The most challenging thing about the NWSL Challenge Cup is waiting for it to start. Especially this year.
A month from now, on March 18, Racing Louisville FC and the Kansas City Current will kick off the third edition of the nearly two-month-long tournament. With two expansion teams entering the mix after an offseason filled with trades, the league is going to look much different in 2022.
Every week, we will take you behind the scenes of NWSL training camps, giving you insight into how teams are shaping up, what coaches and players are saying and, occasionally, the fun off-field updates you didn’t know you needed.
This week’s entry takes you coast to coast, with thoughts on the Washington Spirit, North Carolina Courage, San Diego Wave and OL Reign.
The 2021 NWSL champions Washington Spirit have undergone some big changes both on and off the field. Y. Michele Kang assumed majority ownership of the team on Feb. 8 after a very public dispute with former majority owner Steve Baldwin that lasted nearly half a year. On the field, 11 players are currently away from the team on international duty, including seven with the U.S. women’s national team at the SheBelieves Cup.
Head coach Kris Ward and players Andi Sullivan, Tara McKeown and Karina Rodriguez spoke to the media recently about Kang, who acquired the interests of Baldwin and Bill Lynch to become the first non-white, female majority owner in the NWSL. While they said the news came as a relief, they also seemed worn down from all the activity of the past few months.
“There’s a lot that we still have to recover from,” Ward said.
The coach has been trying to check in with every player individually to gauge how they’re doing after a tumultuous season. In the span of several months last year, head coach Richie Burke was fired amid accusations of verbal and emotional abuse, a COVID-19 outbreak within the team led to two forfeited games, the ownership dispute reached a tipping point and the Spirit overcame it all to win the 2021 championship. Meanwhile, the NWSL was dealing with the fallout from multiple abuse scandals that rocked the league with firings and resignations.
“It’s definitely easier, but there’s still fatigue from it, for sure,” Ward said. “That suffering part is still going to take some people to get over, the fatigue of the last six months, eight, nine, 10 months — however long it’s really been.”
The Spirit still need a home facility, too. They spent the first two weeks of preseason at a public sports complex in Virginia.
On the brighter side, the team is viewing the absences of 11 players as a good problem to have.
“To have to lose them multiple times throughout the year, that’s what the best clubs have to deal with, so we have to be able to adjust and adapt to that reality,” Ward said.
While veterans Andi Sullivan, Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett are away with the USWNT, Ward is looking to Sam Staab and Dorian Bailey to step up as leaders, with help from Gaby Vincent.
7️⃣ players from your 2021 NWSL Champs are on the USWNT roster for January camp. That's 27 percent of the total roster!— Washington Spirit (@WashSpirit) January 12, 2022
7️⃣ players from your 2021 NWSL Champs are on the USWNT roster for January camp. That's 27 percent of the total roster!
While North Carolina Courage players dealt with their own emotional turmoil last season, after head coach Paul Riley was fired following accusations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse, coach Sean Nahas has taken a very different approach.
“I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t talked about last fall at all,” Nahas said. “I don’t want to with the players. I want to stay forward and focused. We should never be stagnant and complacent with where we are.”
Nahas said the new CBA represents a massive step forward for the league, and the Courage have gotten better about providing the players with support and resources, such as housing and doctors. A clause in the CBA also offers players up to six months of paid mental health leave.
On the field, Nahas has been extremely satisfied with the players’ energy and fitness levels, saying they’re the best he’s ever seen at the beginning of preseason. By the sounds of it, the Courage have been training at a higher intensity than the majority of other teams in the NWSL so far. With so many coaches encouraging their players to ease into the preseason environment, especially after everything that happened last season, the Courage seem to be a bit of an outlier. Nahas and veteran Denise O’Sullivan both said the players have set that high standard for themselves.
Never not trying to make it a "Monday Funday" 🤗#CourageUnitesUs pic.twitter.com/jIpWaN43l0— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) February 14, 2022
Never not trying to make it a "Monday Funday" 🤗#CourageUnitesUs pic.twitter.com/jIpWaN43l0
Over on the West coast, when San Diego Wave FC head coach Casey Stoney isn’t at the training facility, she’s been focusing on food.
“Am I a chef? No,” she said. “But I love cooking. I think it’s quite therapeutic. You can be creative and make decent recipes, and I also love making people happy by food. I think you can have a real pleasure in cooking someone a nice meal.”
She’s been cooking up a storm on the soccer field, too, building the expansion team from the ground up while instilling a culture. The main ingredient? Trust.
“A lot of the players here haven’t experienced an environment where they can trust people, so building relationships and building care into our environment,” Stoney said.
The coach has been regularly checking in with players, especially the rookies. In Stoney’s initial meeting with them, the first question she asked was, “Can you cook?” Those who couldn’t, she said, would be enrolled in cooking classes and given nutritional menus, setting them up to be the best soccer players they can be.
Perhaps the most underrated news to come out of NWSL camps this week is that OL Reign roommates Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock are thinking of getting a dog. Barnes said it’ll likely be a rescue, and a small lap dog like a Chihuahua or Jack Russell Terrier.
Apparently this is news to OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey.
“This is going to be an interesting journey,” Harvey said. “This should be chronicled on something, Instagram or something, because watch out.”
Meanwhile, Harvey has found delight in her new passion for country music. The coach committed to creating a playlist at some point and “rocking out” to show everyone her “fave” new jams. That should probably be chronicled, too.
Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.