“I’m trying to uphold kind of what Washington stands for, which is hard work and busting our butts every game,” says Estelle Johnson when we talk over the phone a few days after the Spirit’s 0-0 draw with Sky Blue. That mentality was on full display in stoppage time, when Johnson sprinted after Shea Groom as the forward drove toward goal on a transition play, making a sliding block in the nick of time to hold Sky Blue scoreless.
For the most part, this season hasn’t been kind to Washington, who are sitting in eighth place with nine points. But whether you’re a veteran like Johnson or a league newcomer like the numerous youngsters on this Spirit team, weathering difficulty is part of the game. It’s a challenge that Johnson, the veteran centerback with the signature slide tackle, is attacking with grace and positivity.
“We’ve been really focused on keeping everything positive and going out there and giving our best effort every week,” she says.
As a player, she’s no stranger to adversity. Between WPS and the NWSL, she’s battled her way to four championship finals, and lost four times, in four very different games. But at this level, the hunger to compete is fierce, and coming that close only intensifies it. It’s that competitive drive that keeps Johnson coming back when many people would have quit — even when, for a year in 2014, she did quit, heading for what she thought was retirement from the sport.
“In my offseasons previous to that, I had been taking classes and coaching at a school called Avila University,” she explains. “I was on my last trimester and there was going to be a coaching switch and I didn’t really know where I would have stood had I not finished my master’s during that season.”
She finished her degree, got a desk job, and tried to embark on a new phase in life — but soccer pulled her back in. “Every single weekend, I was like, ‘No, I can’t go out tonight, I’ve got a game to watch.’ Then I’m like, ‘Wait, why am I not playing in these games?'”
“I was getting a lot of FOMO,” she remembers. When Washington came calling after the 2014 season — she’d played for the Western New York Flash in 2013 — she found the opportunity impossible to resist.
Nonetheless, transitioning back into soccer was “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she says. During her season away from the sport, “I was so focused on school, and I was coaching, and I was working, so I didn’t have time to work out. There were not enough hours.”
“I remember having conversations with Mark Parsons, who was the coach when I came to Washington, and I was like, ‘Listen, man, I haven’t worked out, so I don’t really think that I can do this.'” Parsons was adamant the coaching staff would work her back into the fold. “Still to this day, I put, like, half of my career on him. He was like, ‘I want you to come back and play. We’ll get you fit, I promise you, we’ll work you in.’ And he was right.”
Johnson was a mainstay in the back line that year on a Spirit team that made the playoffs for the second year in a row, only to lose in the semifinals. The following year, Jim Gabarra replaced Parsons, and brought in Canadian centerback Shelina Zadorsky, sending Johnson to the bench for the first nine games of the season. It was only when Zadorsky left for the Rio Olympics that Johnson first saw minutes. She got 11 starts that season, roughly splitting that starting centerback spot with Zadorsky. Ultimately, it was Zadorsky who got the start in the 2016 championship against Western New York — which the Spirit lost in penalties.
After all that, Johnson’s competitive spark remains undimmed. “I want to win an NWSL championship,” she says.
If her drive to win hasn’t changed since joining the Spirit, just about everything else has. Besides the coaching change after 2015, the roster underwent a significant overhaul after the 2016 season; this offseason, Gabarra brought in a pile of young talent in Andi Sullivan, Rose Lavelle, Rebecca Quinn and Ashley Hatch. Those players join Mallory Pugh, the 20-year-old USWNT star, who was added to the roster in 2017.
“It’s been crazy the amount of changes that have happened in the last couple years,” she says. “I think that the few of us who have been around for three, four, I think Tori [Huster] has been here for five years, is just to try and lead everybody in the same direction, regardless of the cast.”
The league itself, meanwhile, has only gotten more competitive, something Johnson has a veteran’s perspective on. “I would say this year is pretty comparable to the last couple years I played in WPS,” she remembers. “Every team was a star-studded, stacked team, and every single game was a battle. That’s exactly how it feels this year.”
Stepping up to that challenge, Johnson has put together some highlight-reel defensive performances this season. When the Spirit nabbed a road draw against star-studded Portland back in April, Johnson rendered the Thorns forwards a non-factor with her famous slide tackles:
That extra competition also only adds to the challenge of integrating so many young players. “I know it’s been hard on the rookies this season, especially,” Johnson says. “The cohesion of the group is really important to us, just making sure everybody feels comfortable and knowing that sometimes you need to instill a little confidence in some of the younger players.”
“I never want to be that player who makes you feel worse than you already do about a missed shot or a missed pass or whatever. I try to adopt the attitude of, it’s done and over with, and on to the next thing.”
What that next thing is doesn’t ever really change. Train, grind, play, repeat, all with a singular end goal: win. If, right now, Johnson has to manage things “game by game,” as she says, that’s all part of the process. “I still have goals to reach,” she says. “I’m by no means giving up on those dreams just yet.”