Kris Ward on Washington Spirit dismissal: ‘If I could go back and handle it differently, I would’
Kris Ward on Washington Spirit dismissal: ‘If I could go back and handle it differently, I would’

On Monday, the Washington Spirit announced the dismissal of head coach Kris Ward, who was relieved of his duties amidst a 15-game winless streak less than a year after winning the club’s first NWSL championship.

Though results certainly played no small part in the Spirit’s decision to part ways with Ward, there was more at play. Reports surfaced shortly after the announcement that Ward had been involved in a confrontation with a player at training the previous Friday, while others suggested that Ward’s relationship with his team as a whole had deteriorated over the course of the season. 

On Thursday night, Ward spoke to The Athletic, offering his first public comments since his dismissal. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe what happened at training last Friday, which has been described up to now as simply a confrontation between you and a player. What can you tell us about that?

Yeah, so, we were doing some situational work on how to control the game in various scenarios — down a goal, up a goal. Whether I hadn’t explained it well enough, or there was just some confusion in the moment, one of the players seemed confused about it. At that point I’d asked for a sub to come on and I was going to have her go off and talk to one of the assistant coaches that was on the sideline, to just kind of walk her through things and use the whiteboard to show what was happening. 

She didn’t really want to go off the field — which, I understand that. You’re competitive, you want to stay out there and get things right. At that point, for me, it was easier just to swap her out and explain what was happening just to her as opposed to stopping the entire session for everyone. There was some arguing about her going off, or staying on the field. I asked her to leave again, and at the end of the day I ended up getting upset and yelling at her to get off the field. It was probably the first time all year that I’ve ever raised my voice to any of the players — I certainly have a track record of yelling at referees. But it was “hey, we don’t have time for this right now, you have to get off the field because we have to continue.” 

Would you characterize the way you addressed this player as inappropriate? 

I think, looking at it now, if I had to do it again, I would do it differently. Typically my style is one-on-one, having a conversation off to the side. This is the first time where I just kind of used volume instead of pulling a player aside by myself and going through it. From that standpoint — there wasn’t any name calling, belittling or anything like that. It wasn’t over-the-top from a language standpoint. 

Looking at it, there was a lot of confusion around the situation — it was hot, everyone had just played 60 minutes of a scrimmage. There was frustration on my part that what we were asking to have happen wasn’t happening. What I did clearly didn’t handle things, so yeah, I think I would clearly handle it differently, for sure. Again, it wasn’t name-calling or anything like that, but I think the individual calling-out of a player at that moment creates an embarrassing situation for that player. As a coach, you never really want to do that. 

Does tape exist of this confrontation?

We film all of our training sessions. They’re all there. If the league or the player’s association comes to question me, I have that. I’ve looked at the tape, that’s why I can look at it and say I was never in anyone’s face, I was never that close to a player, I never walked anyone off the field. 

Did you get the sense from other players, in that moment, that you’d gone too far? 

One player had come over, grabbed the player in question and pulled her off the field. (Then assistant coach, now interim head coach) Angela Salem had walked over a minute later and was talking to me, one of the other players had come over and said, “Look, she shouldn’t have talked back, you were entitled to say what you wanted to say, but it looked like, as you were walking after her, that made it look a little bit aggressive.”

I told her, “Look, I hear you 100 percent, I can see that.” I did not chase the player off the field, I was never in her face, I didn’t move from where I was more than 10 yards and I was never within 10 yards of her. But they suggested that my actions made it look more aggressive. I have to hold my hand up and say, “Yeah, that wasn’t OK, it wasn’t the right thing, it wasn’t the right way to handle it and I have to do better.” 

From there, we ended just a couple of minutes later and everyone was pretty quiet. I walked straight into the office at that point. One of the players came in and talked to me immediately after and said, “I’m upset about what happened, I don’t think that’s OK, I think that there was confusion there and I don’t want to see this again.” I told that player that I heard them 100 percent. We had a meeting prior to the team retreat with the players, myself, (Washington Spirit general manager and president of soccer operations) Mark (Krikorian) and Ang where I apologized to the team for being too aggressive or coming off that way. I realized it’s not just a thing about how I felt at that moment. It’s about how it’s perceived by everyone else and that has to be taken into account. And so (I told them), look, I had some conversations with you guys, I hear you guys, I apologize, I hear what you’re saying. If I’m going to set up the best learning environment then it has to be done a different way. It can’t be like that.”

I left and that was it. I was told me maybe 10 minutes later — “It’s probably best just to let everyone decompress this weekend, it’s probably best to just let you decompress this weekend.” I told them, “I hear you guys, no problem, I don’t want to sit here and belabor anything or make it more difficult, so that was it.” 

How’d you find out you’d been relieved of your duties? 

I’d actually emailed our general counsel over the weekend, I want to say on Sunday. I’d requested a meeting. The event had taken place on Friday, there was a team retreat, which I obviously wasn’t at. I had emailed him and just said, “Look, there are some things that I’d like to be able to talk about.” He said, “OK, let’s meet at the offices at 10 a.m., you, me and Mark.” 

