey, three-time Coach of the Year, be enough to stabilize the three-time NWSL Shield winners in a time of massive change? Harvey will have Reign veterans by her side, like Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock, who is joined by a growing Welsh contingent in the offseason, as midfielder Angharad James and defender Lily Woodham join ranks. But it's unclear how the newcomers, including South Korean midfielder Ji So-Yun from Suwon FC, will do in Seattle, and it's up to Harvey to make it work.

2024 will be a success if... Harvey can become the first coach in NWSL history to reach 200 matches as head gaffer. If anybody knows how to last and succeed in this chaotic league, it's Harvey, but this will be a challenging season with the high-profile exits the team has had. Therefore, this campaign will be a success if the youth talent that Harvey has been developing for years delivers for her and emerge alongside the club's experienced talents, such as Jordyn Huitema, Sofia Huerta and Veronica Latsko. -- Swanick

Reign FC will be without star winger Megan Rapinoe, who retired at the end of the 2023 season. Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports

ESPN BET odds to win title: +300

Biggest offseason moves: Despite sending Taylor Kornieck (nee Flint) to Racing Louisville, the reigning NWSL Shield winning squad is more or less intact this season. Bolstering an already strong squad, the Wave has brought in Savannah McCaskill from SoCal rivals Angel City FC in free agency, as well as a pair of emerging international talents in Australian full-back Kaitlyn Torpey and Swedish defender Hanna Lundkvist.

The big question going into 2024: Is this Jaedyn Shaw's MVP season? At 19, Shaw has already become the Wave's creative force and she's coming into the new season in-form after winning the Golden Ball at the Concacaf W Gold Cup, which the USWNT won. A key player for the Wave after a 2023 season that saw her combining well with veteran striker Alex Morgan, Shaw could be on a shortlist for MVP shouts in the coming season, making a massive third-year impact as she works with coach Casey Stoney to refine her already dynamic talents.

2024 will be a success if... the Wave can build on their regular season success of 2023 and reach the NWSL Championship in 2024. The Wave were the best team of the regular season last year, but their consistency took a turn when they were knocked out in the semifinals of the NWSL playoffs. The goal for 2024, then, should be to make it that one step further.

To that end, the Wave need to keep their squad healthy and develop their new, young signings into reliable starters. With a long season in an expanded league, the Wave will need to be wary of fatigue as a large portion of their starting line-up reports for national duty for several countries. -- Swanick

The trio, from left to right, of defender Naomi Girma, striker Alex Morgan and forward Sofia Jakobsson has been a reliable one for the San Diego Wave. Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire

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Biggest offseason moves: As one of 2024's two expansion teams, Utah Royals head into the season with an exciting mix of NWSL veterans and new arrivals. While their expansion side compatriots, Bay FC, approached 2024 with a series of landmark, marquee signings, the Royals opted for a more conservative build as they signed experienced NWSL players like Utah native and forward Michele Vasconcelos from Gotham FC, former Louisville forward Paige Monaghan, Orlando Pride midfielder Mikayla Cluff, Gotham defender Imani Dorsey, and Gotham forward Ify Onumonu.

Among the team's new arrivals to the NWSL, the most intriguing is the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NWSL college draft, 20-year-old forward, Ally Sentnor, who played her collegiate career at North Carolina.

The big question going into 2024: How quickly can it all come together? The Royals will be led by player-turned manager Amy Rodriguez, who is making her professional head coaching debut. While she'll be hoping the NWSL veterans coming in can lead the way, the Royals are also adding some players to the league, including Swedish midfielder Agnes Nyberg and Dutch midfielder Dana Foederer, along with Sentnor. The Royals' first year back will depend on how quickly these players get comfortable with each other and with Rodriguez's tactical approach.

2024 will be a success if... they look like they belong. Making the NWSL playoffs as an expansion team is never easy, and for the Royals the measure of success may be more about playing respectable soccer rather than hitting a certain spot on the table. -- Swanick

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NWSL commissioner plans to expand to 16 teams by 2026

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Biggest offseason moves: After a disappointing end to 2023, the Spirit quickly turned in the offseason to replacing manager Mark Parsons with FC Barcelona's well-decorated manager Jonatan Giráldez, who will take up the reins at the end of Barcelona's season. Although not a former player, Giráldez might be the biggest offseason signing in the league with a decorated resume that includes a UEFA Champions League title and two Liga F league titles. While his addition speaks to the Spirit's desire to play beautiful, possession-based soccer, he won't be here until this summer and Spanish manager Adrián González will lead in the interim.

The big question going into 2024: Will the midseason arrival of Giráldez ultimately help or hurt their 2024 ambitions? Giráldez may very well be worth the wait, but the timing could prove a bit disorienting. Add in the difference in styles Giráldez will encounter when he leaves the technical, possession-based Spanish league for the faster, more transitional NWSL, and the Spirit are placing a big bet on a succession plan that is not a sure thing.

2024 will be a success if... they reach the playoffs. The Spirit were easily among the most talented teams to miss last year's playoffs. While they sent midfielder Ashley Sanchez to the Courage and Sam Staab to the Red Stars, many of the Spirit's key players are returning, including striker and 2021 Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch. They also add some exciting additions, including veteran defender Casey Krueger and six first-year signings. They'll need the veterans to execute like they did last season, while guiding a big rookie class into the league as they evolve into the Giráldez era. Team owner Michele Kang, however, has made it clear she has high expectations. -- Swanick

    

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