The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After a season of outrage, the Washington Spirit delivers a night of playoff relief

Washington Spirit supporters cheer the team during its 1-0 playoff win over the North Carolina Courage. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
5 min

A cloud has hovered over the Washington Spirit’s season, but the supporters showed up Sunday, banged their drums and chanted in unison anyway. Despite the bro culture that permeates this women’s soccer league, they still brought their young daughters to Audi Field in search of role models to root for.

The 5,379 fans in attendance for the Spirit’s 1-0 quarterfinal playoff victory over the North Carolina Courage had their reasons for supporting the team and the National Women’s Soccer League. Some had to hold their nose and cheer because the stench from a season of scandals — the head coaches who started the season for the Spirit and Courage are no longer with the teams following allegations of verbal abuse (the Spirit) or sexual coercion toward players (the Courage) — has tested the patience of even the most loyal supporters.

In a season filled with turmoil and a tug-of-war at the top level of the Washington franchise, when it has been hard to call yourself a Spirit fan, they still showed up. And they made their allegiances plain.

“We’re here for the players and what they’re fighting for,” Helen Spiller said while making a concession run in the second half. “If we don’t show up, that’s not supporting them.”

Ashley Hatch’s goal in extra time sends the Washington Spirit to the NWSL semifinals

The growth of any game depends on the fan base. The Spirit’s, small yet mighty, has stayed true despite the team initially allowing then-coach Richie Burke to resign from his post in August, citing health concerns, and take a front-office position. This happened amid an investigation that he threatened and insulted players and made racially insensitive comments that played a role in Kaiya McCullough, a Black player, quitting the team. She said the verbal and emotional abuse prompted her to leave the sport.

In October, the league postponed all games following the termination of two male coaches, including the Courage’s Paul Riley, who allegedly coerced players into having sex with him while dangling the possibility of helping or hindering their careers. (Riley denied the allegations.) As NWSL players took up the fight to take back their game, Spirit players even called for CEO and controlling owner Steve Baldwin to step down and sell the team to co-owner Y. Michele Kang. Baldwin said last month that he plans to sell his stake in the club.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Eleanor Wilson, who with her friend Spiller came for a good time. “It’s something that we want to support, but it’s hard to support the players when the people who are supposed to help the players are not.”

That the Spirit made the playoffs for the first time since 2016 in this season of turmoil produced mixed feelings for uber fan Meredith Bartley.

When Bartley moved to the area six years ago for college, she was baptized into Spirit fandom. Since then, she has become a dues-paying member of the Squadron, the team’s supporters’ group. She remembers one match when she brought 20 friends to come and cheer; on Sunday, with her parents visiting her and her girlfriend from out of town, she made Mom and Dad bundle up on a chilly evening and tag along, too. After this season, she plans on running for Squadron vice president — and yet she has the urge to give it all up.

“I’m about as die-hard of a fan as they come, and I don’t see a future if it continues to be the same culture that we’ve allowed for so long,” Bartley said. “This year it’s hard to motivate the energy that it takes to be in the supporters’ group with everything going on.”

Like other members of the Squadron, Bartley showed up in a silk face mask that read, “Sell the team, Steve.” It’s part of her not-so-quiet riot against the front office. She also refused to buy merchandise — and beer: “Let me tell you, we love to drink beer, and it’s hard to not drink beer at these games,” Bartley said.

She wants to spend all of her money and lose her voice with the Squadron in Section 137.

“But I can’t if it’s going to be like this,” Bartley said. “I can’t continue to support it if it’s not Y. Michele Kang [as controlling owner]. It’s got to be her.”

Kevin Blackistone: The NWSL is a symptom. U.S. Soccer is the problem.

José Reyes had one of those expensive lagers that Bartley desperately wanted in hand as he searched for his seats. He knew nothing about the ownership drama or why Spirit coach Kris Ward has an interim tag next to his name. Reyes cared only what he could teach his DC International School girls’ varsity soccer players about this match.

Their season ended Friday, so Reyes and about six players and a few parents took a bonding trip to Audi Field. Most of the players were defenders and midfielders, so Reyes said he wanted to point out lessons they could learn. Such as how Andi Sullivan, captain and all-around boss, runs the show. How goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe was phenomenal throughout a shutout that required extra time. And how his players can look around and see even newbies such as their coach supporting women’s soccer.

“Very new to the Spirit team,” he said. “Today I’m coming with an open mind, see how the team does.”

As her dad carried the food and Thunderstix on the way back to their seats, Anna Scher reviewed the first half as only an 8-year-old can.

“It was so much fun to watch,” she said, raising her left arm triumphantly. “I got to bang my thingie!”

“She really liked banging these,” echoed her father, Ben.

From the most ardent among them to the most innocent, Sunday at Audi Field was a moment of relief. For 120 minutes, they were just soccer fans, and their team was heading to the next round.