What the Furt, Washington?

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It’s been just a month since the Western New York Flash won the 2016 NWSL Championship, and the off-season has seemed as nail-biting as those last seconds of extra-time at the end of the match. But the “What will happen next?” vibe of this off-season hasn’t affected each team across the league equally. Instead, the majority seems to be centered with the Washington Spirit, the team that fought so desperately to win in those last twenty or so seconds after Lynn Williams’s breath-stopping goal that sent the championship game to PKs.

Only a month, and yet, already it’s clear—the 2017 Washington Spirit will be very different than this year’s runners-up.

First, there was the trade of National Team member and Federation allocation Ali Krieger to Orlando in exchange for the Pride’s #2 spot in the Distribution Ranking Order—an exchange that seems paltry, if not insulting, to a foundational player in the team’s play these past four years. Krieger is an original member of the Spirit’s inaugural NWSL roster, returning from FFC Frankfurt, where she had played since 2007 and has served as its captain since Lori Lindsey’s departure following the first season.

Laura Harvey announced the acquisition of midfielder Christine Nairn by the Seattle Reign. Nairn was drafted out of Penn State by the Reign in the 2013 NWSL draft, but was traded in November of that year to the Washington Spirit (where she has played since) in exchange for Kim Little’s discovery rights. The trade also includes rights to goalkeeper Madalyn Schiffel, a 2016 draftee for the Spirit who spent her season with a club in Norway, for Seattle and sends midfielder Havana Solaun and three draft picks (3rd and 36th picks overall in the 2016 draft and the Reign’s second-round pick in 2018) to Washington.

Finally, in the past weeks there has been increasing chatter among soccer journalists that Crystal Dunn, 2015 NWSL MVP and National Team member, will be heading overseas to play in Europe. Dunn confirmed this rumor with Julie Foudy this week, intimating that if she’s going to go and have the experience of playing in a club overseas, now is the time to do it.

That’s three (three!) of the biggest names on the Washington Spirit’s 20-person roster that are certain or highly likely to be gone from the roster next year. That’s three of the team’s leadership players gone. (When Krieger was away on National Team duty, it was Nairn who picked up the armband.) That’s three of the most experienced members of the team—three of the players who have been with the team the longest (Krieger since 2013, Dunn and Nairn since 2014).

If the Krieger trade had you scratching your head, the Nairn trade is sure to leave you baffled. It has me thinking “What the furt, Washington,” honestly.

Because, at first glance, trades and movement during the off-season are natural. Teams reassess their rosters and their anticipated needs for next season’s adjustments. But the actions of the Washington Spirit roster take on a different tone in the wake of issues arising throughout the end of the 2016 regular season and persisting through the run-up toward the Championship.

There are at least three ways to look it, as far as I’m concerned, but none of them seem to spell anything good for the future of the Washington Spirit in 2017.

1. All Systems Green: Calm Seas, Smooth Sailing

And sure, that’s true. Player movement is a sign of a healthy, developing league, with teams planning not just for the next season but for the next several seasons.

But this isn’t what’s happening with the Washington Spirit. I think we need look no further than Krieger’s own statement on the trade for evidence of that.

The Washington Spirit’s decision to trade me comes as a surprise,” she wrote before going on to thank her teammates and the team’s fans as well as the Spirit staff, volunteers, and coaches for all their hard work and support over her years in DC. Even more, Krieger was reportedly made aware of the trade not by the Washington Spirit but by the Orlando Pride. Other teammates, as well, found out the news not from the Spirit’s owner, Bill Lynch, or coach, Jim Gabarra, but when asked their opinion on the trade, as in the case of Canadian National Team member and allocation Diana Matheson.

While an athlete’s rights can, in general, be traded away at any time without notice or recourse, there is usually a protocol for such things. And it’s when that protocol is ignored, or violated, that suggests something deeper might be at play.

If anything, the Krieger trade brings to mind Western New York’s 2014 trade of Carli Lloyd to the Houston Dash in exchange for Whitney Engen and Becky Edwards, which she characterized in 2015 as lacking decency and respect, saying:

“I don’t think it’s a lot to ask to get a little bit of respect in this league. We don’t get paid millions of dollars to just be uprooted from our families and friends and homes and be traded on the spot. If we were getting paid millions of dollars, different story.”

In the case of Ali Krieger, Dan Lauletta reported on rumors of a trade at least a week before the movement was confirmed, a report that stirred up Krieger’s vast fanbase to the point that she released a statement denying any such speculation.

Ten days later, her trade was announced.

