A Spirit match at Segra Field in July 2021 Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Tori Huster has experienced a lot in her 10 years as a pro player, but the Washington Spirit co-captain has never been through something quite like the past few months. It’s been a stretch that has defied belief where the shock of one event hasn’t worn off before an even more stunning development arises.

The Spirit’s head coach was fired for cause after an explosive report detailing verbal and emotional abuse, a COVID-19 outbreak caused the team to forfeit two games, and an ugly public battle over the team’s ownership continues—all of which have taken place amid the backdrop of a league-wide reckoning over abuse.

“I’m not sure that I could have ever imagined something like this in my career before,” Huster says.

But amid all the off-field turmoil, an interesting development happened: the Spirit simply stopped losing games. After defeating OL Reign, 2-0, on Saturday, the Spirit clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2016. Not counting the team’s two forfeits for breach of the NWSL’s pandemic-related rules, the Spirit has not lost since early August and has won four of its last five games.

That most recent defeat was Richie Burke’s final game as head coach before he was put on leave and later fired for alleged abusive behavior toward his players. Kris Ward has taken over on an interim basis, and the former assistant’s steady hand has led to five wins and three draws in the eight games he’s coached.

“The group really has a very task-oriented mentality right now of, ‘We are here to do business,’” Ward says.

The problems the Spirit has experienced in 2021 are a microcosm of what has emerged as a league-wide epidemic. No fewer than five of the league’s 10 franchises have seen coaches depart over the past year either amid allegations of various forms of abuse or, in one case, a currently undefined firing “for cause.”

“This is super draining for us, and we’re expected to go out on the field and perform at a high level—at a professional soccer level,” Huster says. “I don’t think we should have to do that, but we are doing it.”

For Spirit players, Burke’s departure wasn’t enough. In an open letter released earlier this month, the team called for owner Steve Baldwin to sell the team to his co-owner Y. Michele Kang, amid Kang’s accusations of a toxic culture fostered under Baldwin’s watch. With ever-present distractions, Spirit players are doing what they can to look inward and broker an honest discussion about everything happening.

“Our team has just come together, and we all support each other a lot,” midfielder Dorian Bailey says. “It’s been nice to be able to practice with each other and be around each other, and we talk about things openly and with our staff. We’ve just really [been] open with each other, and it’s been tough, but we’re getting through it.”

Ward has been treading a careful line between his desire to ensure his players are doing as well as possible and also giving them space to process everything in their own way.

“For me it’s trying to make sure that I check in with them,” Ward says. “They know that I’m there to support, but I never push them into a conversation. I never push them into a situation where they feel like I’m expecting an answer. It’s just: ‘Hey I need to see how you’re doing, how you’re feeling,’ and I try and gauge their response off of that. If they want to talk, then I will sit there, and I will listen. I have to be very careful to not fall into the trap of trying to solve everyone’s problems.”

The story of the Spirit’s season has, understandably, been dominated by off-field issues. But thanks to a resilient group of players and a coach who has struck just the right balance, the Spirit is ensuring that its on-field performance won’t be ignored. 

“They’re amazing,” Ward says of his players. “I tell them quite frequently that I’m very fortunate to work with them. I tell them every single day that I’m proud of them. And I tell them that I’ll do whatever I can to support them and continue to lift them up because they deserve every single thing. They absolutely do.”