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Washington Spirit training notebook: Spirit focused on the future after ownership news

Following Michele Kang’s successful move to become the team’s majority owner, the Spirit are looking forward

Xavi Dussaq / Courtesy of Washington Spirit

It was an interesting week for the Washington Spirit, who faced two very different developments that figure to both have a major impact on their 2022 NWSL season. First, the battle for control over the club appears to have been settled in Michele Kang’s favor, with players being told in person earlier this week. Second, Washington trained Thursday with eight players absent due to international call-ups, with three more completing their last session with their club before heading off for national duty elsewhere.

Here are the sights and sounds from training:

Roll call

The group training on Thursday was much different from last week’s group, with the USWNT septet and Devon Kerr (Canada) having departed for national team duty. Washington’s extensive set of trialists appeared to all be in place, though at least one (Eden Jacobsen) did not participate in training on the day for undisclosed reasons. Julia Roddar (Sweden), Karina Rodríguez (Mexico), and Sydney Schneider (Jamaica) were all present for one last practice before jetting off for their national teams. Roddar scored maybe the most notable goal during the short-sided game, arriving seemingly out of nowhere to burst through the middle and stab home a pass that initially seemed to be out of reach.

There was good news in terms of players under contract being back at it. Kumi Yokoyama trained with no apparent restrictions, while Jordan Baggett and Alia Martin worked on the side. Baggett — B&RU has been told it’s pronounced like the French bread, to answer the question a couple people have had — is being built up slowly, with head coach Kris Ward saying the team wants to make sure she’s fully recovered from the hip issue that hampered her in 2021. Last year, Baggett was thought to be close enough to 100% that she was on the gameday roster for three different spells of the season, but had setbacks that eventually required rehab away from the team.

Martin, meanwhile, had a surgical procedure last month, and the Spirit want to make sure her fitness base is built up enough before throwing her into full sessions. Ward said they plan on having their new center back fully involved once the team gets to Florida.

The only other players to not join in training, at least that were seen by reporters, were draft pick Tinaya Alexander — the Spirit said she had a “minor tweak” and that she was sitting out as a precaution — and Tori Huster, who has been at the sessions despite being some ways away from her return from an achilles tendon tear.

Cutting out to Florida

The Spirit are leaving in stages for the second leg of preseason, during which they’ll set up shop at IMG Academy in Bradenton for a little over two weeks. Staffers are heading down ahead of the players to get everything squared away, with the team and technical staff arriving over the weekend. Washington plans to

After two weeks on turf during which the Spirit weren’t looking to wear themselves out, the sessions in Florida will be more demanding. “A lot of this week and last week was just setting a very low base. We didn’t want to be super intense,” explained Ward, who later noted that players who had spent winter camps with the USWNT were further ahead in their preparation and loading as a result. “We wanted to just build a real base, and then when we get to Florida, be able to go a lot harder.”

There’s a clear logic to that. Beyond having more reliably good weather, IMG Academy has natural grass fields galore. Training with more intensity on that surface, rather than an indoor turf field, is unsurprisingly preferred. Last year, the Spirit felt that the early part of their preseason — with so much time on turf — was draining and left players with a few minor issues to nurse throughout the spring and even into summer. Additionally, NWSL preseason is very long, especially once you factor in that the Challenge Cup exists in a sort of strange purgatory between being a mere preseason tournament and an important competition.

Washington will gear up for the Challenge Cup with three preseason games. Ward said the first of those will be in Florida against the Kansas City Current on February 26, while the team has tentative plans to play two more games closer to home between then and their March 19 Challenge Cup opener against the Orlando Pride. Opponents and firm dates/times have not been settled.

What is the team working on?

So far, the focus appears to be on playing in tight spaces and working to win the ball back quickly. While reporters aren’t present at most of the team’s practices, we’re at two weeks running where playing with smaller teams in condensed space has been part of the session. That kind of game emphasizes playing in tight spaces, and also means there are more opportunities to work on winning the ball back quickly and going to goal immediately. Ward has alluded multiple times to wanting to become a team that can have more of that element in their repertoire, so the focus is not a major surprise. Washington also had a finishing drill to close out practice, with Schneider and Nicole Barnhart both coming up with some top-drawer saves in the process.

The big news

When it comes to the Spirit, the major news broke earlier in the week, with Michele Kang and Steve Baldwin informing players on Tuesday that Kang would be completing her bid to become the majority owner of the team. Assuming there are no more twists in the tale, Tuesday marked the informal end of a nearly year-long, Shakespearean-in-magnitude saga that captured national attention and impacted every aspect of the organization.

Despite the news marking a new, hopeful chapter for the Spirit, it does not mean all of their issues are settled. “It provides a lot of clarity. There’s a lot of relief from fatigue, in that sense, but in some ways it’s not over. We’re still here,” said Ward, gesturing towards the soccer pitch at The St. James to allude to Washington’s lack of a permanent base. “Finding a solidified home is still the number one priority right now, and so until we get that really set, I don’t know that we’re gonna be able to drop that weight.”

Ward added that it will be easier going forward in terms of having fewer parties to consult when the club makes a move, but noted that players and staff alike understandably still have some processing to do. “There’s a lot that we still have to recover from,” later adding that the players as a group had a discussion relating to the change away from training the previous night.

Rodríguez and forward Tara McKeown, who both surely experienced one of the most unusual seasons in NWSL history as rookies, said their focus was on the future. “I think we’re happy that it’s over with... We can start the new season just moving forward and looking into the future with Michele,” said McKeown. Rodríguez added that she felt like the group is “excited for a fresh start,” and in a common note for the Spirit, added that the group is locked in on defending their championship.

Rodríguez said that the players are happy that Kang will be taking control of the club. “I think she has a great plan put in place to move the club forward, and we’re really excited to see some positive changes... It’s really cool just to see a strong, powerful woman as leader for us to look up to.”

McKeown struck a similar chord, saying that having a woman as majority owner “helps the league a lot. Just moving forward, knowing that women can be empowered, and (team ownership) is not just a man’s world any more...I think it’ll help us succeed more.”

New leaders

In the immediate aftermath of the ownership news, the Spirit were faced with a new problem: much of the team’s leadership group had to fly out for USWNT duty less than 48 hours later. Between the new problem of having so many players called in, Huster’s injury, and offseason departures, Washington will start their time in Florida with only seven of the 22 players who were in uniform for any of their 2021 playoff games.

That means that for the next two weeks, there’s a window where some new players will be looked at to take on an increased role in terms of setting the standard within the group. Ward cited Sam Staab and Dorian Bailey — both entering their fourth pro season, and now well-established within the lineup and within the team’s culture — as two players he has in mind for that responsibility. He also added offseason addition Gaby Vincent to that list, saying that even though she’s “still kind of finding her feet within the group,” Vincent has expressed a willingness to take on a big role on what is an even younger group than normal during this international window.