Angela Salem Credit: Les Young Productions

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The Washington Spirit entered 2022 wanting to make sure that its extraordinarily challenging and triumphant 2021 season wasn’t just a flash in the pan. And one major addition to the team has caught the attention of observers around the NWSL. You won’t find this person on the Spirit’s roster. Angela Salem isn’t a player, but the team’s newest member of the coaching staff. 

Salem, who was widely respected as one of the best midfielders in the league, joined the Spirit after a career year with the Portland Thorns that saw her named to the league’s Best XI, soccer’s equivalent of an all-league team. It’s the kind of ambitious move the Spirit front office has been making as the team aims to establish itself as a premier women’s soccer club not just in the NWSL, but worldwide. The Spirit is 1-0 in the regular season and play in the NWSL Challenge Cup semifinal tonight.

“I always said I didn’t want to coach, and then I always found myself coaching,” Salem, an Ohio native, says with a laugh. She expected to have “a year of normalcy,” but the urge to be around the sport she played for 12 professional seasons was too strong. Since she was hired in March, Salem has helped from the Spirit bench—discussing the game at hand, concocting adjustments, and preparing players with vital information before they enter as substitutes. She joins a coaching staff that includes first-year head coach Kris Ward, Major League Soccer and USMNT veteran Lee Nguyen, and former English professional Paul Crichton.

Just months after completing a season as part of one of the best midfield units in the league, Salem retired from professional soccer, citing the accumulation of injuries that piled up over years. She was headed into what she called “the normal, traditional lifestyle of a nine-to-five” and started putting her master’s degree in clinical mental health into practice. Fewer than four months ago, she was setting up a life in Denver, taking on clients as a therapeutic/executive function coach, helping students at the University of Colorado Boulder with one-on-one therapy, and life coaching.

But days after announcing her retirement, Salem started receiving offers to stay in the NWSL as a coach. Salem says that the turn back toward soccer happened quickly. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the 33-year-old is settling into the United Performance Center training facility that D.C. United opened last fall in Leesburg, which the Spirit now shares, as she tells City Paper about what she missed during her brief time away from the sport.

“You just miss being on the field, and being around very competitive, driven people who are trying to achieve a goal, and I think it’s a really rare environment to be around,” explains Salem, whose travels since retirement have seen her move from Portland to Colorado to Virginia, with a stop in Ohio to visit family. “It’s really contagious when you’re in it, because it just pushes you to want to be better in any area. And so, I think that was the biggest piece of just being surrounded by driven people who wanted to share a common goal.”

Salem says discussions with Ward about his vision for the team as well as talks with new Spirit majority owner Michele Kang played a crucial role in convincing her join the squad.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue this yet, because I thought it was very quick timing,” Salem says. Speaking to Kang “really solidified everything, because she talked about her vision and her plan, and even her own journey, which is super inspiring, not even just with the Spirit, but prior [to her involvement with the team] and building her own company.”

Amid the moves and a decision to retire that she says she didn’t make conclusively until January, Salem received her U.S. Soccer Federation B License through a program the NWSL put in place to fund courses for players who wanted to pursue coaching. Despite the whirlwind, Salem has settled in with the Spirit, perhaps owing to an unpredictable career that is common for longtime pros in women’s soccer. Salem has seen clubs and leagues fold, endured two trades, and has spent time playing abroad in Finland and Australia between seasons stateside.

The changes have prepared her for a fast adaptation at her new job, where Salem designs specialized training for midfielders, works with the back line, and scouts upcoming opponents. “I was here for two days or three days, and Kris was like, ‘All right, you’re gonna take the back line.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, wow.’ Like, he’s really throwing me in there,” says Salem, who adds she’s glad to have “a role that I felt like I would be challenged in, and be able to grow in, as opposed to just picking up cones.”

Ward says that’s intentional.

“I did the scouting reports for a year and a half. And, Ang is here, and she delivered [the] scouting report this past weekend,” says Ward, adding that he “could close the fist and control everything myself, but that doesn’t help anyone else.” 

Ward has already noticed that having Salem present information has changed how players receive it for the better. “Just the way in which she phrased things to certain players is very different from how I would have phrased it, and not in a negative way” explains Ward. “It takes something and it turns it into a message that’s better received, or a message that comes on a different wavelength, and so it attunes the players to listen in a different way.”

Ward, who chose last weekend’s platform on CBS to wear a shirt reading “Invest in women. Pay women. Hire women,” says that adding Salem is just a start in terms of diversifying an organization that, like much of women’s soccer, has seen positions of authority often held by men. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg for us in terms of trying to bring in more people and push more people forward into bigger and better positions throughout the entire organization.”

Midfielder Jordan Baggett agrees. She refers to Salem as “a legend.” 

“I love it,” Baggett says of the hire. “It’s kind of like, ‘Yeah, I want to be like you, help me get there.’ You know, like, ‘Teach me what you did.’ I think it’s just so cool to see all the opportunities that are coming up to all these girls who have experienced the league.”

Salem has worked on some of the underappreciated facets of midfield play with Baggett, such as how to position yourself under pressure to receive a pass and keep possession. “If it’s an injury, if it’s just a different environment or playing situation, on the field, off the field, whatever it is, she has been there, done it, and can just bring so much advice to someone who is still kind of figuring it out,” Baggett says.

Ward says that while Salem’s playing bona fides were a major part of getting the team on board with a new coach, her team-focused attitude is what goes the furthest at the club. “She’s not here to make a name for herself, or anything like that. She’s here to help them, which is the biggest thing that the players want,” Ward says. “That wasn’t always the case here, but is certainly the case now.”