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Washington Spirit rookie Tegan McGrady wasn’t sure of her decision to move across the country to play professional soccer. She grew up in San Jose, California, and played four years of college soccer at Stanford University. McGrady wavered between “being super excited” and questioning if she really wanted to be so far away from home to join the National Women’s Soccer League, which she had been told often lacked the camaraderie of the collegiate game.
That prospect, McGrady says, scared her the most.
“You tend to hear … it tends to be a lot more individualistic and not as team-like,” she explains.
The Spirit drafted McGrady with the seventh overall pick in the 2019 NWSL College Draft, and since arriving in the D.C. area, her concerns have yet to be realized. With a different ownership group in place after local tech executive Steve Baldwin bought a majority stake in the Spirit, the team upgraded amenities like team-sponsored housing, renovated the locker room, and drafted and signed an influx of new players, including six NWSL rookies. Playing for the Spirit has felt like a continuation of college, McGrady says.
The rookies—McGrady, Jordan DiBiasi, Sam Staab, Dorian Bailey, Bayley Feist, and Shae Yanez—have helped usher in a new era for a franchise that finished the 2018 season with just two wins.
Nine matches into the 2019 season, the team leads the league with a record of five wins, three draws, and a loss.
“I think it’s a really special place being here at the time that we are,” says Staab, the No. 4 overall pick who played college soccer at Clemson University. “I know a lot of things are changing, but I think we’ve all been really happy and we felt really grateful for the timing of when we’ve gotten here. Everyone is really nice, everyone has been super welcoming, we all have really great chemistry and culture, so we hang out off the field all the time … Honestly, I could never dream of having a job like this where it’s so fun every single day.”
Many of the rookies have known or seen each other on the soccer pitch for years, if only in passing. In college, they were some of the nation’s best players on top-10 ranked teams like Stanford, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Tennessee.
After a recent Spirit practice, DiBiasi was scrolling through her phone and trying to find the best college graduation photos to post to her Instagram account, when a few of her teammates, including fellow Stanford alum McGrady, gathered around a table inside the Maryland SoccerPlex to help her. Several wore their college gear, and as the players chatted with each other, it would’ve been easy to mistake the professional soccer players for a group of old friends in their early 20s catching up while home for the summer.
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Spirit players in the past have typically lived with host families, but this year, most of them are neighbors in Rockville. DiBiasi, McGrady, and Staab live in the same apartment, and all six rookies reside in the same complex. The team provides players with housing during the season. Spirit stars Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, and Andi Sullivan are also roommates. This level of camaraderie has boosted morale and translated to success on the field.
“I think there’s something special about this group,” says Tori Huster, who has played with the Spirit since 2013. “It’s fun coming to training every day. I haven’t said that in the past, and I’m really fortunate to say that this year.”
Living in the same place has meant plenty of time together away from soccer. None of the rookies are from the D.C. area, and Staab, who grew up in San Diego and describes herself as “very organized,” has become the de facto “social chair” for not just her fellow rookies but the whole team.
A calendar filled with activities hangs inside the team’s locker room, and Staab sends out a weekly list of events. On Thursdays, players will get together for an “ethnic food night” where they try food from different areas, and every Monday they watch The Bachelorette. Tuesdays are reserved for team outings like bowling if they have the following day off. Staab is also organizing an offseason trip to Thailand and Australia for a couple of the players.
“They bring a lot of energy and excitement, and a lot of creativity. I think coming in as a rookie it’s kinda hard to fit in to a new team and new league, but I think they’ve all adjusted well,” says third-year player Ashley Hatch. “When I was a rookie, it was only me and maybe one or two other rookies so you’re coming in to an environment you’re not used to and kinda uncomfortable with, but when you have a high number of rookies, you know they all feel more comfortable with each other because they all just came from the college scene, so I think that’s what helps them get along.”
In January, the NWSL announced that the minimum salary for players this season, which runs from March until October, would be $16,538, a 5 percent raise from the previous year. The maximum salary also rose 5 percent, to $46,200. Some of the rookies make the league minimum, according to Baldwin.
But the players appear to still be in the honeymoon phase with the team. None mentioned the low pay when asked about the challenges of being a first-year pro. For some, it’s the lack of structure that has proved to be the toughest adjustment. Going from being a student-athlete with few, if any, unfilled hours of the day to a professional requires knowing how to schedule your time wisely.
“It’s like kinda weird, but we have so much more free time now and that’s been something that I have never [had],” says DiBiasi, who was drafted third overall. “Growing up you just had school all day, practice in the afternoon, homework, sleep. It’s a routine. So now having all this free time and learning how to be a professional and that soccer is now your job and not so much an outlet has been something that I’ve been learning to deal with.”
Baldwin, the team’s new majority owner, hopes the players will start to get recognized in the community. He wants people to stop them on the street and ask for their autographs. He wants local sports fans to know who the players, including the rookies, are.
“They’re world class athletes,” Baldwin says. “They are in the top 1 percent in the world … I think we have a real moment of opportunity … with the World Cup this year, the Olympics next year, the increased exposure that the national team is getting. Our league has to take advantage of that in ways we haven’t done before.”
Pugh and Lavelle are currently playing for the U.S. in the Women’s World Cup and will likely raise the Spirit’s profile once they return. Spirit players Chloe Logarzo and Amy Harrison of Australia, and Cheyna Matthews, an American-born Jamaican player, also competed for their respective countries at the World Cup in France. “I like fangirl every time I see them,” Staab says. “I’ll get a picture from the Australians or Rose or Mal will post something on Instagram, it’s like, ‘Oh my god I know you. I play with you.’ That is so cool.”