(image courtesy of NWSLPA twitter)
It was Kelley O’Hara’s first goal of the season. The 11-year veteran of professional soccer picked up an inch-perfect cross from Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman and with a flick of her head in the first period of extra time, lifted the Washington Spirit over the Chicago Red Stars for their first NWSL title.
The Spirit’s remarkable run of form in the second half of the season is all the more impressive when one considers how many ways in which the D.C. club’s season could have run off the tracks. Spirit players have dealt with a coach fired mid-season amid an abuse scandal, a public row between stakeholders over control of the team, and a botching of Covid protocol enforcement that forced the team into two consecutive forfeits. That’s not even all of it.
But while the club, and league, seemed to be collapsing around them, the Spirit’s on-field product blossomed. Once on the outside looking in, Washington went unbeaten in games the team has taken the field in since late August and launched themselves into a third-place finish. Saturday’s final victory was the club’s seventh in a row. Interim coach Kris Ward never looked out of his depth after stepping in after Richie Burke’s firing, and the players responded to considerable adversity by peaking at the perfect time.
“We’ve been in playoff mode since September,” O’Hara said. “We controlled what we could control, and that was winning. And here we are.”
Saturday’s final provided a glimpse of the team’s resilience. After a relatively slow start to the match, Washington conceded deep into first-half stoppage time and trailed heading into the break. In the second half, however, the team dominated, at one point outshooting Chicago 15-1. Rodman proved her salt with incisive runs and dazzling footwork. The entire forward line was all over the pitch, frustrating the Red Stars in their own half with a hard-nosed press.
“First half, we were pretty static, there was not a lot of movement up top,” Rodman said. “And initially, that’s why we couldn’t swing the ball, because there was no movement. But I think definitely- second half, the movement with everyone moving off the ball, moving at defenders, having them make a decision ‘do I stay, do I go,’ I think that was the biggest thing.”
The Spirit broke through and forced extra time in the 67th minute after Andi Sullivan tucked a penalty kick past Chicago keeper Cassie Murphy. Rodman shook off a hard collision late in the match and continued her game-changing performance into the extra frame, with the wunderkind setting up the winner from O’Hara. Goalkeeper of the Year and Championship MVP Aubrey Bledsoe sealed the victory with a sprawling breakaway save on Chicago’s Makenzy Doniak as the minutes waned.
Chicago entered the final on a storybook run of their own. After suffering injuries to national team stars Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher during the regular season, injuries continued to haunt the team even into the first half of Saturday’s final when captain Vanessa DiBernardo had to be replaced by Doniak. Mal Pugh also had to subbed off at halftime. Kealia Watt, who played 1,889 minutes for the Red Stars, was injured in last week’s semi-final upset over top-seeded Portland.
“Losing Vanessa hurts, losing Mal hurts, but we’ve been the next person up all year and we started the season by saying the depth of our team was our greatest chance,” Chicago head coach Rory Dames said. “We were probably, I don’t know, player 17, player 18 playing roles.”
The Red Stars have now lost the 2019 NWSL Final, the 2020 Challenge Cup Final and the 2021 NWSL Championship final.
Washington will have obstacles in the way of building on this success moving forward. Nearly every NWSL roster stands to look different next season as the league gears up for expansion drafts for two separate teams. But impactful season-long performances from Washington’s young core including Rodman, Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez and Tara McKeown spell enormous potential if the team is able to retain the talent.
“We do have a very young team, which is awesome,” O’Hara said. “And they’re really good, and really exciting to play with and put on amazing performances. So I think it’s just the beginning for this club, and I think that there’s a very bright future here.”