2. Yellow Alert: We’ve Sprung a Leak

A second option is that these are unhappy players looking for a way out. And there’s evidence to that effect—circumstantial and without named sources, but enough to lead to speculation that individual players may be interested in teams with other leadership styles and organizational priorities.

There have long been rumors about player discontent in the locker room, rumors that came to a head the night of the National Anthem controversy in September earlier this year. Immediately after the game, speaking to reporters, Megan Rapinoe made the claim that Bill Lynch is homophobic, and questioned whether this played a role in his decision to silence her protest. In a statement to Caitlin Buckley, Rapinoe said that “I’ve had conversations with Spirit players both current and past,” and that the team, unlike most others in the league, does not seem interested in putting together a Pride night, despite the numerous “gay players on their team.”

In contrast, a Spirit spokesperson insisted that the players would not speak about the anthem issue, only the match itself, and the players released a joint statement two days later which expressed “disappointment” in their owner and team leadership.

Since then, there has seemed to be an undercurrent of displeasure, at least out of the public eye. And when the Krieger trade was confirmed, the Washington Post clearly stated that the relationship between the front office and the locker room was a factor. “The trade comes amid broader player unhappiness about the Washington organization,” the Post’s sources said, and confirmed that the Spirit’s “players are not happy with management in general.”

And during a conversation with Julie Foudy in the days before the first match against Romania this week, Krieger made it clear that, despite the surprise of being traded, the move is actually a positive one, stating, “I was unhappy with the organization there.”

So, when the news of Nairn’s trade broke this morning—and Steven Goff of Soccer Insider suggested that Nairn sought out the trade herself—I don’t think many people were surprised.

3. Code Red: Grab an Oar, It’s a Reckoning

The third option is that the Spirit ownership and leadership are cleaning house. The ship hasn’t sprung a leak so much as it’s been rammed into the rocks.

And to what benefit?

It’s not hard to speculate.

Three of the players with the most power in the locker room and the strongest ability to lead are gone or possibly soon to leave.

Left behind on the Spirit roster, in large part, are the younger, more inexperienced players. The ones who get paid the least—whose livelihoods depend on their team paycheck in a way that Krieger’s, Dunn’s, and possibly even Nairn’s do not.  Players who might think twice before organizing a team meeting to discuss a reaction to an event like Lynch’s anthem decision, as Ali Krieger was reported to have done. Players without the political currency or the playing stats to provide them with some measure of protection if they offer criticism or push back against Lynch’s decisions.

So Which Is It, and What Does It Mean for Washington?

Honestly, I think the answer is a mix of options two and three. On one hand, players are no longer willing to put up with whatever is making them unhappy behind the scenes. On the other hand, an owner is making a stand, expressing his control over his players’ lives.

Whether it’s problems in the locker room, issues with coaching decisions, or a negative relationship with the ownership, there is some truth to the rumors of player unhappiness on the team. And, it’s a problem bad enough that multiple players have, as of today, spoken or alluded to it directly.

And it’s also an issue of control on the part of Bill Lynch, a man who decided he had the right to control patriotism and free speech earlier this season. This reeks of retribution and punishment, especially in the case of Ali Krieger and the trade that wasn’t a trade. That was an expression of control, pure and simple. A warning statement to his remaining players that he quite literally possesses their futures—their rights—and can do with them what he pleases.

With respect to the future, fans of Washington should be concerned. The Washington Spirit was a team on fire in 2016, even though they appeared to dim a little after the anthem issue, their performance suffering (an indication of what was to come, surely). And losing the Championship in such a manner as they did, the Spirit were primed for a “comeback season.” The kind of season a team has after experiencing such a defeat, inspired by their failure to convert.

Now, without two (possibly three) of their strongest leaders, in a season with no majors tournaments, and with the question of whether the Canadians will come back, the Spirit will be looking to fill spaces. They’ll be selecting starters from the 2017 NWSL draft, which is a hit and miss prospect, because not every college star makes a successful transition to professional athlete, much less ones who could be relied on to start and become a playmaker from the get-go.

They’ll be looking to acquire international talent and allocated talent, and they’ll be trying to fit different playing styles together instead of trying to adjust and improve upon what they had.

But most of all, they’ll be looking at building team cohesion from the bottom up, instead of growing upon existing partnerships and on-field chemistry.  And they’ll be doing all of this in a team environment with an owner that has made it clear that it’s Lynch’s way or the highway.

In the meantime, Coach Jim Gabarra says fans are just going to have to trust them.

But honestly? 

I don’t know if they’ve earned it.