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Washington Spirit head coach Kris Ward brings the same mug with him to every match. On one side is a sticker with the word “BELIEVE” in blue letters on a yellow background. On the other side, another sticker reads, “Be curious, not judgmental.”
Both are references to the hit Apple TV series Ted Lasso, about an American college football coach who is hired to manage an English Premier League team. Ward is a fan of the show, and he shares a few things in common with the title character. They’re around the same age, and Ward, 42, is also a first-time professional soccer head coach learning the ropes in a job he didn’t expect to have. Both Lasso and Ward take a player-centric approach to coaching. Spirit players have credited Ward with creating a positive team atmosphere after the club fired former head coach Richie Burke.
“There are certain moments that I relate to for sure,” Ward says of the show.
But the similarities mostly end there. Unlike Lasso (Jason Sudeikis), Ward has been coaching soccer for more than two decades. The Spirit hired Ward in August of 2020 as a team tactical analysis and player performance development coach—a new position he pitched to the club. And one year later, Ward replaced Burke, who was fired following an independent third-party investigation into allegations from former players of verbal and emotional abuse.
Ward took over on an interim basis, and in his first job as a professional soccer head coach, he led the team to a 9-2-3 record and the Spirit’s first National Women’s Soccer League title. Their two losses were forfeits for violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols. The club named Ward its permanent head coach last December but did not disclose the terms. The Post reports that Ward received a two-year contract with a one-year club option. The jump from an assistant to head coach is one riddled with unforeseen challenges and complex dynamics, but those around Ward believe he is ready for the task.
The Spirit opens the new season against Orlando Pride on March 19 for the group stage of the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup. It will be the first match of Ward’s first full season as one of the 12 head coaches in the NWSL. Ward calls the promotion a “happy accident.”
“It was good [that] it pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he says.
Ward couldn’t bear to sit idly by on the bench with an ankle injury while the Union University men’s soccer team squandered its lead in a regional playoff match.
The Division II team based out of Jackson, Tennessee, was fighting to qualify for a national tournament and went into halftime with a 3-0 lead. But as Ward looked around, he noticed that the opposing team’s coach didn’t appear concerned. Meanwhile, his coach, Ward recalls, was “just going nuts” in celebration. When the second half started, Union University’s opponents scored twice in 15 minutes.
“I’m looking at our coach, who’s now sitting on the bench with his head in his hands and doesn’t know what to do,” Ward says.
The young college student noticed a mismatch on the field, so he walked down the sideline and told his two teammates to swap positions. Union University won the match, 4-2, and Ward believes his advice helped “stop the bleeding.” On the bus ride back home, Ward realized he wanted to become a soccer coach. Before that, Ward, a history enthusiast, was leaning more toward a job as an archeologist in the model of Indiana Jones.
“It was legitimately like someone turned on the lights in a dark room, and was like, you should think about this,” he says. “It was really an epiphany.”
Ward grew up in Manassas and Centreville, and started coaching high-school and club soccer in the area when he was 19. Ward also eventually coached for the Washington Freedom, the defunct local team that played in the Women’s Professional Soccer league, and D.C. United. He first worked as an assistant coach for the Spirit in 2013, and his most recent head coaching job prior to the Spirit was with the Harvard-Westlake School, an independent college-preparatory high school in the Los Angeles area.
But even with two decades of coaching experience, nothing could quite prepare Ward for a professional head coaching job. His relationship to the players and staff immediately changed due to his responsibilities, and those dynamics can sometimes become “very lonely” because of the new boundaries, he says.
“I’m the one who makes the decisions at the end of the day,” Ward says. “I have to decide whether you’re playing or not, traveling or not traveling. I’ve got to speak to the medical staff, I’ve got to speak to the player, I’ve got to speak to all kinds of people to decide if this is the best situation.”
Ben Olsen, the Spirit’s president and acting general manager, understands Ward’s position better than most. In 2010, Olsen was promoted from assistant to interim head coach of D.C. United after a dreadful start to the season under its previous manager. Olsen accepted the permanent position later that year and served in that role for 11 seasons.
“They’re two completely different jobs, and they come with two completely different responsibilities, two completely different intensities,” Olsen says of the differences between an assistant and a head coach. “You can’t compare it, and you have to get into the role, and within days, you realize how different it is. Because you’re the boss, and you’re making the final decision, and everybody wants a piece of you.”
To help him through the process, Ward turned to the Spirit’s sports psychologist, Amanda Visek, and some of his closest friends, including Dave Tenney, the high performance director for Major League Soccer’s Austin FC, throughout the season. “I would joke with the players all the time that I was on the phone with the sports psychologist more than they were,” Ward says. “Because I needed it, too. … We had six-hour calls sometimes.”
Spirit captain Tori Huster and defender Sam Staab both credit Ward for putting players in the “drivers’ seat.” The team also improved its on-field tactics under Ward. One of the first changes Ward made last season was to give players more information on defense. He created guidelines on specific game-time situations, such as how the team should attack opponents and what to look for in transition. “Just a little bit more specifics in that sense, but not so over the top [that] they couldn’t move,” Ward says. “They had to be free within that to explore and create their own things.” The defense craved a structure and development that didn’t exist under Burke. After Ward took over, the defense allowed just three goals in its final eight games.
“Honestly, I think he just kind of let us do us,” Staab says.
Olsen says he interviewed “several” coaching candidates, but Ward stood out because of the way he handled the team last season from an emotional intelligence standpoint and as a tactician on the field.
“It doesn’t hurt to go undefeated and win a championship,” Olsen adds. “So in some ways, he made my job very easy.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Ward occasionally rises from his desk to chat with players as they walk by on their way out of the training facility. In front of him, a whiteboard displays staff and players’ votes for an ongoing fashion competition between him and goalkeeper coach Paul Crichton. “Paul is dressing like an English player from the 1990s … I got more casual but still nice looking street wear,” Ward explains. This is the part of the job that he has always enjoyed: building relationships and working with players one-on-one.
“I was perfectly happy being in my cubicle last year before everything happened, just doing a video, and just talking with people, like ‘Here’s your performance from the game. Here’s how we can make it a little bit better,’” Ward says.
The club has high expectations this season. Reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman looks to build on her historic rookie season, and the Spirit also returns U.S. Women’s National Team players Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, Andi Sullivan, and Ashley Hatch, who won the Golden Boot award last season as the top goal scorer in the league. Aubrey Kingsbury (formerly Bledsoe) was named the 2021 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year.
“We want to improve off of what we did last year, we want to score more goals, we want to have more shutouts, we want to be more dynamic as a team, and we feel like we have the players to do that,” Ward says. “I think we’re actually stronger this year than we were last year. … We’re very close to having two starters in every position.”
The team is also expected to hire former NWSL star Angela Salem as an assistant coach. Salem previously played for the Spirit in 2015, and she will join a coaching staff that includes Crichton and assistant coach Lee Nguyen. In several ways, Ward is still the same coach who in 2020 greeted players with a fist bump every morning and then quietly went to work at his desk.
Except now, he’s the one calling all the shots.