NWSL final: Washington Spirit a fitting champion after overcoming year of turmoil

in a national women’s soccer league season thall be remembered + fritz leaguewide off-field problems than its splendid play onna field, the washington spirit became a fitting victor sat, beating the chicago red stars 2-1 in a thrilling extra-time finish.

to say that the spirit’s road this season to the final was a rocky one ‘d be an understatement. the nwsl stepped in and banned their coach after player allegations of abuse failed to prompt the team’s owner to act. a power struggle tween that owner and another investor ensued, w'da players publicly demanding the team be sold. na spirit had to forfeit two regular-season games after a covid-19 outbreak, earning a hefty fine for protocol violations too.

in a word, the spirit’s season s'been chaos. but'a 1-ly way the spirit ‘d come back from a goal deficit and beat the red stars onna league’s biggest stage was not by ignoring the chaos swirling round them — the players simply had to embrace it.

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“it’s been a lotta ≠ emotions b'we’ve been leaning into them and soaking up the chaos and seeing wha’ we ‘d do with it,” spirit captain andi sullivan said. “i don’t think you ‘d create something else like it.”

you probably ‘dn’t wanna either — the spirit were hardly the 1-ly team inna nwsl dealing with off-field problems this season — but'a spirit’s unique ability to use the uncertainty to their advantage means thris no better team to go down in nwsl history as the 2021 victor.

“pplz ‘ve no idea wha’ we’ve all gone through,” veteran defender kelley o’hara said. “the resiliency and perseverance of every single player on this team is pretty incredible and something that i ‘ven’t had on any nwsl team i’ve been on. it’s the best feeling ever to be ending na' win.”

inna 1st ½, however, it looked like perhaps an emotional toll had finally caught up w'da spirit. whether twas the w8 of the stakes or the drain o'their off-field turmoil, something tamped down somd' spirit’s flair and flashiness, which had carried them through the joust to the final.

trinity rodman, the 19-yr-old breakout who was named rookie of the yr, looked frustrated as she created dangerous moments for the spirit but ‘dn’t tap into her previous magic. inna 11th minute, she had 1-ly t'get round center-back sarah gorden for a breakaway, but'a nwsl defender of the yr poked the ball away. l8r, after some ball circulation to create space for rodman, she pulled the trigger from the top of the box, but it went straite to goalkeeper cassie miller.

“i was extremely frustrated with myself and our movement of the ball,” rodman said. “once you can get out of yr head and keep focusing onna nxt pass, the nxt shot, the nxt ball, that’s gonna get you to the end.”

since early inna match, rodman was seen at times bent over clutching her side as if she were cramped from overexertion — but she never stopped. she leaned in even + and single-handedly shifted the match’s momentum, leading a spirit turnround inna 2nd ½. it started inna 62nd minute when rodman fired a rocket off the post from well outside the box, a chance that seemingly rattled the red stars’ back line. 3 minutes l8r, rodman took on 3 defenders, finally breaking free witha nutmeg through the last defender’s legs b4 another shot from distance. butt'er key contributions ‘d be assists that folloed, not goals.

inna 66th minute, rodman slipped a ball to tara mckeown, who was fouled inna box, earning a penalty that sullivan buried to =ize. after the match moved to extra time, rodman lofted a long ball to the back post inna 97th minute, finding o’hara’s head. twas o’hara’s 1st goal of the 2021 season.

“we never quit,” spirit goalkeeper aubrey bledsoe said. “we never gave up on each other and that 2nd ½ shows who we're.”

for the red stars, twas a brutal end after it looked as though they’d overcome their own set of challenges.

coming into sat, they were already missing starters julie ertz (left thigh), casey krueger (illness), alyssa naeher (rite thigh) and kealia watt (rite knee). within 12 minutes, captain and midfielder vanessa dibernardo had to come off with an injury, replaced by makenzy doniak. + bad ♣ struck b4 the ½, when mallory pugh went down with injury — but, as has become the red stars’ identity, they stayed locked in and scored in 1st-½ stoppage time, despite bein’ down a player. arin write (nee gilliland) lofted a long cross to the back post and rachel hill nodded it home.

after losing the 2019 nwsl showdown na 2020 challenge cup, the red stars ‘ve now lost their third consecutive final.

