‘It’s a lot for sure’: Washington Spirit interim coach focused on creating safe space

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It would be an understatement to say Washington Spirit interim coach Kris Ward has led his team through turmoil after stepping into his role mid-August.

Most recently, former coach Richie Burke was formally terminated on Tuesday after the NWSL concluded its investigation and announced he had violated the league’s anti-harassment policy. On Thursday morning, The Athletic released their report on North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley’s sexual coercion, a case that affected players across the league. The Courage fired Riley on Thursday, and on Friday, the NWSL announced that no games would be played this weekend.

The Spirit have been making headlines since Aug. 10 following the initial allegations against Burke, conflicts among the team’s owners and investors, and the franchise’s breaching of COVID protocols that included four positive cases on the team, resulting in two forfeited matches on Aug. 29 and Sept. 4.

Needless to say, Washington cannot catch an emotional break.

“When we were training this morning, you could tell it was a heavy air,” Ward said Thursday, the same day the Riley report was released and before the weekend’s games were cancelled. “I just have to be mindful of that and I have to allow them to let me know how they’re feeling, what they’re feeling, what they’re ready to discuss or not ready to discuss, and it’s okay to not discuss things right now. It’s okay for them to have that time for sure, so I don’t know. It’s a lot for sure.”

On the pitch, the Washington Spirit are fighting for a playoff spot heading into their final few games of the season, but for some players it’s difficult to focus on soccer these days.

“Since coming into this role, a lot of it has been trying to create space for the players, hold space for the players, to check myself and not feel like I have all the answers for them or that I could even assume to,” said Ward, who was originally hired as Washington’s assistant coach in 2020.

Following the Riley report on Thursday, NWSL players demanded more from the league, which has fined franchises for infringements such as announcing trades too early but has failed to adequately address situations affecting players’ health and well-being.

Many fans have called for players to boycott their upcoming games, but Ward said he hasn’t heard anything about whether a protest is in the works.

Riley was fired from North Carolina on Thursday and replaced by interim coach Sean Nahas, according to statements from the North Carolina Courage and the NWSL.

Coincidentally, the Spirit were scheduled to face the Courage on Friday; an interesting matchup considering the events of the week, and one that has since been postponed. It’s unclear when or if the game will be played.