Washington Spirit players celebrating in 2019
Washington Spirit players celebrating in 2019 Credit: ISI Photos

The living room inside the Rockville apartment that Ashley Sanchez shares with fellow Washington Spirit rookies Averie Collins and Natalie Jacobs doesn’t resemble a gym. Not in any traditional sense, at least. But for the past two weeks, that’s exactly what it has been.

Sanchez and her teammates pushed the furniture back to the walls to create more space for their workouts. Household items like one gallon water bottles and books have morphed into weights. The sounds of squat jumps emanate from the room each day. 

Since being drafted fourth overall by the Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft three months ago, Sanchez, 21, has experienced the highs of being a professional soccer player, sharing the field with some of the best players in the world during preseason training camp in Florida, before that gave way to a newer, more unsettling reality: learning how to be a pro athlete while sports are on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It started off cool, but now I’m just in a weird place in my life,” Sanchez says. “It’s just a weird time.”

The same can be said for the Spirit. Heading into this season, the franchise had planned to execute its vision of taking the club to the next level after drafting five new players and signing six others. In addition to Sanchez, a star at UCLA, the team took four players out of college: Collins (Washington State), Jacobs (University of Southern California), Katie McClure (University of Kansas), and Kaiya McCullough (UCLA). The Spirit traded fan favorite World Cup player Mallory Pugh to Sky Blue FC in the offseason but welcomed back U.S. national team players Andi Sullivan, Aubrey Bledsoe, and World Cup hero Rose Lavelle.

“I’d be lying to you if I told you it wasn’t really frustrating, because we had so much excitement coming into the season,” says Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin. “Last year, it was kinda like, maybe let’s hope we can be good. We had the season we had. We had the changes in the roster we made coming into this year, we know we’re good. We know we have a really good team that has the ability to win it all.”

Last season set the stage for a potentially pivotal year for the franchise. Boosted by the women’s World Cup last summer, the team nearly sold out two matches at Audi Field in 2019, averaging 18,645 fans per game, and 5,200 people packed the Maryland SoccerPlex for its home finale just a year after a two-win season. 

With the intention of branching out to a larger fanbase, the Spirit also plans to play at three home venues this season: four games at their current base— the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, four games at Segra Field in Leesburg, Virginia, which has a capacity of 5,000 seats, and four games at Audi Field. The goal is to eventually play more matches at Audi Field, the home arena for D.C. United.

Front office members and players have spoken excitedly about riding the momentum from 2019 into this upcoming season.

Assuming there is one. 

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The NWSL recently extended its league-wide training moratorium until at least May 5. No official start date for the season has been set, but the league has said that it hopes to start at the end of June, a delay of over two months from the original April 18 kickoff. The start of the WNBA and MLB seasons are also delayed with no specific timeline, and last month the 2020 Tokyo Olympics became the biggest sporting event to be rescheduled. 

The current reality leaves the young but talented Spirit team in an unprecedented kind of limbo. Unable to properly train together, players like Sanchez are forced to recreate their workouts in their apartments with roommates and carry on a training regime without a solid understanding on when they’ll be back on the field.

Like Sanchez, second-year Spirit player Paige Nielsen has found creative ways to work out. The training moratorium means that the Spirit can’t have team training sessions, but individual players and those who live together have still been finding ways to stay fit. 

Nielsen, 26, wakes up at 6:30 every morning—“with the sun,” she says—and makes breakfast. Then her and her roommate, Bayley Feist, will have a fitness challenge of at least 30 pull-ups and 100 push-ups. Michael Minthorne, the Spirit’s high performance director, has been supplying workout routines, but not all players have access to the same equipment. 

While Nielsen says the team is in the process of getting bikes and rowers for each apartment, players have had to use their own resources until then. Baldwin adds that players will also be receiving weights, exercise ladders, PRx bands, and additional psychological support.

“I think the biggest challenge right now is how do we best serve the players,” he says. “The league and our club are encouraging players to stay in the market but we have to help them from a nutrition perspective. We’re still doing a couple meals for them. We’re working to get the medical team involved to make sure they have everything they need on them. We’re working to try to find ways to keep them fit. The other thing we’re doing is trying to find as many ways as possible to occupy their time.”

For the past few weeks, Nielsen has been able to borrow some free weights from her apartment’s gym. To do hamstring slides, which involve laying on your back and sliding your feet back and forth on the ground, she cut up a large cardboard box. She also does some technical ball work on the tennis courts in her apartment complex, and other players have used a parking garage to practice soccer skills.

“We love what we do,” Nielsen says. “I love my job. I love everything about it. I love seeing my teammates every single day, joking with the coaches, pushing myself beyond what I’m capable of. It’s really hard to do that at this time.”

Every couple days, head coach Richie Burke checks in with his players via Zoom. “I think he’s bored out of his mind,” Sanchez says with a chuckle. He’ll reach out to the captains—Sullivan, Bledsoe, and Tori Huster—and there’s a separate group for the rookies.

In February, the NWSL brought in Lisa Baird, formerly the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee, to be its new commissioner, and since then, she’s helped the league sign marquee broadcast deals with CBS and the streaming service Twitch. Baird told Reutersearlier this month that players are still being paid and no NWSL staff has been laid off.

The team recently ramped up its content in order to reach its fans. In February, the Spirit hired Craig Hoffman as a full-time executive producer for “Spirit Media.” Hoffman, a part-time on-air host at 106.7 The Fan, has embraced the challenge of coming up with ways to reach Spirit fans during a time where sports are on pause.

“It’s how do we stay connected with fans when we can’t actually be with them,” Hoffman says. “How can we do stuff on the field, off the field. On the field is a relative term, that element of how can we get matches into their lives.”

On Saturday afternoons, the team has streamed match replays on Twitch with players commentating. Within 10 days, Hoffman helped organize multiple Zoom calls featuring players on the team, including two calls with youth clubs, one for the Spirit Squadron supporters’ group, two match replays, and a podcast recording with Sullivan. 

This Tuesday, the team launched “The Richie Burke Show,” a weekly series with Burke aired on Twitch, Facebook Live, and YouTube. 

“Especially in our new world, we’re very digitally connected,” Nielsen says. “I think I saw somewhere that it shouldn’t be called socially distancing, it should be physical distancing. We’re staying connected online.”

And as with many people in their 20s, there’s also TikTok. The Spirit has a team account, and the players have been doing TikTok challenges. They may not be able to dance in the locker room after victories right now, but at least players can find solace in the #onehandtwohandchallenge workout routine.

“I would want to say it’s me, but that’s not true,” Nielsen says when asked who has the best account. “Our Canadian player, Jenna Hellstrom, she’s had like 10 years of hip-hop dancing. She has this mean mug face down.”

In the coming weeks, Spirit players will be looking for ways to get involved in the community. Nielsen mentions that the team is planning on a blood drive and also wants to donate reusable and washable masks for people that need them. For now, Spirit players are doing their best to stay occupied in between their workouts.

Nielsen has been catching up on books. Sanchez and her roommates started painting succulent pots, doing puzzles, and watching Netflix, proving that, sometimes, professional athletes are just like the rest of us.

“I just started Ozark, and I finished All American, Tiger King, On My Block, that was like the last two weeks,” Sanchez says with a laugh. “It’s kind of concerning. It’s almost impressive.”

This article has been updated to correct the original date of the NWSL kickoff.