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Washington Spirit: What has gone wrong for the defending NWSL champions?

(Scott Taetsch/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Washington Spirit have had a trying 2022 season, with the club notching just one win after charging to the 2021 NWSL title.

To identify one root cause of the Spirit’s issues this season would prove nearly impossible: a gauntlet of an early-season schedule, a bevy of player absences, the mounting pressure to break the losing skid.

The tensions came to a head this week, as coach Kris Ward was relieved of his duties after a confrontation that occurred during one of the team’s training sessions. He was fired amid a 17-match winless streak dating back to May 1, with just six matches left on the NWSL regular season schedule.

The 2022 campaign marked a startling shift in form for the Spirit, who prevailed in 2021 despite a tumultuous ownership saga, the firing of head coach Richie Burke and the wider NWSL reckoning around coaching abuses.

So, how did the 2022 season go so wrong for Washington?

Frenetic schedule

The Spirit fell victim to their own successes to start the season.

The squad made a run to the Challenge Cup final in May. For the finalists, the preseason tournament stretched across eight matches, with Washington’s regular season opener sandwiched between its last group stage match and the Challenge Cup semifinal.

After the tournament final, just 12 days separated the Spirit’s next four games, with the team playing a total of seven games in less than a month.

“There were so many consequences, in my mind, that came from the Challenge Cup for us and many others, as well,” Ward told The Athletic following his firing. “And then just the difficult run of games. All of those games back-to-back-to-back for seven, eight weeks; it was a twofold problem in that the people who were playing had to continue to play.

“Because we were playing every three days we couldn’t train, so the players who were trying to come back couldn’t get minutes against that level or that intensity because they’d be training one-on-one or with the reserve team. It made it difficult to get players back.”

Injury and international duty

The Spirit have played without key players too often to find a rhythm with their roster.

Co-captain and midfield anchor Andi Sullivan started the season with a knock, almost immediately putting Washington on the back foot.

Then the team had to manage during the international break as players left to compete for the U.S. women’s national team at the Concacaf W Championship in July. With World Cup and Olympic qualifying on the line, this summer’s national team call-ups carried different weight and demanded a higher level of concentration.

The Spirit consistently have sent the most players to the USWNT this year, with Kelley O’Hara, Aubrey Kingsbury, Emily Sonnett, Ashley Sanchez, Sullivan, Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman routinely called into camp.

O’Hara will miss the USWNT’s September friendlies due to a lingering hip injury, though she has continued to play for the Spirit. Sonnett will also miss the friendlies, but she also has been ruled out for the rest of the NWSL season with a foot injury.

The team signed midfielder Marissa Sheva and forward Audrey Harding through the end of the season to fill the gaps in their roster.

Did Ward lose the locker room?

Ward’s relationships with several players had frayed this season ahead of his dismissal, The Washington Post reported.

Spirit general manager Mark Krikorian later told reporters that, following an Aug. 19 confrontation between Ward and a player at practice, “it became apparent to me and to all that a change was necessary.”

While Krikorian declined to provide details of the incident or to say if the incident was part of a broader pattern of behavior from Ward, the ex-coach told The Athletic that he had yelled at the player in question but claimed that he stopped short of name-calling or belittling.

“I think, looking at it now, if I had to do it again, I would do it differently,” Ward said. “Typically, my style is one-on-one, having a conversation off to the side.”

When asked directly by The Athletic if he lost the locker room, Ward responded, “Honestly, no.” Per Ward, though, Krikorian cited losing the locker room as a primary concern driving the decision to fire the coach.

Co-captain Andi Sullivan read a statement after the team’s first game following Ward’s firing, telling reporters that players “are angered by Kris Ward’s answers in the piece by The Athletic. We know the idiom there are two sides to every story, but that is simply not the case in this scenario.”

“We know his interview to be a completely inaccurate recollection of a serious situation and furthermore the apology offered to us last Friday demonstrates a misalignment in his word and actions toward this team,” Sullivan added.

The Spirit’s winless skid reached 18 after Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the Houston Dash. They still are seeking their first win since May 1 with five matches left in the regular season, but they’ll aim to end their challenging year on a high.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

One former player contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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