In a National Women's Soccer League season that will be remembered more for its leaguewide off-field problems than its splendid play on the field, the Washington Spirit became a fitting champion Saturday, 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 would 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 between that owner and another investor ensued, with the players publicly demanding the team be sold. And the 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 has been chaos. But the only way the Spirit could come back from a goal deficit and beat the Red Stars on the league's biggest stage was not by ignoring the chaos swirling around them -- the players simply had to embrace it.
"It's been a lot of different emotions but we've been leaning into them and soaking up the chaos and seeing what we could do with it," Spirit captain Andi Sullivan said. "I don't think you could create something else like it."
You probably wouldn't want to either -- the Spirit were hardly the only team in the NWSL dealing with off-field problems this season -- but the Spirit's unique ability to use the uncertainty to their advantage means there is no better team to go down in NWSL history as the 2021 champion.
"People have no idea what 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 haven't had on any NWSL team I've been on. It's the best feeling ever to be ending on a win."
In the first half, however, it looked like perhaps an emotional toll had finally caught up with the Spirit. Whether it was the weight of the stakes or the drain of their off-field turmoil, something tamped down some of the Spirit's flair and flashiness, which had carried them through the playoffs to the final.
Trinity Rodman, the 19-year-old breakout who was named Rookie of the Year, looked frustrated as she created dangerous moments for the Spirit but couldn't tap into her previous magic. In the 11th minute, she had only to get around center-back Sarah Gorden for a breakaway, but the NWSL Defender of the Year poked the ball away. Later, after some ball circulation to create space 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 movement of the ball," Rodman said. "Once you can get out of your head and keep focusing on the next pass, the next shot, the next ball, that's gonna get you to the end."
Since early in the 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 more and single-handedly shifted the match's momentum, leading a Spirit turnaround in the second half. It started in the 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. Three minutes later, Rodman took on three defenders, finally breaking free with a nutmeg through the last defender's legs before another shot from distance. But her key contributions would be assists that followed, not goals.
In the 66th minute, Rodman slipped a ball to Tara McKeown, who was fouled in the box, earning a penalty that Sullivan buried to equalize. After the match moved to extra time, Rodman lofted a long ball to the back post in the 97th minute, finding O'Hara's head. It was O'Hara's first goal of the 2021 season.
"We never quit," Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said. "We never gave up on each other and that second half shows who we are."
For the Red Stars, it was a brutal end after it looked as though they'd overcome their own set of challenges.
Coming into Saturday, they were already missing starters Julie Ertz (left thigh), Casey Krueger (illness), Alyssa Naeher (right thigh) and Kealia Watt (right knee). Within 12 minutes, captain and midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo had to come off with an injury, replaced by Makenzy Doniak. More bad luck struck before the half, when Mallory Pugh went down with injury -- but, as has become the Red Stars' identity, they stayed locked in and scored in first-half stoppage time, despite being down a player. Arin Wright (nee Gilliland) lofted a long cross to the back post and Rachel Hill nodded it home.
After losing the 2019 NWSL championship and the 2020 Challenge Cup, the Red Stars have now lost their third consecutive final.
"It's been hard because we've had that taste in 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 day and we play every minute like it's the last."
For anyone who didn't know about the Spirit's off-field problems or the reckoning in the NWSL at large, Saturday's final had all the normal trappings of a 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-level, competitive, focused performance. "The crowd brought it -- there were some people 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 former Spirit coach Richie Burke even as players alleged abuse, has been pitted against Y. Michele Kang, the female minority owner who has earned the backing of Spirit players.
Other signs scattered throughout the stadium offered even weightier slogans like "Listen. Believe. Protect." And "#NoMoreSilence. Support NWSLPA."
Those signs were, of 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 the signs were also a reference to a larger backdrop of abuse and mistreatment of players that forced a reckoning in the NWSL this year.
The most shocking allegations came against former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley, who two players said forced them to kiss as he watched, sent them lewd photos and showed up to film session in his underwear. A player filed a formal complaint in 2015, and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson let Riley quietly leave the club in what was framed as a routine non-renewal after poor on-field results. Riley quickly landed a new job, and was fired last month only when the players shared their stories publicly for the first time. The NWSL's commissioner, Lisa Baird, resigned last month under fire for refusing to investigate Riley earlier this year.
"It's been a really long year for every team, for different reasons -- a bunch of adversity on and off the field, and it's necessary to make this league better," Gautrat said, reflecting on Saturday's final. "But I do think it was a great showing -- 120 minutes of end-to-end soccer, good goals and excitement."
The NWSL championship 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 would 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 location any more attractive.
But 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 shouldn't have to get involved in fixing off-field problems as often as NWSL players have, 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 anyone else, as no club has dealt with more problems -- at least in public -- this year. It's fitting that the Spirit have been the best team in the NWSL at coming back after conceding a goal first: their whole season has been a comeback of sorts. They haven't lost since Burke was finally fired months ago, a hot streak that carried them to the final, and on Saturday they made enduring a season of messiness well worth it.
"We've been in playoff mode since the end of the September -- we controlled what we could control, and that was winning," O'Hara said. "Here we are."