The Spirit's NWSL champions trophy Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Washington Spirit defender Sam Staab doesn’t have much to say about her goals and expectations for the team this season. It’s really quite simple.

“We’re gonna win again,” Staab says. “That’s about it.”

It’s the prevailing thought throughout the franchise. Last year, the Spirit overcame a tumultuous season to win its first NWSL title. With most of the players from the championship team back and a new owner and permanent head coach in place, winning the NWSL trophy is now the expectation for the Spirit. Washington is currently 0-0-2 in the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup after earning draws against both the Orlando Pride and NJ/NY Gotham FC and will play the North Carolina Courage on Wednesday night at Audi Field.

The Challenge Cup concludes with a championship match on May 7, and the Spirit’s regular season will begin May 1.

“Everyone talks about winning it again, and, of course, this is the goal,” Spirit president and acting general manager Ben Olsen tells City Paper. “We have a team that is capable of that on paper, but each season is so different, and each season throws so many different things at you, and there’s twists and turns. [But] it’s certainly doable and that’s what we’re striving for.”

It helps that the players won’t need to deal with the same distractions as last year. Kris Ward enters the season as the permanent head coach. Ward replaced Richie Burke, who was fired last September following an independent third-party investigation into allegations of verbal and emotional abuse from former players, and he finished his acting head coach tenure with a 9-2-3 record. Both losses were forfeits due to team violations of the league’s COVID-19 protocols. The Spirit also recently announced the hiring of former NWSL star Angela Salem as an assistant coach. Salem joins a staff that includes assistant coach Lee Nguyen and goalkeeper coach Paul Crichton.

“She’ll be doing work with the midfielders in particular,” Ward says of Salem. “She’ll be doing some work defensively, whereas Lee will be doing more work with the strikers and then more attacking with the midfielders. Paul and I myself do a lot more of the overall team defensive shape.”

Another cause of turbulence last season was the highly contentious and public ownership battle between former controlling owner Steve Baldwin and co-owner Michele Kang. After a lengthy dispute, Kang officially became the Spirit’s controlling owner in February to the relief of many Spirit players and fans. About a week earlier, the NWSL Players Association made history by ratifying the league’s first-ever collective bargaining agreement that will extend through the 2026 season. The landmark deal, which the NWSL Board of Governors approved, includes increases in minimum salary, as well as eight weeks of parental leave and up to six months of paid mental health leave.

To get to this point, the Spirit players have, in Staab’s words, been “resilient.”

“We went through a lot together,” Staab says of last season. “We accomplished so much just by being like, screw it, we’re just gonna do everything that we can individually and try and just better the team with everything that we do. And so that was kind of like our big thing was just being resilient, being ourselves, doing everything together.”

Ward points to the team’s depth in each position as a reason for optimism. Reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman, a forward, is back after reportedly signing a four-year, $1.1 million deal, and so is Aubrey Kingsbury (formerly Bledsoe), the 2021 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year. Both players, in addition to Spirit defender Kelley O’Hara, midfielders Andi Sullivan and Ashley Sanchez, and forward Ashley Hatch, the NWSL’s leading scorer last season, will be on the U.S. Women’s National Team roster for its two April friendly matches against Uzbekistan. Spirit defender Emily Sonnett, another national team regular, is currently recovery from an injury suffered during the Orlando match.

The Spirit also added rookie Tinaya Alexander to its roster and continue to await the return of Jordan Baggett (formerly DiBiasi), Averie Collins, Bayley Feist, Tori Huster, and Alia Martin, from injuries.

“I think we’re actually stronger this year than we were last year. … We’re very close to having two starters in every position,” Ward says. “Just our attacking midfielders of Ashley Hatch and Jordan [Baggett] and Bailey Feist and Dorian Bailey … and then Andi Sullivan and Gaby Vincent … taking our midfield alone, any team would want half of those players and we’ve got them. So it’s iron sharpening iron and utilizing that to the best of our advantage.”

Ward takes a player-centric approach to coaching, and is candid when speaking of about last season. The trust between the players and the team and league as a whole was broken, and the healing process takes time.

“Just because there’s a new owner in place doesn’t mean that everything is healed,” Ward says. “And that’s not to say that the players don’t trust Michele—the players do trust Michele. But the lingering effects from the last few years haven’t necessarily been wiped away fully, and so there are still things that we have to manage, in order to continue to move the players along to a point where they feel like, ‘100 percent, every aspect of this organization is behind me to make me the best, most effective player I can be.'”

And while Ward says that repeating as NWSL champions is the “stated goal from the players” and one that the staff shares, he wants to view the season with a more process-oriented rather than outcome-focused lens.

“It’s not, you know, ‘You have to do these things, because we’ll win again,'” Ward says. “It’s, ‘We’re doing these things because they’re helping us to become a more effective team. They’re helping you to become more effective in your position. And by doing that, that’s going to help the overall team to achieve their goal.'”