Let’s get a few things out of the way first. The Washington Spirit have problems — some of their own making, some not. (Some of this was covered earlier in my Guardian piece on the club’s issues.)
- Last year’s national anthem fiasco was, first of all, the wrong decision on the club’s part. (Make no mistake — a lot of people spoke up in support of Bill Lynch, just not within the narrow confines of the women’s soccer community. But you simply can’t make a point about patriotism by stifling peaceful free expression. And I’d challenge the people who said “Oh, I’m a Spirit fan now!” to actually show up at some games this year.)
- The anthem fiasco was also symptomatic of a persistent issue with the club, which is that it simply does not get public relations. That’s not the fault of the people who’ve done the club’s PR work. It’s higher up.
- Along those same lines — while it’s not fair to slap a “homophobic” label on Lynch after Joanna Lohman spoke up for him, would it kill the Spirit to have a Pride Night? One potential positive: Maybe players around the league (not just Washington) who have hesitated to go public will do so. It’s sad to think that anyone is living like Barry Manilow did for so many years, unable to talk in public about a partner or spouse who means so much. The decision to speak in public is personal, and some may choose to remain silent, but women’s soccer as a whole should reiterate that this is a community of allies. (Worth noting, though: The notion that the Spirit is the only club not to have a Pride Night is disputed.)
- A lot of players left, for diverse reasons. Some had issues with coach Jim Gabarra because they felt they deserved a bigger role. (A couple may have had a case; a couple are deluding themselves.) The anthem incident and other management issues surely played a part in some other departures.
- More troubling from my perspective: The staff turnover. They’ve lost some good people. Players are just packing up and moving to another club. Staff members who leave are generally rooted in the community and are leaving the game entirely.
- The Development Academy efforts in Virginia are off to a shaky start. Several clubs with proven track records of developing players have removed themselves from Spirit partnerships, replaced by clubs that have some wonderful coaches but are considerably smaller in size and past achievements.
Add it all up, and it’s easy to see how negative narratives can pop up. The Narrative now is simple: “Nobody wants to play for the Spirit. They’re the worst club in the league.”
From 20-something years in journalism, I can say this: The Narrative is usually somewhere between “oversimplified” and “flat-out wrong.” It was wrong over and over again in last year’s election. Journalists deserve most of the blame for that, but the data we get from readers also steer us in that direction. It’s human nature to find a simple way to read a story and stick with it.
In this case, there have been plenty of bad situations around the league. Kansas City fans are hoping new ownership can erase the stains of last year’s messy implosion. Some clubs have horrible playing and training surfaces, though the Spirit simply got lucky there by inheriting space at the Maryland SoccerPlex from past women’s pro teams. (Washington may be the one metro area in the U.S. in which the women’s club has better fields than the men’s club — everything at D.C. United’s lame-duck home of RFK Stadium reeks of neglect.)
And other clubs simply don’t draw the scrutiny that the Spirit, a polarizing team for many reasons, have always drawn. Gabarra’s every move is questioned here. My memory may be fading, but I don’t remember him being on such a hot seat at Sky Blue.
So The Narrative is certainly oversimplified. We can’t say “no one wants to play in Washington.” If we could survey every player in the league, we’d surely find some players — including some good ones — who would be happy to have a change of scenery.
And The Narrative includes a few unsubstantiated or unfair accusations. Some of the chatter yesterday was on the rash of ACL injuries among Spirit players in the last 12 months — if someone has evidence that this is due to overuse or poor physical training, speak up, but it still wouldn’t explain Kelsey Wys being injured in Australia. Also, a lot of critics have piled on with complaints of “unfair treatment” of Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, refusing to even consider the possibility that Wys simply played too well last season to lose her spot. (The way Labbe has started this season, Wys might not reclaim the starting spot when she finishes rehab. It’s unfortunate, but there’s simply no scapegoat here.)
All that said … The Narrative needs changing. It’s not just a question of appeasing critics who are eager to pile on for various reasons (some political, some because of allegiances to other teams, some who don’t realize a lot of clubs would’ve lost patience with Ali Krieger a lot sooner than the Spirit did). A lot has gone wrong at the SoccerPlex, and a considerable amount of it is the Spirit’s fault.
And fans are clearly voting with their feet. Some of the Spirit Squadron will show up to cheer for Tori Huster and anyone else who battles for their hometown team no matter what. Some won’t.
The Spirit needs to change something to reverse the trend. And now they have a golden opportunity. Mallory Pugh is ready to go pro. The Spirit would be first in line to bring her to the NWSL, but numerous reports say she’d much rather go to Portland.
We can argue about whether Pugh has the right to hold the league hostage as she is. That’s something soccer fans have argued at least since Freddy Adu maneuvered his way to D.C. United way back when, and sports fans can remember everyone from John Elway to Danny Ferry refusing to go where they were drafted. That’s a complex argument for another day.
And we don’t know what Portland has offered. Merritt Paulson apparently disputes the idea that the Thorns have offered up two federation players (they have several U.S. players in that category, plus Christine Sinclair), but I don’t know what to make of that.
For the record, I did get a comment from Gabarra late last night: “We haven’t even been told yet that Mal is going to be an funded player this year. Therefore, we aren’t going to talk about any deals offered, accepted, or rejected. As we’ve said, we believe Mal is an extraordinary player with tremendous potential. If she is joining the NWSL we would certainly love to have her play in DC. Her talents and skills would be a perfect fit for our style of play and she will continue her growth and development here as a player.”
You can fault Gabarra for saying very little, but it’s not as if the Thorns, one of the most adored clubs in the NWSL, are sending clear signals themselves.
But let’s assume for the moment that no one is misleading all of the reporters, and Pugh is indeed in play. If the Spirit can make a deal with the suddenly valuable No. 1 Allocation Ranking Thing That Apparently Exists, they can accomplish two things:
- They’ll earn goodwill among players and many fans for helping Pugh play where she wants.
- They’ll show to the fans that they’re not giving up on this season, getting someone good in return for all the puzzling trades they’ve made in the offseason.
Simple narratives are rarely a good thing. But simple solutions are often best.