The Washington Spirit’s Organizational Freefall, Explained

By: Justin McMullen
Posted: September 13, 2021

In the midst of a turbulent stretch that has seen the sidelining of their head coach and an exit after abuse allegations, a parting of ways with their President of Business Operations after an ill-received kit sponsorship deal, a reported dispute brewing at the ownership level and growing calls from fans to sell the team, Washington Spirit owner and CEO Steve Baldwin has hired D.C. United legend Ben Olsen as the team’s new Club President. 

Olsen, whose long and storied career with the capital city’s MLS franchise includes 13 years as a player and 10 years as head coach, joins the NWSL club after spending 18 months as club executive advisor for United after exiting the head coach role during a difficult 2020 season. 

“I have loved being part of the D.C. United family for over 20 years, and I will always be grateful to the club that has given me so much,” Olsen said in a statement released by the team on Thursday evening. “However, it is time for a new challenge for me and the opportunity to help grow the Spirit, soccer in the city I love, and the women’s game was too great to pass up. The Spirit squad is an exciting team, and the NWSL is on the rise. I am eager to get to work building on that momentum to help bring another title to DC and deepen our responsibility to the DC community and our fans.”

According to the statement, Olsen will “oversee all day-to-day operations, driving the development of the team’s business and sporting operations, and the overall effort to enhance the club’s culture and identity.” 

For Baldwin and the Spirit, the hope is likely that the appointment of a local legend will win back some goodwill from the fan base in the midst of a slew of controversies. In August, The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer reported that the Spirit had parted ways with President of Business Operations Lindsay Barenz, who had just joined the organization in May. According to Maurer’s reporting, Barenz had participated in the abuse investigation into Richie Burke and “raised concerns about the club’s recent sponsorship deal with IntelliBridge, a defense contractor.” 

That sponsorship deal, as well as a “distinguished guest” appearance by retired General Michael Hayden, a former CIA and NSA head under President George W. Bush who oversaw the NSA’s unconstitutional wiretapping program as well as a controversial CIA torture progam described by some detractors as war crimes, at a Service Member Appreciation night, led to an outcry among certain fans who did not feel these moves represented the more progressive nature of a majority of the fan base. As a result, several fans and supporters groups began calling for Baldwin to sell the team, including some notable moments during the August 29 game at Audi Field. 

A banner raised by members of the Rose Room Collective, a Spirit supporters group led by and for people of color, which read “Sell the Team, Steve,” had to be taken down from the supporter’s section during an August 29 at the request of ownership, according to the Rose Room Collective and its co-founder, Douglas Reyes-Ceron. As a result, Ceron told Meg Linehan on her podcast “Full Time” that he and other Spirit supporters asked the nearby North Carolina Courage supporters to join them in “sell the team” chants that were audible on the television broadcast. 

Strife has befallen the Spirit owner’s box as well, the Washington Post’s Molly Hensley-Clancy reported. Y. Michelle Kang, an investor who purchased a 35% stake in the club in 2020, has become increasingly involved in club operations, which Baldwin has begun to resist according to internal emails revealed by the Post. The Post also reported that when Kang initially brought forward a “variety of serious issues and concerns,” Baldwin had agreed to sell Kang his stake in the team, then later changed his mind. On September 4, team sources leaked to a D.C  sports radio host that Kang was “under investigation” by the NWSL.  Later that day, The Athletic reported that Spirit CEO Larry Best, Baldwin’s closest ally, was the individual that filed a complaint with the NWSL under its anti-harassment policy. Neither the NWSL nor the Washington Spirit responded to requests for comments regarding whether an investigation was actually taking place or who was involved. 

Such is the quagmire that Olsen, who has been open about his lack of prior experience working in women’s soccer, enters as he assumes the role of team President. Olsen, in a recent interview with The Athletic, acknowledged that the new job opportunity came about “very recently.” 

“This was not something that was months and months of planning and interviewing,” Olsen said. Steve (Baldwin) is the CEO of this club. He calls the shots and he was looking for a president.” 

Olsen also acknowledged his unfamiliarity with the Spirit, the NWSL and women’s soccer as a whole, saying he has “seen three games where I was really engaged, the last three games, where I was engaged and watching them.”

“I don’t necessarily know the women’s game as much as many people in the soccer world but that’s ok too,” Olsen said. “Coming into this with fresh eyes might be what the organization needs.” 

While he was hired by Baldwin and he spoke highly of Best in the interview, Olsen said that he has yet to speak with Kang, who owns 35% of the club. Olsen says that he will not make decisions for just one individual, and sidestepped questions pertaining to the reported power struggle between the owners. While it’s clear that Olsen’s connections and stature in the D.C. soccer community played a major role in his hiring, he pushed back on characterizations of the Spirit as being a “boy’s club.” 

“I’m asking for the benefit of the doubt,” Olsen said “Because of my past, because of who I represented within this community over the last 10 to 20 years and my background … my track record as a community member in this city for 20 years and the cultures that I’ve built within D.C. United, the interactions I’ve had within the soccer community here. I think I’m coming in with a fairly clean slate and new eyes looking at this project. And for some people, that won’t be enough. And I get it. That’s fine.”

The organizational dysfunction has now extended to the pitch as well. Last weekend’s match against the Portland Thorns was postponed due to four positive Covid cases among the Washington roster. This Sunday, September 12, the Spirit were set to host OL Reign at Audi Field, but the NWSL announced this Saturday that the match has been abandoned and designated a Washington forfeit for “breaches of the league’s medical protocols by the Spirit.” 

“We apologize to our fans who we know are disappointed in us. Making this situation right and preparing for our remaining matches are the club’s highest priorities,” Olsen said in a statement. 

As far as the league table is concerned, the Spirit currently occupy the sixth and final playoff spot with 23 points. Close behind on the bubble are Houston Dash and Gotham FC, who are nipping at Washington’s heels with 23 points and 22 points, respectively. each. This weekend’s forfeit could potentially knock the Spirit out of the playoff race, and with just seven matches remaining, points will come at a premium, and one has to wonder whether there are too many off-field distractions for the Spirit to capitalize on the promise of their talented, young roster and right the ship. With virtually all aspects of the club in turmoil, to say the organization has their work cut out for them is turning out to be one of the season’s largest understatements.

Image credit- Washington Spirit twitter

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