Why the Washington Spirit should make a deal with Portland

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. The Washington Spirit have problems — some of their own making, some not. (Some of this was covered earlier in my Guardian piece on the club’s issues.)

  • Last year’s national anthem fiasco was, first of all, the wrong decision on the club’s part. (Make no mistake — a lot of people spoke up in support of Bill Lynch, just not within the narrow confines of the women’s soccer community. But you simply can’t make a point about patriotism by stifling peaceful free expression. And I’d challenge the people who said “Oh, I’m a Spirit fan now!” to actually show up at some games this year.)
  • The anthem fiasco was also symptomatic of a persistent issue with the club, which is that it simply does not get public relations. That’s not the fault of the people who’ve done the club’s PR work. It’s higher up.
  • Along those same lines — while it’s not fair to slap a “homophobic” label on Lynch after Joanna Lohman spoke up for him, would it kill the Spirit to have a Pride Night? One potential positive: Maybe players around the league (not just Washington) who have hesitated to go public will do so. It’s sad to think that anyone is living like Barry Manilow did for so many years, unable to talk in public about a partner or spouse who means so much. The decision to speak in public is personal, and some may choose to remain silent, but women’s soccer as a whole should reiterate that this is a community of allies. (Worth noting, though: The notion that the Spirit is the only club not to have a Pride Night is disputed.)
  • A lot of players left, for diverse reasons. Some had issues with coach Jim Gabarra because they felt they deserved a bigger role. (A couple may have had a case; a couple are deluding themselves.) The anthem incident and other management issues surely played a part in some other departures.
  • More troubling from my perspective: The staff turnover. They’ve lost some good people. Players are just packing up and moving to another club. Staff members who leave are generally rooted in the community and are leaving the game entirely.
  • The Development Academy efforts in Virginia are off to a shaky start. Several clubs with proven track records of developing players have removed themselves from Spirit partnerships, replaced by clubs that have some wonderful coaches but are considerably smaller in size and past achievements.

Add it all up, and it’s easy to see how negative narratives can pop up. The Narrative now is simple: “Nobody wants to play for the Spirit. They’re the worst club in the league.”

From 20-something years in journalism, I can say this: The Narrative is usually somewhere between “oversimplified” and “flat-out wrong.” It was wrong over and over again in last year’s election. Journalists deserve most of the blame for that, but the data we get from readers also steer us in that direction. It’s human nature to find a simple way to read a story and stick with it.

In this case, there have been plenty of bad situations around the league. Kansas City fans are hoping new ownership can erase the stains of last year’s messy implosion. Some clubs have horrible playing and training surfaces, though the Spirit simply got lucky there by inheriting space at the Maryland SoccerPlex from past women’s pro teams. (Washington may be the one metro area in the U.S. in which the women’s club has better fields than the men’s club — everything at D.C. United’s lame-duck home of RFK Stadium reeks of neglect.)

And other clubs simply don’t draw the scrutiny that the Spirit, a polarizing team for many reasons, have always drawn. Gabarra’s every move is questioned here. My memory may be fading, but I don’t remember him being on such a hot seat at Sky Blue.

So The Narrative is certainly oversimplified. We can’t say “no one wants to play in Washington.” If we could survey every player in the league, we’d surely find some players — including some good ones — who would be happy to have a change of scenery.

And The Narrative includes a few unsubstantiated or unfair accusations. Some of the chatter yesterday was on the rash of ACL injuries among Spirit players in the last 12 months — if someone has evidence that this is due to overuse or poor physical training, speak up, but it still wouldn’t explain Kelsey Wys being injured in Australia. Also, a lot of critics have piled on with complaints of “unfair treatment” of Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, refusing to even consider the possibility that Wys simply played too well last season to lose her spot. (The way Labbe has started this season, Wys might not reclaim the starting spot when she finishes rehab. It’s unfortunate, but there’s simply no scapegoat here.)

All that said … The Narrative needs changing. It’s not just a question of appeasing critics who are eager to pile on for various reasons (some political, some because of allegiances to other teams, some who don’t realize a lot of clubs would’ve lost patience with Ali Krieger a lot sooner than the Spirit did). A lot has gone wrong at the SoccerPlex, and a considerable amount of it is the Spirit’s fault.

And fans are clearly voting with their feet. Some of the Spirit Squadron will show up to cheer for Tori Huster and anyone else who battles for their hometown team no matter what. Some won’t.

The Spirit needs to change something to reverse the trend. And now they have a golden opportunity. Mallory Pugh is ready to go pro. The Spirit would be first in line to bring her to the NWSL, but numerous reports say she’d much rather go to Portland.

