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Mallory Pugh // Photo: courtesy of the Washington Spirit

Women’s World Cup Champs Look Ahead

The sound of cicadas echoed loudly outside of FedExField, and the summer sun beamed unforgivably onto the concrete. My eyes adjusted to the dark of the tunnel as I passed through the depths of the stadium and onto the pitch. Immediately, my ears recognized the short, urgent calls of the Washington Spirit players communicating seamlessly to each other as they trained.

As I made my way over to the group of other media day attendees on July 22, I noticed their cameras trained on two players in particular: 21-year-old Mallory Pugh and 24-year-old Rose Lavelle. All eyes were on the pair, still riding the high from their 2019 Women’s World Cup win on July 7 and kicking back into gear for the second half of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season.

Pugh experienced rapid success very early in her career, receiving her Olympic callup at 17. The youngest American to debut on the national team in 11 years, her skill and success has the nation optimistic for the future of American soccer.

Star midfielder Lavelle is coming off of a critical shot for the U.S. in the 69th minute of the World Cup Final against the Netherlands. The landmark goal not only clinched the record for most team goals in a single FIFA Women’s World Cup, but also distinguished Lavelle as the second youngest American to score in a World Cup Final. Her exceptional performance in Paris earned her the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Bronze Ball.

Not only are these two young women living out their dreams on the international stage, they’re also experiencing success together as roommates and best friends.

“I have been so privileged and honored just to be around her,” Pugh said about Lavelle, giving her friend a sideways glance along the interview table at FedExField. “When she scored her first goal, I started crying. I was so happy for her.”

Pugh sat back after speaking to Lavelle’s inspirational and supportive role in her life. She whispered a sincere, “Thanks Rosie,” and the two young women exchanged a moment of mutual understanding and gratitude.

“That’s hard to follow up,” Lavelle laughed. “I know Mal’s younger than me, but I’ve always looked up to her. When you get to do what you love with people you love, it makes it that much more fun.”

Pugh switched gears to the remainder of the NWSL season, saying the team is very focused. The athletes hope the national attention garnered from the World Cup win will increase the attention on their regular season play, but the panel of female athletes expressed some skepticism.

“It’s almost been frustrating,” said team captain Andi Sullivan. “You have those same players that you saw in the World Cup – they’re all here. So, why are people not engaging with it?”

Head Coach Richie Burke echoed Sullivan’s sentiments, pointing out that his “world-class” team is “underpaid, underrecognized, underappreciated.” However, Burke expressed that the newly signed ESPN and Budweiser partnerships are steps in the right direction. His comments were met with concurring nods from all the players. This will be the first time in history that the NWSL will have a broadcast agreement with ESPN.

“Any exposure we can get is wonderful,” Pugh said. “I want people to see what we can do.”

As the interview continued, it became evident that certain themes will resurface over the course of the 2019 season and Spirit seasons to come. First, the team will have to face a reality where achieving the viewership they believe they deserve will continue to be an uphill battle. Also, their pursuit of equal pay will not slow with the sunset of the 2019 Women’s World Cup win. The players looked confident that vying for both viewership and satisfactory compensation are contests they can win.

With the resolve of someone beyond her years, Pugh commented, “Everyone is saying how competitive and how great this league is, and I think people just need to see that. Now that we have the option and they actually can do that, it’s absolutely amazing.”

#PackThePlex and join the Washington Spirit at the Maryland SoccerPlex for the remainder of their 2019 season, which runs through early October. Catch home games this month on Saturday, August 10, Wednesday, August 21 and Saturday, August 24. Tickets start at $25. Visit www.washingtonspirit.com for more information.

Maryland SoccerPlex: 18031 Central Park Cir. Boyds, MD; 301-591-0927; www.washingtonspirit.com

Photo: Jeremy Reper

Offseason of Change Brings Optimism for Washington Spirit

After losing 41 of the past 48 regular season games, one could hardly blame the Women’s National Soccer League’s (WNSL) Washington Spirit for hitting the reset button. Through various changes in the front office, ownership and on the field, this young team is looking to reverse its recent fortunes and begin building a foundation for lofty championship goals.

Starting at the top, longtime owner Bill Lynch sold his majority stake in late 2018 to Steve Baldwin. Shortly after, the team announced Richie Burke would take over as head coach and technical director. Burke has an extensive track record in youth soccer around the DC area, making him the logical fit to lead the team’s youth movement.

“Being involved in the professional game is an incredible buzz,” Burke says. “It’s an incredible reward. It’s like a drug you get drawn back to all the time. The project itself has a lot of really good people involved, and it was an opportunity that was hard to turn down.”

Burke and the Spirit agree that the team is a project. As the squad gears up for training camp and preseason matches this month, everyone is focused on the simple goal of improving habits and team culture rather than agonizing over results.

“Last year was kind of rough,” forward Ashley Hatch says. “We feel we could have had better results, but we got unlucky and things didn’t go our way. We’re a very talented team that works hard, so I want to help us get the results we deserve.”

During the 2018 campaign, the Spirit finished with a record of two wins, five draws and 17 defeats. Despite this, Burke insists he’s not simply bringing a new style and structure with him, as he’s crystal clear on his extremely high expectations for the team to work toward.

“I’m very organized and very structured, and I want to play an aesthetically pleasing game,” the coach says. “I do know that we’re going to work hard and play hard. Success for me is winning the WNSL championship. I set the goals high. I want to win and win with style.”

One aspect of this season that every WNSL team must overcome is this summer’s 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Already this year, the Spirit has had three players train with the U.S. women’s national team including Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh and Andi Sullivan. The league has implemented a 12-day break in the schedule to account for the international tournament in early June.

“You have mixed feelings,” Burke says. “I’m thrilled for the players and the franchise. I couldn’t be happier for the players themselves. I hope they score goals out the ying-yang.”

Instead of fretting about the World Cup, the Spirit is solely focused on things within the players’ control such as play on the field and the ways they plan to integrate all the changes. In addition to changes in the front office, the Spirit was featured heavily at the January WNSL draft, making four selections in the first round.

“I think that with all the changes going on, it’s going to be a very exciting team,” says Sullivan, the team’s midfielder. “I really just want to help the new team and culture take off. I want to make the transition easy for everyone and be someone that can connect the pieces.”

The DMV native, along with the aforementioned Pugh and Lavelle, are heavily featured in marketing for the coming season. The trio is often mentioned when the best young U.S. soccer players are brought up and are a huge reason Burke feels confident in his steadfast belief the team will achieve success in short order.

“It’s a fresh start,” Sullivan continues. “Capitalizing on that energy is going to really up the standard and level [for the team]. It’s a great opportunity, and it’s an optimistic look toward the future. It makes now seem like a great time to go for it, and that’s how we’re approaching [the season].”

The transition won’t be perfect. Rebuilds in professional sports are often rocky, rife with growing pains and career firsts, however the Spirit can only rise up the standings. For soccer enthusiasts in the DMV, catching a team right as they begin to figure it out is one of the most fascinating rides for any fan. With this much talent and potential on the roster, it’s only a matter of time for this core.

“The best part about having young players is we’re hungry,” Hatch says. “We want to prove ourselves as a team and individuals. I think it will definitely play in our favor.”

The Washington Spirit begins the preseason on Saturday, March 16 at the City Stadium in Richmond, Virginia. The team will begin the regular season versus the Sky Blue FC on the home field at the Maryland SoccerPlex on Saturday, April 13. For more information about the squad, visit www.washingtonspirit.com.

Maryland SoccerPlex: 18031 Central Park Cir. Boyds, MD; 301-591-0927; www.washingtonspirit.com