On Night of Protest, Soccer Takes Back Seat as Spirit, Gotham Draw

By: Justin McMullen
Posted: October 8, 2021

Most soccer matches last just over 90 minutes. On Wednesday across the National Women’s Soccer League, the most important minute was the sixth. 

As league play resumed after yet another revelation of systemic abuse by a league coach, the Washington Spirit and NJ/NY Gotham FC came together and locked arms at midfield in the sixth minute — a symbol of the number of years it took for Riley’s alleged actions to come to light. 

“We came to the conclusion that we really wanted to honor Mana (Shim) and Sinead (Farrelly),” said Washington midfielder and NWSL Players Association President Tori Huster, referencing the two players who went on record with The Athletic’s Meg Linehan and Katie Strang detailing their experiences playing for Riley over several organizations. Riley denies the accusations. 

Both teams have also had members of their front office and technical staff be fired after violations of the league’s anti-harassment policy which was instituted just before this season. Gotham GM Alyse LaHue was let go in July, while former Washington coach Richie Burke was officially fired in September after a months-long investigation into the abuse allegations broken by the Washington Post’s Molly Hensley-Clancy. 

Wednesday’s return to the pitch came after last weekend’s slate of matches were postponed in the wake of The Athletic’s reporting. Suiting up on Wednesday carried considerable emotional weight, according to Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan. 

“It was hard,” Sullivan said. “It’s been an extremely emotional, however many days, on top of however many weeks on top of however many years. It feels like that has compounded and like taking a big toll on a lot of us.” 

Huster said that she hoped the league would properly address the NWSLPA’s concerns, as well as agree to a list of demands released by the NWSLPA before last night’s kickoff. These demands include an immediate investigation into every NWSL club to root out any abuse and the disclosure of the results of each investigation. 

I don’t know if I have a good answer for [how the league has responded to the players’ demands] because I’m not sure we’ve received good answers to things that we think are very basic standards,” Huster said. “We’ll see what happens. I really hope that we get some of those things answered and in place quickly.”

The Spirit management saga has also continued through this week. Embattled owner Steve Baldwin, whom fans across the NWSL have called to sell his stake in the team in response to his hiring and protection of Richie Burke, stepped down as CEO of the team on Oct. 5 and left operations under the care of new president Ben Olsen. He did not make any commitment to sell his 35% stake, however, which players pushed back against in an open letter to Baldwin. 

“You still have a firm grasp as majority owner on the decisions that need to be made at the club even if they are made from behind a veil,” read the letter. “In your final act as Managing Partner, you passed the baton to someone you hired who has virtually no experience in the role you left to him. We have no confidence in that managing structure, especially on the soccer operations side, and we don’t have reason to believe you won’t be involved.” 

In the letter, the players, for the first time publicly, implored Baldwin to sell his remaining stake to Y. Michelle Kang, a businesswoman with whom Baldwin has been engaged in a reported power struggle for the past several months. 

On the pitch, the play was even between the two sides and resulted in a 0-0 draw. Gotham had a slight advantage in shots, 14-11, with both teams getting three shots on goal apiece and Gotham holding a narrow 51% – 49% lead in possession. 

“It was a good game from a tactical perspective for us,” said Spirit interim coach Kris Ward. “We started out with a diamond [formation] and that had given them problems early on.” 

To avoid Gotham’s trap toward midfield, the Spirit opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation in the second half, allowing the Spirit to “solidify the center of the field a little bit more, make it a little harder for [Gotham] to play through us,” according to Ward.

“We certainly had a handful of chances at the end, just got to put them away,” Ward said. “All told, they did a great job.” 

While the atmosphere was certainly and rightfully more somber than the organizers had originally intended, the match marked a celebration for Gotham FC forward and long-time national team star Carli Lloyd. The match was played at an unusual NWSL venue: Philadelphia’s Suburu Park, near the hometown of Lloyd, who is retiring at the conclusion of this season. Lloyd went the full 90 minutes and registered three shots. 

(Image Credit- Washington Spirit twitter)

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