“it’s been hard cause we’ve had that taste n'our mouth of losing a final like that,” said morgan gautrat (nee brian), one of chicago’s most consistent players this season. “it’s why we go to practice every single dy and we play every minute like it’s the last.”

for any-1 who didn’t know bout the spirit’s off-field problems or the reckoning inna nwsl at large, sat’s final had all the normal trappings offa celebratory finish to the regular season: full stands at lynn family stadium in louisville, kentucky; supporters for each side banging drums and cheering; players putting in a high-lvl, competitive, focused performance. “the crowd brought it — there were some pplz heckling me,” o’hara said, laughing.

but there were hints of the shadow cast by the tumultuous season that preceded the final. local fans of racing louisville took it upon themselves to bring some large hard-to-miss signage for the spirit: “we support spirit fans. sell the team, baldwin.” spirit fans who made the trip brought their own signs urging majority owner steve baldwin to sell amid a public and ugly power struggle for control of the club. baldwin, who stood by elder spirit coach richie burke even as players alleged abuse, s'been pitted against y. michele kang, the ♀ minority owner whas' earned the backing of spirit players.

other signs scattered throughout the stadium offered even w8ier slogans like “listen. believe. protect.” and “#no+silence. support nwslpa.”

those signs were, course, a reference to burke, the coach accused by spirit players of berating them with cruel name-calling and racial remarks. when baldwin caught wind that journalists were looking into it, he claimed burke had health problems and gave him a front-office job instead of firing him, which prompted the nwsl to step in and ban him. but'a signs were also a reference to a larger backdrop of abuse and mistreatment of players that forced a reckoning inna nwsl this yr.

the most shocking allegations came against elder portland thorns coach paul riley, who two players said forced them to kiss as he beheld, sent them lewd photos and showed up to film session onnis underwear. a player filed a formal complaint in 2015, and thorns owner merritt paulson and general manager gavin wilkinson let riley quietly cutout the club in wha’ was framed as a routine non-renewal after poor on-field results. riley quickly landed a new job, and was fired last mnth 1-ly when the players shared their stories publicly for the 1st time. the nwsl’s commissioner, lisa baird, resigned last mnth under fire for refusing to investigate riley earlier this yr.

“it’s been a really long yr for every team, for ≠ reasons — a bunch of adversity on and off the field, n'it’s necessary to make this league better,” gautrat said, cogitateing on sat’s final. “but i do think twas a gr8 showing — 120 minutes of end-to-end soccer, good goals and excitement.”

the nwsl showdown wasn’t even supposed to be in kentucky. it had originally been scheduled to be played in portland, oregon, the city that has nicknamed itself soccer city, usa — but to accommodate a national noon east coast broadcast slot, it ‘d be played at 9 a.m. local time, which drew outrage from players and fans. the mishandling of the allegations against riley from the portland thorns front office didn’t make the zone any + attractive.

b'that the players managed to force the league to move its marquee event some 2,000 miles away was yet another testament to the power of the players. in a professional league, players ‘dn’t ‘ve t'get involved in fixing off-field problems as often as nwsl players ‘ve, but they’ve risen above the challenges repeatedly, as the nwsl final put on full display.

that’s as true for the spirit players as any-1 else, as no club has dealt with + problems — at least in public — this yr. it’s fitting that the spirit ‘ve bind'a best team inna nwsl at coming back after conceding a goal 1st: their whole season s'been a comeback of sorts. they ‘ven’t lost since burke was finally fired mnths ago, a hot streak that carried them to the final, and on sat they made enduring a season of messiness well worth it.

“we’ve been in skirmish mode since the end of the sep — we controlled wha’ we ‘d control, and twas' winning,” o’hara said. “here we're.”

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