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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.