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One of Tori Huster’s nicknames on the Washington Spirit is “OG 23.” She wears No. 23 on the field, and the 32-year-old midfielder has been with the Spirit since the beginning and brought a steadying veteran presence during a tumultuous 2021 season that improbably ended in triumph, as the Spirit won its first NWSL title. Huster wasn’t on the field that day, but rather at home rehabbing an Achilles injury suffered earlier in the playoffs that required surgery.
For this week’s column, I wrote about the challenges that lie ahead for the team and the league, and I turned to Huster for her perspective as a player and the president of the NWSL Players Association. The following interview, which took place on Nov. 24, has been edited and condensed.
WCP: How would you put this season into words? How would you describe this season?
Tori Huster: Oh gosh, I feel like it’s almost an ineffable season. There aren’t words that I have to properly describe it. It would take me, I feel like, several years to describe everything. But I think one of the main things that we as a collective, as a group have kind of stuck to is—and even after the championship—it’s like, what is our next step? What needs to be done next? And I think our ability to respond to whatever happened this season or to compartmentalize the certain circumstances that we had to deal with as a team and as individuals was honestly incredible. Our mentality, our mindset to be able to [turn] things off, for our group is unprecedented. And I think we were able to give each other support or find the support needed to be able to do that.
Aubrey [Bledsoe], before the championship, had written out a list of everything that had gone on over the course of the season. And we kind of reflected on those things. That’s a really great thing, a really great exercise to do, whether you’re doing it as a group, or you’re doing it as an individual. But being able to do that, and then take a breath, and then roll into the championship like that … I know the girls were feeling this way: We can do anything, we can do anything we want, we can win this game, a championship game, or we can win other hard games, we can have two forfeits and then win our next game, we can honestly adapt at any moment, during any given circumstance. And I know that the events that Aubrey tallied out were not the only things that people were dealing with.
It’s great to see that the group was able to adapt in the way and the fashion that we did. 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.
WCP: How close is the league to where it needs to be in terms of providing players the support they want and need?
TH: I think the best way I can answer that is that they’re listening to the players more so than they ever have in the past. And the players’ voices are super important. I think what we’ve been able to do from a Players Association perspective in gaining trust from the players, but then also bridging the gap between the league and players. We’re situated really well to have the players’ best interest and what’s right for everyone that’s playing in the league. I think first and foremost, the players, their experiences is probably the most important. And I think that the league understands that listening to what’s going to be best for us, they seem to be doing that now. We kind of had to scream from the rooftops to get that to happen.
In terms of the Spirit, there is so much that needs to be decided, and we are kind of in what seems like a limbo of sorts until ownership is figured out. And the list is very long from there, but the highlights, I would say are, who is the head coach going to be? And then moving on from there, knowing where we’re going to train for next season, let alone for players that stay in-market for the offseason and providing facilities for them. That is a huge priority for us as players because off seasons aren’t off, they’re not breaks. That’s when we take time to individually improve, whether that’s on the field or that’s in the weight room, or fitness levels. And I think it’s in the best interest of the club to provide certain facilities and resources to make that happen. All of that kind of hangs in the balance until we have an answer on ownership.
We’ve won 2021, and we celebrated that and we have that trophy on the shelf. But what’s next? We want 2022 to be successful, just like this year was successful in so many ways. And we feel that we could potentially be crippled if ownership is not figured out soon. And by soon, I mean, like within the week, but that might be pushing it a little bit. I know those processes typically take a really long time, and I’m understanding of that, but we need the league, we need whoever’s having those conversations to be able to adapt, because there’s other decisions that really affect the players’ lives.
WCP: You said you didn’t want to go into what the players want to see with the ownership, but is it fair to say the players stand by what they said in the statements that were released? [Editor’s note: On Oct. 5, Spirit players put out a unified statement on their social media accounts asking majority owner Steve Baldwin to sell the team to co-owner Y. Michele Kang.]
TH: Yeah, I would say so. It’s really difficult to be in a place where it’s like you have no control. Although I think we are finding ways to have that voice. I still think that there are certain levels of control that we don’t have in this system. In addition to that, it’s not having an answer for so long and not having a change for so long. That’s a hard place to be in. And maybe we’re getting to a point where we will have an answer soon. I’m hopeful that we’ll have an answer soon. I would say, players’ emotions on that front, it’s kind of hard to plan your life. That stability is something that we want, and we’re unable to have at the moment, and that just provides stress for players.
WCP: What did Kris Ward bring to team that was maybe a little different than [previous head coach Richie Burke]?
TH: 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. He allowed us to drive, and I think that was the most empowering thing that he could do for this group of players at that moment. And not to say that he didn’t provide certain structures tactically that I think really locks things down, but it was more like, “You guys got this, and I’m here to support and things have been hard for you. And I appreciate that you’re still here and going through this together.” His ability to listen and provide a kind of calmer disposition was really helpful for us at the time.
WCP: What are you most proud of this season?
TH: Well, there’s two things now. I’m most proud of our ability to win a championship amongst all of the turmoil within the league, amongst all the turmoil that happened here at our club. And I think it’s so much credit to the group of players that we had, whether a player didn’t play a single minute, or somebody like Kelley O’Hara or Andi Sullivan, who really just put the team on their back these last couple of months. Really proud of that. For someone that’s been here for nine years, that is something I’ve wanted for the club, even if I was here or not, even if I was playing in the game.
The other thing I’m most proud of is that throughout this entire season, the collective trust that went through the player group. When all of these things were happening back in September, October, coming together as a collective, having an agreement amongst players that whatever we do, it’s going to be 100 percent. When the league postponed certain games, having those conversations were really difficult for us at the time. There’s emotional pain, there’s mental fatigue, which contributes to physical fatigue. But being able to swiftly decide what we’re going to do for the next set of games, and not only play but then have a show of solidarity, that’s like a huge proud moment for me. I think it’s a huge accomplishment that in addition to those things, we were able to solidify demands that were very tangible things that we could take to the league and say, “You can do these things. And you can do them quickly and you can agree to them quickly, and we can make the league a better place, a better place to be a better lead to play in.”
I remember it like it was yesterday … linking arm in arm with the Gotham players for Carli Lloyd’s retirement game. I think, you know, I had tears in my eyes during that moment when we came together in a circle. But I really feel like however broken the league was, the players forming a circle like that couldn’t be broken. You could not break us. We have certain things that we want the league to improve on, agree to those with us. And we will make this better. I think that’s gotta be my proudest moment of this season.