On Tuesday, the Spirit officially announced that the team will split its 12 home games across three fields next season, playing four games each at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Segra Field in Leesburg, and Audi Field in Southwest D.C. In 2021, the Spirit will play five games at Segra Field and seven at Audi Field, strengthening the team’s partnership with D.C. United and Loudoun United FC, DCU’s reserve team.
The Spirit had made the Maryland SoccerPlex its home base since the National Women’s Soccer League launched in 2012, and the SoccerPlex has hosted a D.C. area professional women’s soccer team since 2004.
It’s the only home local pro women’s soccer players and fans have known for the past two decades.
“We’ve had the same season ticket holders for a while now with the Plex, and changing it to Loudoun, we need to recruit new fans because not all of them are going to go,” Spirit defender Paige Nielsen says. “And then obviously, we eventually want to play at Audi, so we thought at first we were going to get all of our games there.”
But the more Nielsen thought about it, the more she says she realized the move is in the best interest of the growth of the club, which has been revitalized under majority owner Steve Baldwin and received a surge of attention due to this year’s Women’s World Cup.
“People are concerned about change, but that’s what we need to make the next step,” Nielsen says. “And we’ll recruit more fans from northern Virginia, we’ve got the Germantown fans, and once we move, hopefully, eventually, to Audi, we’ll encompass all those fans.”
The Spirit’s two games at Audi Field this season averaged 18,645 fans, and gave players a glimpse of a potential future. “Assuming successful attendance numbers at Audi Field in 2020 and 2021, we will look to play 10-plus games annually at Audi starting in 2022,” Baldwin wrote in a statement.
Earlier this month, the NWSL announced an increased salary cap and the introduction of allocation money. Starting in 2020, teams will also be allowed to provide housing for “all players on a team’s senior and supplemental rosters.”
Spirit staff and players will maintain their offices and training facilities at the SoccerPlex next season, but plan to move their operation to Loudoun County after a new training center is completed. The team will share Segra Field and the training facility with Loudoun United.
“Honestly, I think coming into it, my first question was, ‘Are we going to be second-class citizens? Are we going to be the second team to the processional men’s team?’ They are absolutely not doing that,” says Tori Huster, who has been with the Spirit since the team’s inaugural season in 2013. “They are seeing us as equals. I know they treat Loudoun United just as well. Especially if we are going to all be in the same building, it is really important to have camaraderie with them and have a family atmosphere. I definitely feel like that is possible.”
But there are still logistical issues to be worked out. While the SoccerPlex and Audi Field use natural grass, Segra Field has artificial turf. The majority of players prefer to play on grass. The new training facility will have both turf and grass fields.
“I mean, we don’t like it,” Nielsen says of artificial turf. “I got drafted by Seattle out of college, and we played on turf every game. We would sacrifice … like, playing on turf, skillfully it’s nice, tactically it’s smooth. It’s not the best for our bodies. So at least we’re not practicing on it all day every day, so we can deal with five games, four games on turf.”
Huster, who has worked with a natural grass advisory group, is more optimistic about the situation.
“With the turf field, I think if it is managed properly, it is a suitable playing surface,” she says. “We all want to play on grass, but this is a step in the right direction for the club.”
When the Spirit played its games at Audi Field, it opened up the team to a new demographic of fans. The SoccerPlex maxes out at about 5,300 attendees and is located approximately 36 miles away from Audi Field. It’s not easily accessible via public transportation.
Segra Field is even further away from D.C., has a capacity of 5,000, and is similarly difficult to reach using public transit.
“No disrespect to Segra Field but that doesn’t solve any of the issues for the Spirit and actually create more,” Matt Libber, the executive director of the SoccerPlex, told City Paper in an email last month before any of the details were official. “Segra Field only holds 5,000 people, just like the SoccerPlex. They have an artificial field, where the SoccerPlex has an award-winning pitch routinely called the best in the league, and I believe better than a lot of MLS stadiums. Segra Field is actually further from D.C. than the SoccerPlex and does not have the same population density that Montgomery County has.“
In a separate conversation with City Paper on the day of the announcement, Libber said he understood the Spirit’s decision and wished them well.
“We’ll miss them,” he said. “It’s great having them as a tenant, but if it means the team and the league are successful, then we support them 100 percent. We’ll still be fans here. For some reason if their plans change, we’re here to support them as well.”
During the Tuesday night press conference at the Loudoun County Government Center, Baldwin thanked the Maryland Soccer Foundation and the SoccerPlex, calling them “wonderful partners.”
He added that the announcement “does not end that partnership,” and that he will “continue working with the Plex every year that I am involved with the club.” The team intends to play a preseason match there to maintain its presence.
Baldwin also mentioned that the Spirit will be providing a bus service from Germantown to both Audi Field and Segra Field, and fans outside of Loudoun County can join a program to be reimbursed for the tolls.
Asked if there is a plan to get D.C. fans to both locations, Baldwin replied that it’s something his team can look into.
“We will make it as easy as possible for our fans to come see us,” he said.