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Aubrey Kingsbury credits Washington Spirit owner Michele Kang’s ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’ for team’s success

The Washington Spirit’s rise to contender status has been nothing short of a wild roller coaster. The franchise is just a few years away from its 2021 NWSL Championship season, which consisted of off-the-pitch headlines between former ownership and current owner Michele Kang, and where the players utilized their voices to advocate for ownership change and rallied around each other for a remarkable championship run. 

Since then, there’s been plenty of highs, and lows, with new vision under current ownership — but the franchise may finally be turning the page on the chapter they’ve been waiting for. For long-time Spirit players, it’s a noticeable change, and a refreshing moment to be able to just focus on being a professional.

“We’ve gotten the right pieces in place, and over the next couple of years. I think the Spirit will really be a destination for premier players who want to develop and just really be a pro athlete,” goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury told CBS Sports. 

Kingsbury has been with the Spirit since 2018 and knows first hand the ups and downs the club has gone through to find success on and off the pitch. The squad is on a three game winning streak, two against expansion sides, and they’ll have a big challenge against 2023 NWSL Champions NJ/NY Gotham FC on CBS on Saturday.

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Viewing info

  • Date: April 20
  • Time: 1 p.m. ET
  • Place: Audi Field — Washington D.C.
  • TV: CBS
  • Stream: Paramount+

Moving on from moving on

During the 2021 off-season, Kang set a then record-setting franchise sale mark, paying $35 million dollars for an existing club. It set a new standard in valuations for NWSL clubs that continues to rise. But the influx of investment didn’t exactly lead to immediate success on the pitch. 

Even under new ownership to start the 2022 season, the Spirit continued to deal with coaching turnover, and interim replacements and had a second-to-last-place finish with a league-record 10 draws in Kang’s first year as majority owner.

Last year, they hired Mark Parsons as head coach, who had massive success with the Portland Thorns. He only managed to turn one of those 10 draws into a win in another disappointing season. The 2023 season came down to a Decision Day scenario, and while they began the day in playoff contention, they were knocked out by the end of it.

Kingsbury credits Kang with steering the club and keeping her focus on the bigger picture of success, with investment and resources, and more importantly with follow through.

“I credit a lot to Michele Kang in her leadership, her vision for this club. I would say over my career in the NWSL, we’ve progressively gotten more owners who are willing to spend money, and who have great ideas, and want to build the clubs up, but then there’s been a lack of follow-through,” she said.

“So it’s just all these great intentions but it doesn’t actually get butts in the seats if you’re not hiring more ticket agents or marketing the team. With Michele we’ve poured a lot of money into print ads, into campaigns … where you see Spirit players all around Union Station, the metros, things like that to be more visible in the D.C. community … and she’s been really smart about hiring qualified people, and not just qualified, but world-renowned.”

With new ownership in place, and long-term vision in place for a club rebrand, the 2024 Spirit are reintroducing itself. Kang hired the club’s first ever Chief Executive Officer, Kim Stone. They then concluded their global search for a head coach, took a page out of U.S. Soccer’s game book, and named FC Barcelona’s Jonatan Giraldez. Like Emma Hayes’ eventual arrival with the United States women’s national team after her Chelsea FC season, Giraldez will join the Spirit in June after Barcelona’s campaign ends. 

General Manager Mark Krikorian made big offseason moves for the Spirit, especially on draft day, trading club veteran defender Sam Stabb, and attacker Ashley Sanchez — a player once once considered part of the Spirit’s core. They also signed free agent and USWNT defender Casey Krueger, who previously played under Krikorian during his time at Florida State University. 

The squad’s new draftees Croix Bethune and Hal Hershfelt have each scored two goals through four games and made an immediate impact alongside interim head coach Adrian Gonzalez. He’ll be in the position till June and will be Giraldez’s full-time assistant later this season. 

When off-field vision leads to on-field success

The 2024 NWSL regular season is still in its early phase, but the Spirit continue to climb the league standings each week. They had a rough go of it to start, settling for a loss against Seattle Reign FC to open their campaign and sitting in 1th place in a 14-team table. They’ve gone from near bottom to seventh, fourth, and now sit in third place as the league looks toward week five. 

The franchise made Audi Field their official home in 2023, and despite narrowly missing out on the postseason, the change in facility provided a layer of professionalism that had been missing for players and enhanced experiences for fans. In their early string of success with three consecutive wins, two of their victories have come at home in Audi.

“The main conversation for us is looking at how we start the match … and just working on how can we start strong. Maybe that comes a little bit easier for us when we’re playing at Audi, and when we have our home crowd and just maybe feel more confidence with them behind us.”

“We’re getting much better at our understanding of when to kind of slow the game down, just keep possession, or when to accelerate attacks and play more direct or more vertical in behind. And when to use our speed,” Kingsbury explained.

“With Trin (Rodman) up there, we can definitely turn nothing into an incredible opportunity very quickly, but we don’t want to do that all the time … I think the main thing is that we’re understanding each other’s strengths and how to kind of play together.”

Moving parts coming together

Investment and resources are all just part of the equation for success. Kang’s commitment a few years ago also aligned with the first ever Collective Bargaining Agreement ratified by the NWSL Players Association — a deal that will run through 2026. As women’s pro sports evolve alongside a rapidly growing audience, that means some catching up by sports companies, brands, and legacy media outlets to match the demand. 

Nike recently announced that NWSL goalkeeper jerseys would be available for sale. Within hours of being available USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out on the official site, though there still remain some options on the club site.

Kingsbury took to social media to express her joy about the option for fans to purchase keeper kits now and that she would sign any kit when she was at the game on Saturday. Keeper jerseys are just one of the many differences in direct-to-consumer options lacking in the women’s game but were available on the men’s side.

“It’s just kind of been a no brainer, in my opinion. So, I would say ‘finally!’ But fans have been asking for this for years. Fans have been making their own jerseys. I know people who have like been ordering them from Europe and then just putting the names on the back themselves. So yeah, of course it’s huge,” she said.

She also jokes that if she had the option to spend her own money on keepers kits she’d throw it back to Brianna Scurry or Jill Loyden. Now that they’re availbe she wouldn’t mind sporting her fellow peers and mentions Louisville’s Katie Lund, Utah Royals Mandy Haught, or even San Diego’s Kailen Sheridan.

With waves of new ownership groups and money have made their way into the league, along with the CBA, and more investment will come as the NWSL looks ahead to another double expansion in 2026. In the meantime for Kingsbury, who is the team’s Player Rep for the NWSL PA, its refreshing to just discuss soccer and focus on player performance after seeing her own club in various negative lights over the past years. 

“That’s all about us players in NWSL have wanted for like decades now,” she joked. 

“You also see it manifests itself in long-term contracts. You’ve got me, Andy [Sullivan], Trin [Rodman], [Ashley] Hatch, like a lot of big-time players wanting to stay here, because we know this is a stable environment. I think it’s really appealing for players who want to get the most out of their careers.

I’m in a place where I can flourish, where I can be the best, and be developed. I entrust my career here with the Spirit, with the medical team, the support staff, the coaching staff, This is honestly everything I could dream of. I don’t have to worry about what’s it gonna look like next year because I trust the leadership. I trust that change will ultimately be for our benefit and help us get to where we want to be and not just a change for change sake … So, I think we finally gotten there. We’ve gotten the right pieces in place.”

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