Digging into the Washington Spirit’s decline after another coaching change

Quick Hits
  • After winning a trophy in 2021, expectations were high for the Washington Spirit in the NWSL this season
  • However, the Spirit are sitting near the bottom of the table and have recently undergone another managerial change
Aug 5, 2022; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; Washington Spirit head coach Kris Ward and majority owner Michele Kang after the game against Racing Louisville FC at Lynn Family Stadium. Mandatory Credit: EM Dash-USA TODAY Sports
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Coming off their first-ever NWSL title in 2021, the Washington Spirit had their sights set on being the third NWSL team in history to secure back-to-back titles. Considering they’re sitting in 11th place in the league after 16 games, it’s safe to say that the Spirit’s season isn’t going to plan. 

They’ve struggled on the field and, earlier this week, Washington also fired Kris Ward, who had been the head coach for the past year.

Though Washington technically began their season on a positive note by winning their first regular season game and advancing to the Challenge Cup final, that’s where the positivity ends. The Spirit haven’t won any of the 15 regular-season games they’ve played since their opener against the OL Reign. Altogether, they’ve only scored 15 goals and have conceded 21. That goals-for mark is the second worst in the league, but their goals-against value is right in the middle of the table.

What do the numbers say?

Digging into these statistics a bit more, many of the Spirit’s metrics are also right in the middle of the pack. That includes expected goals (xG), xG against, xG differential, and expected points. Follow me just a little further here: the Spirit’s current situation gets more intriguing when you compare their championship-winning 2021 season to this one. 

A quick glance at this table suggests that the Spirit are performing worse – in some aspects – than they were last season. 

In terms of attacking, the team’s expected goals metric is better than in 2021, which is good, but they’ve scored fewer goals and recorded fewer shots per game this season. That’s…less good. Defensively, the Spirit are facing fewer shots per game, but they’re conceding more goals per game this season, and their expected goals against value is also worse than in 2021.

Altogether, the Spirit are clearly struggling defensively and in the attack when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net.

The biggest difference between this season and last, though, is that the Spirit are now averaging less than one point per game. That one might have been obvious, considering where the team is in the standings. But Washington’s expected points value is pretty similar across seasons, which may not have been as obvious just from watching this team in 2022.

Another coaching change

Another surprising part of this season is that they’re experiencing a midseason coaching change for the second year in a row. 

Around this time last year, Richie Burke stepped down as head coach of the Spirit. He was later suspended by the club ‘for cause,’ and ultimately fired after an investigation revealed a pattern of abusive behaviors. Then-assistant and former head coach Kris Ward assumed the role of head coach and led the team to its first-ever championship. He was named the permanent head coach of the Spirit in December 2021.

Now Ward has been fired after Washington only managed to put together a 1W-9D-6L record this season. Earlier this week, the Spirit broke the news in a short tweet.

On Thursday, Washington Spirit president and GM Mark Krikorian spoke to the media about the decision to fire Ward.

“Last Friday we had a bit of an incident at the training grounds.” Krikorian said. “When we put all of the factors together, it was fairly clear that a change was necessary,” he added later. According to Krikorian, assistant coach Angela Salem will coach the team over the weekend while Washington look to add to their coaching staff.

For the Spirit’s sake, one can hope that this change will ignite a 2021-esque streak that ends with another playoff appearance for this team. If it does, that would be yet another curious aspect of this Spirit’s season. Time will tell if they can dig themselves out of this hole, though.

Data courtesy of American Soccer Analysis and reflects games through August 21.