LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The NWSL's weirdest, most twisting, and in some ways darkest season yet came to a close today with what would have seemed an impossible result two months ago: The Washington Spirit, the team that's undergone some of the most turmoil in these last few months, are first-time champions.
To briefly sum up that turmoil, head coach Richie Burke was fired following an investigation into allegations of abuse detailed in reporting by the Washington Post. Soon, fans and players began calling for part-owner Steve Baldwin, who brought Burke in from his daughter's club team, to sell his shares of the team to co-owner Michele Kang, touching off an ugly and ongoing public battle. Then in late August, the Spirit took a huge hit in the standings after COVID-19 protocols forced them to forfeit two games.
After all that—and after going down a goal to Chicago late in the first half—they did it.
Throughout the first half, Chicago was the more dangerous side. They continued doing their Chicago thing, sitting obstinately deep in a 4-1-4-1 in defense, forcing Spirit attacks wide and shutting down attackers one-on-one as they looked for openings into the 18. The Red Stars are, above all, an extremely organized defensive side; they've sucked the life out of some really dangerous teams this season, including the top-seeded Thorns last week.
In contrast with what we've often seen from them, they also committed numbers forward, giving them the opportunity to pick up second balls in the 18. Mallory Pugh—absent last week thanks to COVID-19 protocol—was dangerous on both sides of the ball, often dropping deep to defend on the left wing, then cutting inside to set up teammates when the Red Stars regained possession. On the opposite flank, Rachel Hill had a similarly good work rate and managed to dribble past Tegan McGrady to send in a cross a handful of times. Late in first-half stoppage time, it was Hill who found the end of a cross by Arin Wright at the far post to head in the opening goal.
Ominously, though, Chicago lost two important players—Vanessa DiBernardo in the 13th minute, then Pugh at halftime—to injury in that first half. Losing Pugh, especially, boded poorly for what was to come.
The Spirit came out swinging, with rookie Trinity Rodman finding more of the ball and taking cracks from distance or playing teammates in. What enabled Rodman's increased participation, though, was deeper on the field, as forward Ashley Hatch dropped further back in defense to add a fourth body to a previously outnumbered Spirit midfield.
"We had to make some changes," said Red Stars midfielder Morgan Gautrat postgame, "and any time you make changes, you have a different flow to the game...with Hatch dropping into the midfield a bit more, it becomes overloaded, four vs. three."
Once they'd cracked Chicago's defensive block open, the Spirit sent in wave after wave of offense; they would end the half with 17 shots, compared to nine in the first half, 12 of which were from inside the box. In the 67th minute, Tierna Davidson fouled Tara McKeown in the box in a last-ditch defensive effort, conceding a penalty, which Andi Sullivan calmly placed low to the right side of keeper Cassie Miller.
With the game level, Chicago's sit-and-absorb strategy became a lot riskier. The Red Stars were already missing one of their forwards in Kealia Watt, who suffered an injury in the semifinal. With Pugh on the bench, their attacking options were few. Postgame, Chicago head coach Rory Dames added that Hill had picked up a knock in the first half and "pushed through another 20 [or] 25 minutes." The momentum was firmly on Washington's side.
Sure enough, in the first half of extra time, Rodman sent a killer long ball to the far post for Kelley O'Hara, who headed it in for her first goal of the season. Chicago found a couple of promising looks in garbage time, but thanks partially to luck and partially to championship MVP Aubrey Bledsoe, the Spirit staved off penalties.
There's no player who epitomizes the Spirit better than the 19-year-old Rodman, who flipped into sicko mode in the second half. Some of her shots would have looked like frustration shots coming from a different player, but Rodman has such ferocity and swagger that you get the impression she believes—correctly—that she could put one away from 25 yards at any moment.
At the end of a long, strange, sometimes painful season for the Spirit, it's that refusal to roll over that put them over the line.
"The resiliency and perseverance of this team is pretty incredible," said O'Hara postgame. "It's something I haven't seen from a team I've been on."