I said, “Honestly I’d prefer if Mark weren’t there.” He said, “Mark needs to be there.” I said, “OK, I get it.”

I went into where our offices are in Merrifield. Mark came in and just laid the news on me. He said, “Obviously things have been difficult, there was concern after what happened on Friday that the locker room could be lost.” Mark said he felt that was the case. He said that while we started off really well this year, “we just don’t really know how, from this point, how we get back to where we were last year to where we are now.” There was an acknowledgement that there were some difficulties during the season, a lot of them which might have been out of my control, but they felt it was best to go in a different direction.

Did you have any thoughts on the way it was publicized, via a single tweet, with no associated press release?

Mark and (our counsel) basically said, “We don’t do social media, we obviously can’t tell you what to do, we haven’t shared this news with the comms team, so we’re going to put out a single tweet that says you’ve been relieved of your duties and you can do or say whatever.” 

They were going to do a player meeting, where they’d inform the team, and then the tweet would come out after that. And then they just asked me if I needed any one-on-one time with anyone and I left the office and that was it. I walked out, left, headed home and I’ve kind of felt all of this stress melting away since then.

What went wrong for the Spirit this year, on the field? 

It’s well-documented about our schedule and some other things. It was a tough year. I’d said a handful of times that I didn’t know how much our team was actually able to recover from last season, the fact that a handful of players had to go to Australia like 12 hours after playing in a final. There was no ability for the team to ever come together and celebrate, because everyone went home — it was Thanksgiving immediately after the final. 

When we came back, there was still the tussle over ownership. We started preseason and we were informed that (Spirit owner) Michele (Kang) would be taking over the team shortly after we started preseason. 

As soon as we came back from IMG, our staff got zero time off as we spent several days moving into (D.C. United’s training facility.) So instead of trying to just catch up and relax, we have to figure out how to live in this space with D.C. United now. What does that look like? How does that operate? At the time, it was difficult. (Former D.C. United head coach) Hernán (Losada) was less welcoming than (current D.C. United head coach) Wayne (Rooney) has been. Wayne immediately knew everything about us. His first day, he came out — he knew how many national team players we had, he knew where we were at in the season. He was completely receptive to training at the same time, has been completely receptive to having a lot more collaboration, basically has told people at the club “anytime you want to talk, my door is open.” But in those early days there was just a lot of being careful not to step on anyone’s toes and feeling out the relationship in that way.

Then you lose half the team to (international) call-ups during preseason. Challenge Cup is what it is. I had told everyone during the offseason, in our exit meetings, that we weren’t going to be focusing on the Challenge Cup, that we’d use that to recover and build towards what we wanted to be as we got into the regular season. At that time, all the players were good with it. Once you start the games, obviously, and you realize — OK, there’s money to be won here, it becomes a very different thing. We got into it, you get some injuries, people have to play a bit more, we’re not able to rotate as much and the prospect of winning is on the line. That changes everything. There were so many consequences, in my mind, that came from the Challenge Cup for us and many others, as well.

And then just the difficult run of games. All of those games back-to-back-to-back for seven, eight weeks; it was a two-fold problem in that the people who were playing had to continue to play. Because we were playing every three days we couldn’t train, so the players who were trying to come back couldn’t get minutes against that level or that intensity because they’d be training one-on-one or with the reserve team. It made it difficult to get players back. The injuries were all over the place — contact injuries like Dorian Bailey’s cheekbone. Lingering injuries from the Challenge Cup or SheBelieves Cup, or the national team games against Uzbekistan. It was difficult from that point. Then you lose everyone again (to national team duty) in July. 

Around that time we were making some changes to what we were trying to do — we said, basically, that we were giving up too many counterattacks, the other teams were getting too many opportunities from this, so we’re gonna tweak the way that we play to try and control things a little bit more. We were doing a better job. We were continuing to create opportunities, we were starting to have more possession of the ball on a consistent basis, but the goals just weren’t going in. We had many opportunities there to win and we just weren’t putting them away. 

That specter continued to kind of grow and grow. The Portland game, maybe, was the real breaking point. We did well, went out and gave up those two goals and everyone is looking around like, “mathematically, we’re done.”

Did you think you’d lost the locker room?

Honestly, no. I think that the last week of training that we’d had was some of the most intense stuff we’d done all year. The attitude of the players to go out and compete, and work hard, you know, from my standpoint, there were very positive signs. 

Now, you don’t know what’s being said in the locker room, obviously. That being said, I’d just gone through a round of individual meetings with all the players, talking to everyone; the questions were about “how has the season been for you, what do you think about where we are now, what are we looking at going forward? And all of those were positive conversations. From where I was evaluating things from, it looked like the team was still working very hard and continuing to try and push. 

The dynamic between player and coach has changed dramatically in recent history, especially in the past year or two. Do you have thoughts on that?

