Welcome back to AfXI’s 2021 NWSL preseason coverage! Today we’ve got the Washington Spirit’s Tori Huster, who’s been with the team since day one. Huster is also currently president of the NWSL Players Association.
You can read our previous preseason interviews here:
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. It was originally recorded on February 8.
All for XI: I know you guys have literally had one week of preseason so far, but what’s the vibe?
Tori Huster: It’s been pretty good so far. As you can imagine, everyone getting back and being together again, is cause for lots of energy. It’s very frantic. The first week was, like balls bouncing everywhere. Even having training today, it was definitely, the level was much better today. But you got to get those first week jitters out. There’s a lot of rookies that are trying to understand what is happening. Deer in the headlights happens a lot there for them. But we have a smaller group. WI don’t think we have many trial lists in at all. So it’s been good. And I think easier for us to connect, so to speak. Obviously, we’re still having to deal with social distancing and all of that, but with us living close together in the same apartment complex, most of us, and then with smaller numbers throughout the first week, it was good, just to get to know everyone, to be honest.
AfXI: You brought up that frantic first week energy. I was talking to Michelle Betos the other day and she said the same thing. She’s another player who’s seen preseasons come and go at this point. And she was like, yeah, the veterans are trying to tell the young kids look, it’s even longer preseason this time. You guys normally get what, a month, five weeks of run up? And now it’s 10 weeks this time?
TH: Yeah, just about. Nine or 10.
AfXI: Is that something that you guys, veterans, have been like, hey, I know you’re excited to get here, but it’s a marathon. We haven’t even started the regular season. You’re trying to help them manage their expectations.
TH: I’m trying to as much as possible, to be honest, my thought going into the first week was, you know, you gotta throw them to the fire. You know, see how they react. And then this week is probably where I will check in with some of the younger ones. It’s difficult because you want the intensity. But also there is a work smart aspect that you want to try and get across too. So we’re not really doing a whole lot of team tactical principles right now because preseason is so long. This is more right now to get our feet underneath us, get equal levels of fitness, because everyone’s coming in at different levels right now. So kind of getting on par across the board with everyone. That’s kind of I think our MO for the first couple of weeks. But yeah, I mean, I’m trying to communicate as much as I can. Just in little drills to try and get the right habits and a little bit more intention behind how we’re going to try to play. So kind of introducing them to it but that’s more this week than say last week, because last week was like I said hectic.
AfXI: You mentioned intentionality. I think a lot of people when they think of preseason, you think of fitness testing, beep tests, reading through your playbook. But people don’t really think about the mental aspect of how to get back into season mode. Is that something you guys are also working on as well, either as a group or in smaller groups where you’re trying to help people make that mental shift?
TH: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting because offseason isn’t typically an offseason for players. It’s more of a chance for them to get individual work. And I know a lot of us did. There were several players that stayed in market that were getting individual work throughout November, December, and January, which I think is great. I think as the league moves towards a more professional system similar to the European style season, or just how they run things, I think the offseason window is pretty short and you can actually use it to get rest. In the past, it’s been so long that you you see players going to Australia, you see them going to Europe, just to try to get games in because a five month window is really big. But definitely there is a mental shift of sorts that you want to be doing the right things. You want to be up to speed on your nutrition, your sleep, recovery is huge throughout this first period, because it is so intense, it is so frantic, that we may see injuries happen within the first couple of weeks just because people’s bodies aren’t used to it. So trying to relay that knowledge. Of course, there’s definitely a learning curve for the younger ones.
AfXI: Yeah, sometimes I think about how as every year goes by when I get out of bed, more things pop inside my body as I stand up no matter what I do. And then you try to tell that to a 21 year old who’s like, I’m gonna live forever. Are there varying levels of taking that on board of, okay, if I do the right things now it means I can still play when I’m 35.
