Unwavering Spirit Propels Washington to NWSL Championship
On Saturday afternoon in Louisville, Kentucky, the Washington Spirit became the brand-new champions of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The third seed from the nation’s capital beat fourth seed Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in a game that went into extra time.
If this was your first time tuning into an NWSL match, you were treated to the pinnacle of what this league has to offer. The championship was aired on CBS network for the first time, opening it up to a new audience. The nine-year-old league was able to draw 10,360 attendees to the NWSL championship match, a near-sellout for Lynn Family Stadium.
Game Day Recap
No one quite expected these two teams to make it to the final, but both made it clear they were ready to leave it all on the field. The first half was evenly matched, with the Chicago Red Stars taking their time against an attacking Washington Spirit. Chicago’s patience paid off, with Rachel Hill scoring the game’s first goal in stoppage time of the first half. Assisted by Arin Wright with a cross to the far post, Hill was able to head the ball down into goal.
In the second half, the momentum clearly shifted to a Washington Spirit side that was finding their stride. The team fought for a goal, including when Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman hit the post in the 61st minute, stunning the crowd. Rodman was on a mission, taking eight shots on goal in total, but the first goal for the Spirit came from a penalty taken by Andi Sullivan in the 67th minute.
With the teams tied 1-1 after 90 minutes, the game went into extra time. Kelley O’Hara scored the game-winning goal off a header in the 96th minute, assisted by none other than Trinity Rodman. The Spirit would see the game out and was rightfully crowned winner of the 2021 NWSL Championship.
In a tumultuous year for the league, the story of this final is so much more than the scoreline. Both the Red Stars and the Spirit faced adversity on and off the pitch. The teams overcame persistent roadblocks, and both clawed their way into this championship match.
For a team that has made it to multiple finals, you would not necessarily consider them an underdog. But the Chicago Red Stars faced a number of knocks to their roster that hobbled the team before they even entered the stadium for the NWSL Championship.
The beginning of Chicago’s woes began when their U.S. Women’s National Team players including midfielder Julie Ertz and starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher left for the Olympics. Ertz was already injured, but Naeher picked up an injury during the tournament. Neither star has played a game for the Red Stars since summer.
If that wasn’t enough, the Red Stars also had an injured Casey Krueger unable to play in the postseason at all. Forward Kealia Watt came out with an injury in their semi-final game against the Portland Thorns and was unavailable for the final. Midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo was questionable going into the championship match and was ultimately only able to play 13 minutes.
Arguably, the biggest setback for the Red Stars was the uncertainty surrounding the availability of Mallory Pugh, who had to miss the semi-final due to COVID protocol. She was unable to train with the team for ten days, and it remained unclear if Pugh would be able to play in the final at all. Ultimately, she played the entire first half and gave some hope to the attack of the Red Stars, but was unable to provide her typical spark. Once she was subbed out, it became the Spirit’s game to lose.
A Fighting Spirit
It is difficult to know where to start when describing the woes of the Washington Spirit this year. Back in August, the Washington Post reported on allegations of abusive behavior perpetrated on players by coach Richie Burke. Former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough described enduring emotional and racial abuse so terrible that she left the sport just one year after being drafted to the pro league.
Calls for change echoed throughout the organization and the league, with many supporters groups displaying signs encouraging the majority owner Steve Baldwin to sell the team. Specifically, many current Spirit players have been vocal about their desire for Baldwin to sell his shares to team co-owner Y. Michele Kang, a move that Baldwin has dodged at every turn. Although he claims to be actively trying to sell his shares of the Spirit, it remains unclear when this could happen, and to whom he would sell.
The Spirit’s struggles did not end with the front office. The team was forced to forfeit an unprecedented two games due to violating COVID protocol, a debacle that also required the league to levy fines against the club.
Washington also had to go most of the postseason without their co-captain Tori Huster, who missed the semi-final and championship game after coming out of the quarterfinal with a ruptured achilles tendon.
Only One Winner
It would have been a first championship win for either team, but it was the Washington Spirit that would take home the hardware in a match that became chippy in extra time.
The Spirit put on a true team performance, but it was the player between the posts that ensured the club did not have to try and win it all in a penalty shootout. With two key saves, including an expertly timed diving save in the 117th minute, birthday girl Aubrey Bledsoe earned the MVP accolade.
On the opposite side of the field, forward Trinity Rodman’s fancy footwork dazzled the crowd and confounded the Red Stars. The rookie put on a show, frequently taking players on 1 v 1, or dribbling and dancing through multiple defenders at once. She frustrated the Chicago backline the entire game and ended the match with one assist.
A Gracious Host
Although the Washington Spirit walked away with the championship, the other winner of the weekend was the host city of Louisville. On short notice, the small but mighty Kentucky city was able to create an atmosphere worthy of a large sporting event. With ample advertising, a number of related events, and clear buy-in from the local community, the wonders of the so-called Derby City were on full display.
Louisville truly demonstrated what future NWSL Championship weekends could look like, and whoever picks up the mantle next year will have big shoes to fill. But for now, we extend sincere congratulations to the 2021 NWSL Championship winners, the Washington Spirit.