Because of last year, in particular, the dynamic of trust from the players towards the clubs or the staff of those clubs has been flipped. Last year was bad, and so, rightly, things have changed. It’s incumbent on all of the clubs to go and better themselves in the sense of more resources, doing more background checks, doing more quality control, having more resources available until the trust is earned back from everyone. One of the byproducts of that is that teams have gone to players and said “what do you need? Tell us what’s going on. What do you need?” 

I think there’s just a difference in generations. There are so many people within a team who work and process things in different ways. There is a wide spectrum of what each player is looking for; it may be bigger in the NWSL than in most other leagues in terms of understanding what’s expected, what you’d even ask for from a club. It is a generational thing, though — (younger) people want to be involved, they want to be more a part of the process, they want to offer different insights and that was something that we always tried to foster. It’s been interesting to see the difference in players in the league from 2013 to now.

After what the Spirit went through as an organization in 2021, the club was supposed to go through anti-harassment training. Did that training get into situations like these? Gray areas where a coach feels like they’re coaching and a player feels like the situation is skewing into an area that makes them uncomfortable.

We did go through that training. There were different online things we had to do, in that regard. But with all of those, it was extremely cut and dry, specific — punishing a player by denying them water. Punishing a player by physically striking them, or making them run extra while the rest of the team is watching. Other things in terms of communication with players one-on-one, outside of the training facility. Those things. That bar was very specific to what abuse, grooming, inappropriate touching, all of those things are. 

How you’d address a specific player on the field, those types of things were not in there. How to address the entire group, those things weren’t defined. Maybe that’s the place where things have to grow towards. There’s also a thing of understanding that, as the league continues to grow and evolve, there’s a greater understanding of what it means to be a professional. And so I know, in WPS, in 2009, when players came in, they went through media training — how to deal with an interview. To my knowledge, I haven’t seen that in the last few years (in the NWSL.) 

There are different things like that where you look at the structure of a club, the executives within the club, the overall resources, how you marry those two together and then, with the resources, to say “here’s all the things that we’re doing to educate the players on what it means to be a professional,” on what our standards are at this club, what you’re meant to take care of, what we’re going to take care of for you.

Michele Kang was a really visible figure on the field, interacting with players, coaches. How would you characterize your relationship with club ownership this year, and how would you characterize your relationship with president of soccer operations Mark Krikorian, who joined earlier this year?

Michele was certainly involved a lot this year as things were getting going. From taking over the team, moving into the training facility, trying to help manage issues that arose at the training facility. She was certainly there a lot at the beginning.

Once Mark was brought on, I saw a lot less of Michele. But that doesn’t mean she was around less. She was still at the majority of the games and very visible. And that was part of the plan — I’m bringing in this person to run this side of the club so I can focus on the bigger picture, or the business side. And so once Mark came on, I’d only known of Mark, I hadn’t really spent a lot of time with him before. I was involved in the interview process a little bit, I got to talk to him for about a half a day. Then he joined right before we played Louisville at Segra, the end of that difficult eight-to-nine-week period. 

Right away, he had a lot of ideas and things he wanted to see implemented. Some things were communicated very well and very collaboratively and others were simply “this is how it’s going to be.” There was a big feeling out process of where the roles, expectations and boundaries, with Mark coming in, clashed with what I’d been doing myself — prior to his arrival, we’d been doing a lot of these things. Myself and the team admins had been carrying the entire load since last year, and so a big reason for Mark’s hiring was to help alleviate some of that burden. But there were certainly questions from my end around that — how was the scouting process going to work? What does putting people on discovery look like? 

At times there were a lot of conversations around players and other times there weren’t. At times things were smooth, and at times it wasn’t. It was certainly challenging. It had been close to three years now that I’d been with the team, and I don’t know that at any point in time things had been settled. It had been no home, no locker room, no anything, the ownership’s changing, new people coming in and going out. It was just a rollercoaster the entire time.

The lack of transparency around situations like these often leads to people — sometimes incorrectly, but sometimes understandably — assuming the worst. Do you worry that the circumstances surrounding your dismissal will have an effect on your career in the long-term?

Yes. The court of public opinion is always going to be what it’s going to be. I have zero issue talking to the (players association) or the league about what’s happened. If I could go back and handle it differently, I would. This was the first time I’d ever raised my voice above talking level — I look at it, and I did not feel like it was degrading, or abusive, or belittling, or name-calling. 

The situation of calling out an individual can be an embarrassing situation but I don’t think that that rises to the level of anything that had happened with any of the previous coaches around the league, in terms of how they spoke to players. It’s one of those things, though, that’s difficult because the players have their opinion of what happened. On the field that day there were probably 33, 34 opinions of what took place, how they viewed it. Every single person is coming at it from a little bit of a different place. 

I haven’t been able to talk to everyone to see what they felt like, only a handful of people. But yes, it’s challenging to deal with this in the court of public opinion when there is always a lot more context and nuance that goes into things. 

(Photo: EM Dash-USA TODAY Sports)



Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.