Tori Huster: The Fighting Spirit
The Washington Spirit has seen tremendous change since its inception in 2013: 7 head coaches, three ownership groups, and too many players to count. Throughout the years, one player has witnessed it all: midfielder and co-captain Tori Huster.
Huster’s early playing career would put her on a collision course with several people from the current iteration of the Spirit. Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Huster played high school soccer with current Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury. After that, she attended Florida State University and played under current Spirit president Mark Krikorian.
Postcollege, Huster played in the American W-League and was drafted to the Western New York Flash in 2012 before the entire WPS folded. She then played with them in the WPSL-Elite instead. Huster subsequently played for the Newcastle Jets in the then-named W-League in Australia (and would return for two stints later in her career.)
While flying back to the States from Australia, Huster was drafted to the Washington Spirit in the 2013 NWSL Supplemental Draft. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t see the news until she landed! Little did Huster know that the journey she would be embarking upon would span over a decade.
It’s difficult to fully quantify Tori Huster’s impact on the field with the Washington Spirit. Anyone who’s watched her play, especially during the 2021 season, would agree that the Spirit is a different team when she’s on the pitch. Huster brings a particular je ne sais quoi that is difficult to describe and impossible to stop. The two elements of Huster’s game that elevate both her and the team are her positional awareness and her aggression in the midfield.
Both Huster and fellow Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan have an uncanny ability to pick out their fellow players way down the field and pass to them on a dime. In particular, Huster’s foresight is clearly a result of both skill and veteran experience. It (along with Huster’s stellar technique) is on full display in this team goal:
This goal also demonstrates Huster’s near-telepathic connection with Trinity Rodman. Their connection may come as a surprise given their age and experience gap, but Huster and Rodman’s opposites-attract pairing has proved on multiple occasions to be a game-winning one. Given Kelley O’Hara, the only other veteran to have chemistry with Rodman, is now playing for Gotham, Huster’s obvious connection to the young star is going to be crucial for the Spirit this season.
With Sullivan likely gone with the United States for more than a few games this upcoming season, Huster can continue to set up quality chances for Spirit attackers. Given the absence of key players like Sullivan, Huster’s commanding presence in the midfield is paramount to the team’s success.
Tori Huster can cut a midfield clean in half through willpower alone. See this goal as proof:
It takes a certain level of audacity to even attempt what Huster does in that clip. It takes even more for it to actually work. Huster embodies an intense, driving mentality, one that screams “we ball NOW.” When she decides to go, it’s difficult to stop her. The Spirit midfield missed that intensity during the 2022 season; it seemed that the midfield was timid at times, especially in situations where they could have pounced on a weakness like in the clip. Having Huster back will certainly help the Spirit play the merciless attacking game that won them the Championship.
Huster was named co-captain of the Spirit alongside Andi Sullivan and Aubrey Kingsbury in 2019. The following year in January 2020, she became president of the NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA.) Huster’s first challenge as president was navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. She and the NWSLPA negotiated on behalf of players to ensure contract security through the pandemic, such as housing, salary, insurance, etc. She also represented the players during the creation of the Challenge Cup to ensure there were safeguards and procedures to keep players safe in the bubble.
After the success of the Challenge Cup and subsequent Fall Series, Huster and the NWSLPA turned their attention to another issue: negotiating the league’s first Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The process was extremely arduous, starting prior to the 2021 season and lasting over a year. Huster noted, “I have left the training field in my gear prior to going to shower, prior to eating, prior to getting treatment, just to get on CBA calls, because that's how important it is…”
Players threatened to strike and not report to preseason camps if a deal was not reached. The CBA was not signed until January 31, 2022, the night before 2022 preseason was set to begin.
The CBA raised the league minimum salary from $22,000 in 2021 to $35,000 in 2022, established a free agency system, guaranteed maternity and mental health leave, among many other important developments. Huster’s leadership, along with the rest of the players and union leadership, ensured future NWSL players inherit a better league than the one the veterans entered.
While the CBA was being negotiated, Huster was also fighting on behalf of the players on her club team. On August 11, 2021, Washington Spirit Head Coach Richie Burke stepped down from his position, citing “health concerns.” Hours later, the Washington Post published a piece detailing former player Kaiya McCullough’s accusations that Burke was emotionally and verbally abusive. The NWSL subsequently opened an investigation into the Spirit, finding that the team operated as an “old boys’ club.” Majority owner Steve Baldwin and sporting director Larry Best were found to be the root of this culture. In fact, Baldwin hired Burke knowing of his abusive tendencies because they were friends.
Minority owner Y. Michele Kang had made several offers to buy the team from him prior to August 2021, but Baldwin became increasingly stubborn after the Burke story broke. As the league was rocked with the news of Paul Riley’s abusive conduct, Spirit players decided to speak out about Baldwin, issuing a team-wide statement posted across social media on October 5, 2021. In it, the players rebuke Baldwin’s conduct and insist on his complete divestment from the Spirit by selling to Michele Kang. No other team in the history of the NWSL had publicly called for their owner to sell their team prior to the Spirit.
The Spirit continued to call for Baldwin to sell the team as they eventually won the 2021 NWSL Championship, in no small part due to Huster’s incredible run of form during the back half of the season. Unfortunately, she tore her Achilles during the quarterfinal match against the North Carolina Courage on November 7, 2021.
After months of pressure from players and the public and Kang taking control of the Spirit’s investment group, Baldwin was ousted from the Spirit. Y. Michele Kang became the majority owner of the Washington Spirit on March 30, 2022. Alongside her teammates, Huster’s relentless dedication to creating a safe environment is inspiring.
The Fighting Spirit
Huster missed the entire 2022 season as a result of her Achilles injury in 2021. The Spirit signed her to a new one-year contract on December 8, 2022, signaling Huster’s intent to play in the 2023 season.
Under Huster’s tenure as NWSLPA president, major systemic change has taken place for the better. Between the Collective Bargaining Agreement and conducting investigations into player abuse, teams are being forced to make serious changes that prioritize player safety and comfort. Huster is keenly aware that she is towards the end of her career. That doesn’t make her any less energized about the continued fight for players’ rights. Huster reflects in a profile in CLUBELEVEN, “I know that I'm not going to benefit from a lot of the work that I'm doing right now-- and I'm okay with that. I think that's how it should be.”