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A few days before the NWSL championship match on Nov. 20, Washington Spirit co-captain Tori Huster received a group text message from her teammate, goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. The message, Huster says, contained a list of all the adversity they endured throughout the season: The “home” opener moving to Houston due to construction at Segra Field in Leesburg, the team having to train at a local high school since late October, the news of alleged verbal and emotional abuse from the team’s former head coach, Richie Burke, two forfeited games after a coronavirus outbreak on the team, and an ongoing public ownership battle.
The list was so long it required three GroupMe text messages to fit it all, according to Huster.
The 32-year-old midfielder has been with the Spirit since the beginning. The team drafted Huster in the second round of the 2013 NWSL Supplemental Draft prior to the league’s inaugural season. Although she wasn’t on the field when her team defeated the Chicago Red Stars in overtime to win its first NWSL title (she was recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon), she’s been a steadying presence on an often struggling team in a fledgling league. Even with a decade of professional soccer experience, Huster had never gone through anything quite like the 2021 season.
As she reflects on the past year, the most important question for Huster, who is also president of the NWSL Players Association, is what comes next for the Spirit and the league.
“I think it’s great to see that the group was able to adapt in the way and the fashion that we did,” Huster says. “I hope that’s something that we have learned how to do and can keep with us, despite whatever happens next year. And as we look forward to our next step … there’s so many lessons that are going to be learned from this entire season.”
At the forefront of Huster’s mind is the team’s ownership going into next season. Players and fans have called for Steve Baldwin, the Spirit’s controlling owner, to step down. In 2018, Baldwin approved the decision to hire Burke. This summer, the Washington Post reported that several former Spirit players have accused Burke of verbal and emotional abuse. Baldwin, who resigned as the Spirit’s CEO and managing partner in October, has told investors he plans to sell the club.
On Oct. 5, Spirit players put out a unified statement on their social media accounts asking Baldwin to sell the team to co-owner Y. Michele Kang, who joined the Spirit’s ownership group last year. Huster tells City Paper that the players continue to stand by that statement. The Athletic reported earlier this month that the team is in “exclusive sale negotiations” with the St. James, a sports and entertainment complex in Springfield. A Spirit front office spokesperson tells City Paper that the team has “no comment at this time” about the ownership situation.
For Spirit fans such as Douglas Reyes-Ceron, the co-founder of the supporters’ group Rose Room Collective, Baldwin’s ownership status will determine whether or not he renews his season tickets.
“I would like to renew, obviously, you know, defending champions and all that,” Reyes-Ceron says. “All it comes down to is, what is going to happen with the ownership situation? … That is the giant cloud looming over everything else right now.”
The ownership question also impacts other decisions that will affect the on-field product. The team still doesn’t have a permanent head coach as Kris Ward has been in an acting role since taking over for Burke. Aside from the two forfeits, Ward finished the season with an undefeated record. The Post reports that the Spirit has engaged in “preliminary talks” with Ward about becoming its permanent head coach. Players have credited Ward’s demeanor with helping the group steer through a season that seemed to be going off the rails.
“I think once Kris was put into the driver’s seat, he recognized the need for his position as head coach, for him to take his hands off the wheel and let us put ours on it,” Huster says. “He allowed us to drive, and that was the most empowering thing that he could do for this group of players at that moment.”
As NWSLPA president, Huster’s downtime this season was filled with Zoom calls and meetings. The PA represents about 250 players in the league across its 10 teams and is currently in collective bargaining negotiations for the first time in the league’s history. The NWSL, which just wrapped up its ninth season, does not currently have a CBA in place.
The process, Huster says, began in March when the PA sent the league a comprehensive proposal. She wishes that the agreement was already in place but is hopeful that it will be done before preseason next year. “I would venture to guess that’s probably the goal of the NWSL, too,” Huster says. “I hope that they would echo that.”
Meghann Burke, the NWSLPA’s executive director, was stunned to learn that the NWSL had no anti-harassment policy of its own in place when she joined in late 2020. Meghann Burke (no relation to Richie Burke) tells City Paper the PA had intended to introduce an anti-harassment policy as part of its comprehensive CBA proposal, “but it became apparent the need was far too urgent, far too great.” The league created its first anti-harassment policy in April.The Athletic later reported that U.S. Women’s National Team star and Orlando Pride forward Alex Morgan had organized a letter sent to then NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird in March 2021 asking for “nine specific elements to ensure safe and inclusive workplaces.”
Several months later, in September, the Athletic published a report detailing allegations by former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim accusing North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and emotional abuse. Riley denied the allegations to the Athletic and was subsequently fired.
The story rocked the NWSL. Games were briefly postponed as a result, and Baird later resigned as commissioner. The league also announced early October that it had hired the D.C.-based law firm Covington & Burling to oversee independent investigations of its handling of abuse claims. When play resumed on Oct. 6, players stopped their games during the sixth minute and gathered at midfield to lock arms “in recognition of the six years it took for Mana, Sinead, and all those who fought too long to be heard,” the NWSLPA said in a statement.
“There’s some 250 players in this league—born in different countries, speak different languages, [have] different values, different life experiences—that all came together and created a space for players to voice their feelings, their views, their opinions, but at the end of the day come together around a single idea that we should all be safe,” Meghann Burke says. “I am so inspired by, moved by what the players accomplished in that first week of October.”
Meghann Burke declined to go into specific details of the CBA proposal, but she mentioned three issues that it will address: free agency, a living wage for players, and player health and safety. The NWSLPA launched the #NoMoreSideHustles campaign to spotlight how difficult it can be to make a living wage in the league. The current league minimum annual salary is $22,000.
“We see a day in the NWSL, hopefully soon, where players can singularly focus on being the best at what they do,” Meghann Burke says. “Our players are really extraordinary, hardworking people with a lot of talents, and so one of the things we hope to achieve in this CBA is a living wage. We’re not looking to retire on what an NWSL income is going to look like, but we do want players to be able to focus on their craft in this limited window of time they got.”
Huster believes this is a pivotal moment for the league. All eyes around the world, she says, will be on what happens with the CBA. “I hope it really starts to change contracts for women in soccer dramatically,” she says.
The difficult and surreal 2021 season may be in the past, but some of the biggest challenges lie ahead.
“We’ve won 2021, and we celebrated that, and we have that trophy on the shelf,” Huster says. “But what’s next? We want 2022 to be successful, just like this year was successful in so many ways.”