In a National Women’s Soccer League season remembered more for its league-wide off-field controversy than its great game on the field, the Washington Spirit became a fitting champion on Saturday. 2-1 against the Chicago Red Stars in an exciting extra time in extra time.
To say the Spirit’s path to the finals this season has been a rocky one would be an understatement. The NWSL entered and her trainer banned after allegations of player abuse caused the team’s owner to fail to act. There was a power struggle between this owner and another investor with the players public demand that the team be sold. And the Spirit had to give up two regular season games after a COVID-19 outbreak and earned a hefty fine for protocol violations even.
In a word, the time of the mind was a mess. But the only way the spirit could get back from a goal deficit and beat the Red Stars on the biggest stage in the league was by not ignoring the chaos around them – the players just had to embrace it.
“It was a lot of different emotions, but we leaned on it, soaked up the mess and saw what we can do with it,” said Spirit captain Andi Sullivan. “I don’t think you could create anything like that.”
You probably wouldn’t want that either – the Spirit were barely the only team in the NWSL to struggle with off-field issues this season – but Spirit’s unique ability to use uncertainty to their advantage means that There is no better team that has gone down in the history of the NWSL as the winner of 2021.
“People have no idea what we’ve all been through,” said veteran defense attorney Kelley O’Hara. “The resilience and persistence of every single player on this team is pretty incredible and something I haven’t had in any NWSL I’ve been in. It’s the best feeling of being finished with a win.”
In the first half, however, it looked like an emotional tribute might have finally caught up with the spirit. Whether it was the weight of the stakes or the flow of their turbulence outside of the field, something of the flair and the striking spirit that had carried them through the playoffs to the final dampened something.
Trinity Rodman, the 19 year old breakthrough who was voted Rookie of the YearShe looked frustrated as she created dangerous moments for the mind, but couldn’t tap into her previous magic. In the 11th minute she only had to bypass central defender Sarah Gorden for an outlier, but the NWSL Defender of the Year pushed her away. Later, after some ball circulation to make way for Rodman, she pulled the trigger from the top of the box, but it went straight to goalkeeper Cassie Miller.
“I was extremely frustrated with myself and our ball movement,” said Rodman. “As soon as you get out of your head and focus on the next pass, the next shot, the next ball, you will get to the end.”
Since the beginning of the game, Rodman has sometimes been seen hunched over, clutching her side as if she were cramped from overexertion – but she never stopped. She leaned forward even more and single-handedly changed the momentum of the game, which resulted in a turn in Spirit in the second half. It started in the 62nd minute when Rodman fired a missile off the post from far outside the box, an opportunity that seemingly shook the Red Stars defensive line. Three minutes later, Rodman took on three defenders and eventually broke his way through the last defender’s legs with a nutmeg before another shot from distance. But her main contributions would be the following assists, not goals.
In the 66th minute, Rodman slipped a ball to Tara McKeown, who was fouled in the box, and earned a penalty, which Sullivan buried to equalize. After the game was moved to overtime, Rodman threw a long ball at the back post in the 97th minute and found O’Hara’s head. It was O’Hara’s first goal of the 2021 season.
“We never stopped,” said Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. “We never gave up and this second half shows who we are.”
It was a brutal ending for the Red Stars after it looked like they had overcome their own challenges.
At the beginning of Saturday, the starters Julie Ertz (left thigh), Casey Krueger (illness), Alyssa Naeher (right thigh) and Kealia Watt (right knee) were missing. Within 12 minutes, captain midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo had to be replaced by Makenzy Doniak due to an injury. Even more bad luck came before half-time when Mallory Pugh went down with an injury – but as the identity of the Red Stars has become, they remained locked up and scored a goal in first-half stoppage time despite being a woman. Arin Wright (nee Gilliland) threw a long cross at the back post and Rachel Hill nodded her home.
After losing the NWSL Championship 2019 and the Challenge Cup 2020, the Red Stars have now lost their first final in a row.
“It was tough because we had the taste in our mouths to lose a final like this,” said Morgan Gautrat (née Brian), one of Chicago’s most consistent players this season. “That’s why we go to training every day and play every minute as if it was the last.”
For those unaware of the off-field problems of the Spirit or the NWSL reckoning in general, Saturday’s finals had all the usual trappings of a regular season finale: full grandstands at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. Supporters for each side drum and cheer. Players who deliver high-level, competitive, and focused performance.
“The crowd brought it – some people bothered me,” said O’Hara with a laugh. MO
Other signs scattered around the stadium offered even more weighty slogans such as “Hear. Believe. Protect.” And “#NoMoreSilence. Support NWSLPA.”
These signs were of course a reference to Burke, the coach, who was accused by Spirit players of abusing them with cruel abuse and racist remarks. When Baldwin found out that journalists were dealing with it, he claimed Burke had health problems and gave him a front office job instead of firing him, which prompted the NWSL intervene and forbid it. But the signs were indicative of a wider background of abuse and mistreatment from players who are one Settlement in the NWSL this year.
The most shocking allegations came against former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley, who two players said they forced to kiss while he watched, sent them lewd photos and showed up to the film in his underwear. A player filed a formal complaint in 2015, and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson quietly let Riley leave the club what was framed how a routine non-renewal after bad results in the field. Riley quickly got a new job and was only fired last month when players first publicly shared their stories. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned under fire last month over refuse to investigate earlier this year.
“It’s been a really long year for each team, for different reasons – a lot of adversity on and off the field and we need to do better in this league,” said Gautrat. “But I think it was a great performance – 120 minutes of end-to-end football, good goals and excitement.”
The NWSL championship wasn’t even supposed to be Kentucky – another controversy. It was originally intended to be played in Portland, Oregon, the city that has called itself Soccer City, USA Outrage from players and fans. Mishandling of allegations against Riley from the Portland Thorns front office did not make the location any more attractive.
But the players ‘ability to force the league to move their marquee 3,000 miles away was further evidence of the players’ power. In a professional league, players shouldn’t have to meddle off-field troubleshooting as often as the NWSL players, but they have repeatedly evolved over how the NWSL Finals took full advantage.
This applies to the Spirit players as well as to everyone else, because no club has dealt with more problems this year – at least in public. It is fitting that the Spirit were the best team in the NWSL after conceding a goal first: their entire season was a small comeback. They haven’t lost since Burke was finally fired months ago, a hot streak that took them to the finals, and on Saturday they were well worth enduring a season of clutter.
“We’ve been in playoff mode since late September – we controlled what we could control and that was a win,” said O’Hara. “Here we are.”