A pair of significant, long-term trends within the National Women's Soccer League spilled into public view Wednesday, with the news that Washington Spirit and U.S. women's national team defender Ali Krieger was headed to the Orlando Pride in exchange for, effectively, nothing: a shift up from the ninth slot to second in an allocation draft that virtually no one in the league used last season. The only team that did was the Seattle Reign, and they held the ninth pick.
The news also raised the question whether Spirit owner Bill Lynch's conservative politics played a role.
The fact that the Spirit is the only NWSL team to not celebrate a LGBT Pride Night has been a source of grumbling around the league for years, but tensions between Lynch and his team reached a breaking point earlier this year when the Spirit hosted the Seattle Reign, whose star Megan Rapinoe had been kneeling for the national anthem. Lynch, who is a military veteran, responded by playing the anthem before players took the field; the Spirit later issued a press release accusing Rapinoe of "hijacking our organization's event."
The resulting anger from the players could not be brushed aside. The Spirit players met and issued a statement of their own supporting Rapinoe and objecting to the team's actions. The leader of that movement? Ali Krieger.
Less than two months later, Krieger has been dealt.
Spirit president Chris Hummer forcefully denied any link between roster moves and Lynch's personal politics, however.
"No comment with respect to any player movement, and never will speculate on such things," Hummer said in an email Wednesday. "While some people might feel it's okay to leak things, those are often people who don't really know the full facts, or at least don't have much integrity, or personal respect for how trades (and premature news of such things) impact any player's personal life. It's just not the right way to handle things.
"That aside, in general I think it's a ridiculous question to imply that we would make any moves related to anything other than what puts the best team on the field. We're a professional sports team competing to win championships in the best league in the world, and our GM makes all the decisions on players based solely on what gives us the best chance at doing just that."
Despite the fact that Krieger is an original member of the Spirit, and helped lead her team to the NWSL final, the Washington Post reports that she learned of the deal not from the Spirit but from the Pride.
Within that same Post article, Steven Goff reports "broader player unhappiness about the organization," and that Spirit star Crystal Dunn was looking to move overseas. The combination of losing Krieger, the team's most popular player, and Dunn, the 2015 NWSL MVP, would cripple Washington's ability to return to the playoffs next season, and could poison the well with their fans.
Moreover, the moves widen the gap between the NWSL's haves and have-nots, which all too often corresponds to independent franchises and those owned and supported by MLS teams. Roughly 60 percent of the USWNT frequent selections can be found in three MLS-owned markets: Orlando, the Portland Thorns, and the Houston Dash. And while part of that is fortuitous timing—the Pride got Krieger in part because they called the Spirit at the right moment—there are a number of NWSL teams (Sky Blue FC, Boston Breakers) that simply aren't making that call.
What's saddest about it is that the Spirit served as a vital, useful counterargument to this problem—an independent NWSL team with on-field success, multiple marketable stars, and climbing attendance (league-wide, attendeance increased ten percent in 2016). It didn't hurt that a league without a presence in New York, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia managed to field an important team in the Washington media market, either.
But now, it appears, that's all been cast aside. It's bad for the league, and it's worse for the Spirit.