We can argue about whether Pugh has the right to hold the league hostage as she is. That’s something soccer fans have argued at least since Freddy Adu maneuvered his way to D.C. United way back when, and sports fans can remember everyone from John Elway to Danny Ferry refusing to go where they were drafted. That’s a complex argument for another day.

And we don’t know what Portland has offered. Merritt Paulson apparently disputes the idea that the Thorns have offered up two federation players (they have several U.S. players in that category, plus Christine Sinclair), but I don’t know what to make of that.

For the record, I did get a comment from Gabarra late last night: “We haven’t even been told yet that Mal is going to be an funded player this year. Therefore, we aren’t going to talk about any deals offered, accepted, or rejected. As we’ve said, we believe Mal is an extraordinary player with tremendous potential. If she is joining the NWSL we would certainly love to have her play in DC. Her talents and skills would be a perfect fit for our style of play and she will continue her growth and development here as a player.”

You can fault Gabarra for saying very little, but it’s not as if the Thorns, one of the most adored clubs in the NWSL, are sending clear signals themselves.

But let’s assume for the moment that no one is misleading all of the reporters, and Pugh is indeed in play. If the Spirit can make a deal with the suddenly valuable No. 1 Allocation Ranking Thing That Apparently Exists, they can accomplish two things:

  1. They’ll earn goodwill among players and many fans for helping Pugh play where she wants.
  2. They’ll show to the fans that they’re not giving up on this season, getting someone good in return for all the puzzling trades they’ve made in the offseason.

Simple narratives are rarely a good thing. But simple solutions are often best.

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Why the Washington Spirit should make a deal with Portland

  1. Really curious about your Krieger reference. What all did she do that would have made clubs lose patience with her?

  2. Thanks for asking.

    Let’s say this up front: She’s a terrific player. I thought last season was her best as a player and a leader.

    As detailed in my book, in the first season, she tried to bring in her father to “help” coach the team. To be clear, her dad is a qualified coach whose resume was better than Jorden’s — or Mark Parsons’, for that matter — and other players were on board. But that’s still an outrageous thing to do. She defended it by saying it worked for Bob and Michael Bradley, which I think many MNT fans would dispute. Also, Michael can’t just play for another national team, and Bob had every right to put in for the USMNT job above all others.

    (We shouldn’t hold her responsible for the inflammatory comments her mom made on Facebook during the season. She’s not going to criticize her mom in public, but I saw no sign that she was on board with that.)

    My subjective take from seeing the team up close that first season was that she was uneasy relating to her teammates. There may be several good reasons for that. She’s an elite player, and some of them were not. But that didn’t stop Lori Lindsey, Diana Matheson or Robyn Gayle from being leaders who inspired and taught their teammates in practice. Maybe Krieger took on that leadership role in the locker room. All I can say is that I didn’t see it in practice, and I was surprised Parsons made her the captain.

    More recently — the notion that she absolutely wanted to stay with the Spirit and was blind-sided by the trade is farcical. My understanding from multiple sources is that she sometimes said she wanted to stay and sometimes didn’t.

    You can talk all of this for what it’s worth. I know there are a lot of people who really don’t want to hear anything even potentially negative about Krieger, and they’re the ones who hear all this and say I’m not a “real journalist.” My past employers over the past 25 years would be surprised to hear that, but anyway.

    These are, though, a combination of subjective observations on my part and what I’ve heard from anonymous sources. (Some of whom are certainly not obvious.) People may have other observations and other sources to present a different picture. That’s fine. I’m certainly not saying she’s evil incarnate — again, she’s a terrific player, and I’ve seen her be very kind and generous with fans. I frankly think she deserved more playing time with the WNT last summer. (Wow, was it less than a year ago?)

    But from all I know at this time, I think the narrative that she was unfairly punished for standing up to Spirit management is simply not the whole story. And I know it’s not popular to challenge that narrative, but using evidence to challenge popular narratives is part of what a “real journalist” does.

    The best comment I’ve read today was something along the lines of how it’s not mutually exclusive to say Krieger has been difficult to deal with AND the Spirit’s management has been quite bad. Sure. Sometimes, both parties are wrong. (To give another example: During the CBA talks last year, I think both sides had plenty of faults.)

    Personally, I hope she’s happy in Orlando. And I hope everyone involved in her Spirit tenure has had a chance to reflect and learn. There were some highlights — I never saw any evidence that she clashed with Mark Parsons, whose player-management skills may be the best of any coach I’ve ever seen. Other parts of it didn’t go well. Live and learn.

