Washington Spirit: Incident with player forces another coaching change

Washington Spirit head coach Kris Ward, center left, stands pitch side during the second half of the NWSL Championship soccer match against Chicago Red Stars Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

Welcome to the District Fútbol Report, WTOP Sports’ soccer blog by José Umaña, recapping the week’s action from D.C.’s two soccer teams and taking you around the world’s game.

The Washington Spirit fired Kris Ward after an incident between Ward and a player at a training session, club president Mark Krikorian said on Thursday.

In the team’s first media availability since the decision was made, Krikorian confirmed a Washington Post report stating that the incident occurred last Friday at the team’s training ground.

According to Krikorian, the team notified the National Women’s Soccer League and the players union about the altercation in order to begin the “necessary protocols.”

“We had numerous meetings with players in the next day or two, and it became apparent to me — and to all — that a change was necessary,” Krikorian said.

When asked to provide more information about the conflict, Krikorian declined to elaborate. The player involved with the altercation was not revealed during the press conference.

WTOP has reached out to the league, the player’s union and Ward for comment on the incident and possible investigation.

It is the second coaching change in a year for Washington.

Ward, 42, took over in September 2021 after the removal of former manager Richie Burke for violating the league’s anti-harassment policy.

Ward had grown a reputation for being a players coach. One example was his standing alongside the players to improve defense during Washington’s championship run last year. He had also used his position to voice support for social causes.

However, The Washington Post reported that his relationship with the players had deteriorated this season. When asked about the tone and mood between Ward and the players, or his behavior leading up to the incident, Krikorian decline to comment on the specifics.

“When we put all of the factors together, it was fairly clear that a change was necessary,” he said. “That’s why we moved as we did.”

Washington brought back almost its entire roster from 2021 this season, but a congested early schedule, injuries and national team call-ups has limited its progress.

With six games remaining in its season, Washington (1-6-9, 12 points) sits in 11th place in the 12-team NWSL standings with a slim chance of entering the playoffs.

“The expectations are to be as competitive as can be, and try and go out [and] win every game,” Krikorian said. “Up to this point, we haven’t done a great job with that.”

Due to the club’s investigation into a toxic work environment last year, fans on Twitter have voiced concerns about the team’s limited statements on the matter.

Krikorian said complexities on what can be said before a possible investigation, as well as privacy concerns, have limited the club’s initial response. He added that the Spirit plans to be “good partners” with fans when information becomes available.

“I certainly understand that there was a need for more information,” he said. “My hope is that I’m giving that to you this point, understanding that there are limitations on what I’m going to say and what I can say.”

Assistant coach Angela Salem will be in charge for Saturday’s away game against the Houston Dash. She’s been running training since Ward’s dismissal. An interim coach will be announced once all background checks have been completed. An additional assistant coach may be added in the future but details has not been finalized.

Krikorian, who managed Florida State’s women’s soccer program for 17 years, said he does not plan to return to the sidelines for the Spirit. Instead, he plans to respect any coach hired during his tenure and help on the technical side, if requested.

“I’m not interested in being the coach,” Krikorian said. “And for me, the coach needs to pick their own players. They’re going to have my support, in that regard.”

Upcoming matches to watch

Audi Field will be the home of soccer for the next two months.

Along with D.C. United and Washington Spirit, the Southwest venue will host the U.S. women’s national team in the international friendly against Nigeria on Sept. 6. at 6 p.m.

On Labor Day, the University of Maryland men’s soccer team will take on Virginia at Audi Field at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20.

Lastly, Audi Field has been named the host of the 2022 NWSL Championship game on Oct. 29. Read more about that event here.

From the Mixed Zone: Add NWSL players to MLS All-Star

After countless matches around the world, soccer journalists still do not have locker room access. Instead, media members wait in a designated area for their interviews with players. In honor of that tradition, this section is where I give you something to think about from a reporter’s point of view.

Dear MLS Commission Don Garber,

I hear you. With Liga MX’s involvement with MLS growing next season with a monthslong Leagues Cup tournament, the All-Star game format needs another makeover.

It will be redundant to have players from Mexican league clubs, who are already taking on MLS teams in serious matches, form an All-Star squad to face the best from MLS in an exhibition.

ST PAUL, MN — AUGUST 10: Dayne St. Clair #97 of the MLS All-Stars walks off the field for a substitution against the Liga MX All-Stars in the second half of the MLS All-Star game at Allianz Field on August 10, 2022 in St Paul, Minnesota. The MLS All-Stars defeated the Liga MX All-Stars 2-1. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

So before you and other league officials get together to discuss plans for next year’s showcase in D.C., I ask you to consider adding some NWSL involvement to the festivities.

The NWSL is populated by many of the world’s best women soccer players, including the majority of the U.S. women’s national team. Adding women athletes to this fun spectacle can be done, and has been done before.

For example, the NBA routinely invites WNBA stars to participate in their All-Star weekend during the skills competition portion.

You can do that too, but let’s go a step further than just the skills competition: Make the game East vs. West and add the NWSL stars based on their club’s geographical locations to each squad.

Dream scenarios — not even possible in the FIFA video games — could become reality during All-Star weekend.

Portland did a coed format earlier this year, playing a charity match that featured players from the Timbers and Thrones. The funds from that event went to families affected by the war in Ukraine.

An MLS/NWSL combined All-Star game sounds… like fun. And fun is what the All-Star game is supposed to be. Let’s keep fun in the All-Star game and add the NWSL stars.

The take from Lot 8

In honor of the supporter culture that existed in Lot 8 before D.C. United games left RFK Stadium, this section will focus on some of the best, or more interesting stories on soccer available online so you can be ready for your next tailgate.

Become a well-informed fan and give these stories about the world’s game your attention.

Jose Umana

José Umaña is a digital editor for WTOP. He’s been working as a journalist for almost a decade, covering local news, education and sports. His work has appeared in The Prince George’s Sentinel, The Montgomery Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, PressBox and The Diamondback.

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