With the NWSL season beginning this weekend, teams across the league are pushing hard in their last few practices before the matches. For the Washington Spirit, practice was intense, but light-hearted with the players enjoying working hard together, constantly teaching and learning from one another.
Head coach Richie Burke even made up songs about his players and sung the hilarious lyrics during the beginning of practice (surprisingly somewhat in tune) as he participated in a touch pass drill with the team.
With a new coaching staff comes a new style, and there were serious questions raised about Burke’s tough style, but the players in preseason seem to have been very comfortable with his style thus far. And Burke is similarly pleased with his squad. “Not only are they a pleasure to work with, they’re flexible, versatile,” Burke said. “We have superstars that can adjust and adapt. The tactics that we’ve worked on so far in our preseason have been a joy for me to watch and we’ve had a lot of positive results from it. I’m very happy where we are and happy we have this type of quality players in our program.” Change is a good term for this team and the players are truly feeling the power of these improvements.
The Spirit have a new look this season with a young roster, brand new coaching staff, new ownership, and front office staff dedicated to improving the program. Some major changes include a new locker room, Live TV and broadcast streaming deals, a contract with a world class strength and conditioning facility, and much more! Media Day at the Maryland SoccerPlex gave an inside preview as to where the team stands for the start of the season from the perspective of Aubrey Bledsoe, Tori Huster, and Mallory Pugh.
AUBREY BLEDSOE – Goalkeeper
Q: “What’s the general feeling of the team with having a new coach?”
A: “A lot of excitement! There’s been a lot of change. Not just with Richie, but we have a whole new coaching staff, new ownership, new front office staff – just the whole feel is a nice, exciting buzz around the club and it’s great to have that new feeling. Richie has been big on saying we aren’t looking at the rear view mirror, we are going forward. Last year was not something we are proud of but we don’t want to dwell on it. We’ve got a lot of talent, the right pieces, we are looking forward and we are going to put all of that together.”
Q: “You have four new players right in front of you, how is that going to test your skills and working together as a team?”
A: “I am excited. I think we have a lot of potential. There’s definitely a lot of room for growth, but it’s a long season and we are just looking to get better and add pieces to our game day by day. Hopefully I have less work to do than last year, I’m confident in who we’ve got in front of me, and I think they’ll step up for the challenge on Saturday.”
Q: “Being a leader on the field, how do you take on that role?”
A: “Honestly, I’ve always been a leader. I communicate a lot. With a lot of new faces this year communication is key and being on the same page because we all come from a little different backgrounds and styles of play so we’ve had to learn what is our brand of football is going to be this year. My main leadership role is communication on the field to try and get us all working collectively.”
Q: “Obviously, it’s not ideal to have shots on goal on you, but how does it toughen you up as a goal keeper?”
A: “Just experience. Facing a lot of different scenarios. I wouldn’t say it made me tougher, but I think I grew a lot in my reading of the game and decision making. This year I know I can make saves. I’ve got a lot of confidence.”
TORI HUSTER – Midfield
Q: “What has it been like this year playing with new players and coaching staff this season thus far?”
A: “Whether it’s this year, a new coach or new players, that’s kind of happened every year. It’s definintiely not something that’s super new to me. There’s always some sort of change over and this year is no different. I think off the field we have made a lot of improvements and just the culture that’s surrounding the group – the technical staff, the players – has been really good.”
Q: “Since you’re a veteran player now can you walk through from where you started until now and how your game has progressed?”
A: “It’s funny that you say that because I feel like while I’ve learned a lot, it’s been the experience of the last couple five years or so that I’ve had. I think playing in the league for six seasons now I know a lot of the players and how they play so now it’s about me being able to give that knowledge to our team to make us successful. Just looking at it, the league has really progressed and it’s still super competitive. It’s exciting to be a part of and hopefully this year we are successful on the field.”
Q: “What will be the challenge when facing Sky Blue?”
A: “It’s the first game of the year so everyone is going to be flying, it’s going to be super energetic and mistakes happen, even if they are silly, they’re going to happen that first game. There’s a lot of unknowns for them so we are just focusing on ourselves and how we want to play, attack, what we need to do in compact defending, and getting all on the same page. Not letting mistakes add up. Solve the problem as soon as possible. Communicating to the group with how we want to play.”
Q: “With first game jitters, how do you take on that leadership role and calm everyone down?”
A: “I think it’s a balance between being calm and being as vocal as possible so that the messages are communicated so that we have the least amount of mistakes at possible. Everyone has been waiting for this for five or six months in the off-season.”
Q: “How does it feel playing against your old teammates?”
A: “I’m really excited to see them! I hate that they’re on the other team but that’s how it goes. Friends have come and gone from the Spirit for a really long time. It’s always great to see them, but you never want to play against them – that’s just the job and it’ll be fun to match up against them.”
MALLORY PUGH – Forward
Q: “What improvements is the offense looking to make to promote goal scoring this season?”
A: “We have more a freedom to play. We’re the players and we are the ones playing so we can be creative. As the season goes on, we are going to start to mesh more and know each other’s tendencies.”
Q: “What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge against Sky Blue this Saturday?”
A: “I think they have a lot of good quality players, but I think for us it’s not really focusing on them and more on us and what we can bring to the table.”
The Washington Spirit’s first season match versus Sky Blue FC is Saturday April 13th at 7:00pm located at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, MD.