  3. Why don’t you admit you frequent a lesbian gossip board to copy information? How can you expect people to take you seriously when you don’t even try to put in the effort?

  4. Thanks for asking!

    Here’s my history with the board in question:

    Several years ago, I checked my page stats and saw I was getting a lot of referrals from a site I didn’t know. I checked it out. It was interesting. Some of it bordered on voyeurism that would make me really uncomfortable if I were a player. Some of it was genuinely interesting soccer discussion. (And good discussion of Kate McKinnon, the only other thread I’ve checked out on that board. I’m a huge SNL fan, and McKinnon is awesome.)

    But when I made reference to it on Twitter, someone from the board contacted me and asked me not to draw attention to it. We have a nice little community here, she said. Please don’t link to us.

    I respected that. I kept lurking while I was writing the Spirit book as a gauge of what people were thinking about the team — same reason I monitor Twitter or BigSoccer. Some of the discussion was interesting. Some of the rumors were hilariously wrong.

    Since then, I haven’t checked it as often. The discussion wasn’t as interesting. And I wasn’t alone. The last time I checked with the person who contacted me, she had pretty much drifted away from the boards. I know from others that she’s not alone.

    Before today, I’m not sure I’d visited in the past year. If I did, I probably just searched my name or something specific to see if it was being discussed. (The search function is a little erratic, though. Somehow, the Laura Prepon threads would always come up. She’s great, but I don’t know how I’m relevant to that discussion.)

    Today, it was painfully obvious that a lot of people in that thread are newbies. It’s a different tone. Instead of “Hey, please don’t mention us,” it’s “You don’t have the guts to mention us!” Interesting.

    A lot of the accusations are old, and they’re par for the course. I have one of the world’s easiest names to Google, so it’s pretty easy to figure out that I’m (A) old, (B) a journalist with 25 years of experience, (C) a former USA TODAY guy who wrote a lot of soccer while he was there, (D) someone who has covered women’s sports for decades. And (E) someone who has lobbed a lot of criticism at Spirit management. But they don’t bother. It would spoil the narrative. Some people just want a scapegoat.

    The funniest bit today — one poster talked about it being a “safe space.” I mentioned that on Twitter. Then someone responded, “Whoever said this was a safe space?” Rewind one page, if you please.

    I’m always happy to answer for anything I write. It’s controversial at times. I tend to challenge flawed narratives, and a lot of people assume that means I do so because of my personal feelings. Not so.

    Basically, if you’ll hear me out, I’ll hear you out. I promise.

    Peace out.

    (And buy my book if you want nice little anecdotes and quotes from the players who suffered through that first season. Most people apparently don’t want that, which is fine. I know a lot of players didn’t even read it. They didn’t want to relive it.)

  5. Beau Dure again with his shady comments about Krieger. Should have stopped reading the article after noting the writer’s name

  6. Thank you for the substantive comment that addresses all of the relevant issues.

    New funniest thing I’ve seen today (and yes, I’ll be lurking on various boards until this passes — maybe I should run some of it by a lawyer): I’ve been paid by the Spirit to write a PR person in which the first seven paragraphs are about systemic issues within the organization. I’m sorry, MLS conspiracy theorists — you’ve been outdone.

  7. FYI I drove over 200 miles and sent around $300 to watch the Spirit vs Flash final and watched Krieger wiff a PK so not impressed. She’s not terrible but, not the best IMHO.
    Now that I have signaled my awesome woso virtue, and thing is I really like soccer for sake of soccer and degenerating the game into Euro-trash politics is not a good idea. You might think this LGBT thing is cool but, I for think this public celebration of what we do with our peepees is rather obnoxious, divisive and counterproductive. Rapinoe’s protests were out of line because she undermined her league and her team and there is nothing inherently virtuous about the BLM or having a PRIDE party. (BTW I have been to Hippy Hollow on Pride Day and it was sausage fest, no chicks, so not really all that entertaining)

  8. I actually read your book and found it rather pedestrian with little to no insight. It was like a high school kid taking a journalism class tagged along on a few bus rides of the local sports team for a season. That being said, I’m sure there were a myriad of things that brought the Spirit organization where it is today and Ali was part of it. But I don’t for one minute believe Krieger was anything less than a leader and voice for her teammates in the last couple of years with Spirit. The way she left it all on the field and her teammates have nothing but praise for her.

    And what is wrong with her suggesting her dad in year one? Like you said he was well qualified and they were in bad shape coaching wise.

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