TH: I was lucky to have some of those people introduce me to different recovery techniques. And then also just different people on my - I call them my team - have helped me understand that those pieces are huge for your career, for the longevity of your career. I think that by example, players can see that I take pretty good care of my body. And I would say all of the veterans across the board, on some level are taking great care of their body because they’ve been in the league for however many years. They’re doing something right off the field, as well as on the field. But I think knowing that everyone is a little bit different, I think it is something that I kind of hammer home as far as it may not hurt now, but it’s going to hurt later. So what are you trying to put in place, just in your daily wellness, that is going to ultimately benefit you and make your career longer.
AfXI: That’s also something that you mentioned, they can see veterans who are still playing like you or the Carli Lloyds who clearly take care of their bodies. Which, the league is almost 10 years old now. They have veterans now to look to. Previously we had WUSA, we had WPS, but we didn’t have this uninterrupted stretch of the league being established. Are you seeing any difference in the kids who are coming in that maybe they have the benefit of that kind of institutional or generational knowledge that’s now being passed down unbroken between veterans and younger kids?
TH: That’s a great question. I can really only speak to how we do things here. And I think, for the past couple of years with our leadership, our captain group, Andi [Sullivan], Aubrey [Bledsoe] and myself, that was something that we spoke to Richie [Burke] and our owner and CEO about kind of religiously. Like, if we’re going to bring these younger players, what are we going to have in place to make sure that we can utilize them in the best way possible, that we can get the most out of having really amazing rookie classes. And I think that a lot of it stems from example, Andi and Aubrey. I know Andi is younger, but a lot of people look to her as one of the older veteran players, believe it or not, and she and Aubrey take just as good care of their bodies, and they make the correct decisions.
So having the example of them and then myself, I think that lends its hand to being able to bring on these younger ones more quickly. So I think in the past that has happened, because I mean, I played with Ali [Krieger] and Ashlyn [Harris] and they are great pros. Diana Matheson, Lori Lindsey, I played with Yael Averbuch, Jordan Angeli. All of those players I would say were similar to me and I kind of adopted their mentality. I think that there are certainly techniques, recovery stuff that I’ve taken and kind of learned myself. But when it comes to mentality, I think that’s where the older veteran players really play a part. How can we make training a really high level to prepare these players for what games are actually like? Training should be hard, games should be easy. And here, I think that’s kind of that’s the philosophy that we kind of stick to. I’m not sure how it is everywhere else. I would imagine it’s pretty similar, though.
AfXI: I also think about how clubs now, they have a history that you need to have a culture. It’s different with the year ones, and everyone was like, we’re a brand new club, this can be anything we want it to be. And now the Spirit, especially with their long history, with the young kids, how do you bring them in and induct them into that club culture? And then, is there any sense of well, what can our culture maybe learn from these young kids coming in?
TH: Yeah, culture is huge. And I think, while our technical staff really is - we’re looking to win, we’re looking to win national championships. But I think our leadership group, and you know, that includes some of our older players as well, but it’s small things that done right over time, that are going to get you to something like a championship. And I think we have the three of us and a few others have a good idea of what their small things are, and making sure that we are abiding by those things and not slipping up, whether that’s on the field or off the field, how we treat each other is huge. And we’ve had a lot of tough turnover since 2018. But each year and each group that we’ve had since then has been really close. And I wouldn’t say that is how it is everywhere. Maybe some places it’s you know, it is a job, you come and then you leave and you have your own life. But a lot of us hang out outside of training and we get along. We’re there for each other. I think that’s huge and a huge piece to a team potentially winning a championship or looking to do so. Especially a young team.
AfXI: So all the stuff we’ve talked about, culture, the physical work, the mental work and stuff like that. Where do you hope that is at the end of preseason, beginning to end, comparing the vibes where would you want to be going into the actual individual season?
TH: Right now, my main priority is that everyone safe, whether that’s COVID related or that’s injury related. I want everyone to be healthy and available. It might make Richie’s job harder in selections, but it makes it easier certainly when he can look across the board and he can pull from different places. I think we have done a really good job recruiting and grabbing some really good veteran players in Emily Sonnet and Kelley O’Hara and we have returners now that have been here for two, three years that are wanting to make a name for themselves in the league. And they can only do that if they’re healthy. So at the end of preseason, I’m hoping that’s where we are. I know that we’re going to put the work in, we’re going to be we’re going to be fit. And then on top of that, once we do start talking tactics hopefully we’re all on the same page. And we can build on what we’ve built so far. I think everyone knows that we’re a possession oriented team, but how can we be cutthroat and in the final third, and score lots of goals? That is something that we have highlighted in past years. It’s a possession game, but you have to score to win. So how can we do that more often, is certainly something that we’ll look at.
AfXI: I think that’s all really cool. I think we’ll start wrapping up with some more fun questions. So first of all, what kind of cleats are you wearing? And do you have a particular favorite?
TH: I have worn Nike Tiempos my entire professional career, since college.
AfXI: I hear a lot of shout out for the Nike Tiempo and I think your own teammate Dorian Bailey did an interview where she said she buys her Tiempos on eBay because a particular model she loves aren’t in production anymore.
TH: Yeah, I actually know several others that do that too. My dad used to do that for me when I was in high school because I really had this one pair that I liked. But I like the newer models. It’s so interesting that they change them all the time. I wish they would just keep them the same.
AfXI: What are you watching or reading or playing right now?
TH: I actually just finished Firefly Lane on Netflix. It was a book that was a best seller, I think in 2020. I was in a book club with my sister, put something on with a few of our family members. And we finished that book and then they put something out on Netflix and I just binge watched that because it’s like a little mini series. 10 episodes.
AfXI: Is that the one with Katherine Heigl?
TH: Yeah, it’s basically about two best friends and how they grew up together. Kind of I guess coming of age.
AfXI: A lot of feelings?
TH: They have adapted the story probably to appeal to lots of audience. But it is emotional. We’re pulling on some heartstrings there.
AfXI: Okay, then maybe I’ll avoid for now. I don’t have the energy for emotional. I want trashy, I want really fun. So right now, who’s the player on the team who deals best with winter and the one who deals worst with winter?
TH: Gosh, who deals best with winter? We have no Canadians - oh, no, we have Devon [Kerr]. I have no idea. Hatchy doesn’t really like the cold.
AfXI: Ashley Hatch?
TH: Yeah. I would say I hate it as well. You know, the consensus is that it never gets easy. Like if it’s cold, it just sucks. And no matter if it’s you’ve been in the cold for three months, it still sucks, which is some of us.
AfXI: If you had to sum up your 2020 in a few words or a phrase, what would you make it - if you can?
AfXI: And then if you have to sum up your hopes for 2021 and a few words or a phrase.
TH: Oh, geez. I learn better from the past than I do to plan for the future. Gosh. Something about how I can, like, find positives from the past. It’s a great question.
AfXI: And then the last one, a little more specific to the Spirit. I think people have noticed you guys tend to lift your teammate, Kumi Yokoyama. She tends to get lifted a lot by other teammates.
TH: It’s so weird, yeah.
AfXI: So who do you think is going to be doing that to her most this season?
TH: Sam Staab! They are so strange together. I don’t know what started that. Kumi is so little, like she’s just a little human. And Sam, she’s a bigger girl. And I don’t know. They’re little two peas in a pod. But Sam’s the bigger pea I guess.
AfXI: If you had any one last thing you want to say to Spirit fans, Spirit Squadron, through preseason leading into the season, what would you want to say to them?
TH: I think we’re going to be fun to watch. I think there’s going to be some little flashy moments that people are going to really enjoy and I’m excited to watch them too. I hope that we’re structured rom the back but can have some fun in the final third. We’ll throw some megs in there. I megged Bayley Feist today at training, if you want to throw that in there.
AfXI: Yeah, we’ll definitely throw it in there.