Washington Spirit becomes the right champion after years of controversy

In a National Women’s Soccer League season that will be remembered more for league-wide off-field controversies than great on-court play, Washington Spirit became the fitting champion on Saturday, beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in a thrilling overtime finish.

To say that Spirit’s road to the finals this season is a thorny one would be an understatement. NWSL participated and ban their coach after a player alleges abuse can’t prompt the team’s owner to take action. A power struggle between that owner and another investor ensued, with players going public Ask the team to be sold. And Spirit had to drop two regular games of the season following the COVID-19 outbreak, earning a huge fine for protocol violations too.

In a word, the season of Gods was chaotic. But the only way Spirit can bounce back from a poor goal and beat the Red Stars on the biggest stage of the tournament isn’t by ignoring the chaos swirling around them – the players simply have to. accept it.

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“It’s been a lot of different emotions but we’ve come to lean on them and get into the chaos and see what we can do about it,” said Spirit captain Andi Sullivan. “I don’t think you can create something else like it.”

You probably wouldn’t want to – Spirit is hardly the only team in the NWSL to tackle issues off the pitch this season – but Spirit’s unique ability to use uncertainty to his advantage they mean there’s no better team to go on to go down in NWSL history as 2021 winners.

“People don’t know what we’ve been through,” said veteran defender Kelley O’Hara. “The resilience and tenacity of every single player on this team is pretty amazing and something I’ve never been in on any NWSL. It’s the best feeling to finish with a win. win.”

However, in the first round, it seemed that part of the emotion had finally caught up with Spirit. Whether it was the weight of the stakes or the breakdown of their off-field mayhem, something stood in the way of Spirit’s flair and flashiness that carried them through to the knockout stages. continue to the finals.

Trinity Rodman, 19-year-old breakthrough girl was honored as rookie of the year, looks resentful as she creates moments of danger for the Spirits, but is unable to exploit her previous magic. In the 11th minute, she only had to circle past defender Sarah Gordon to break through, but NWSL Defender of the Year made a brilliant save. Then, after some rotation to create space for Rodman, she pulled the trigger from the top of the box, but it went straight to keeper Cassie Miller.

Rodman said: “I am extremely disappointed with myself and the movement of the ball. “Once you can get out of your head and keep focusing on the next pass, the next shot, the next ball, that gets you to the end.”

Since the start of the match, Rodman has been seen sometimes crouching down and clutching her hips as if she’s crammed with overexertion – but she never stops. She leans more forward and one hand moves the momentum of the match, leading to Spirit’s change in the second half. It started in the 62nd minute when Rodman fired a miss from outside the box, an opportunity that seemed to shake up the Red Stars’ backline. Three minutes later, Rodman faced three defenders, finally breaking through with a nutmeg past the last defender’s foot before another shot from distance. But her key contributions will be later assists, not goals.

In the 66th minute, Rodman poured the ball so that Tara McKeown was fouled in the penalty area, earning a penalty that made Sullivan bury his feet to equalize. 97 minutes, the game entered extra time, Rodman made a long pass to send the ball wide of the post in the 97th minute, finding O’Hara’s header. It was O’Hara’s first goal of the 2021 season.

“We never give up,” said Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. “We never gave up on each other and that second half showed who we are.”

For the Red Stars, it’s a devastating end after it seems like they’ve weathered their own trials piled on top of each other.

Entering Saturday, they were without starters Julie Ertz (left thigh), Casey Krueger (sick), Alyssa Naeher (right thigh) and Kealia Watt (right knee). Within 12 minutes, captain midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo had to come on due to injury, who was replaced by Makenzy Doniak. Another bad luck hit before half-time, when Mallory Pugh picked up an injury – but, as has become the identity of the Red Stars, they remained locked in and scored in the extra time of the first half, despite being knocked down by a woman. Arin Wright (nee Gilliland) makes a long pass to the post and Rachel Hill nods home.

After failings in the 2019 NWSL Championship and the 2020 Challenge Cup, the Red Stars have now lost their first finals in a row.

“It’s hard because we’ve tasted defeat in a final like that,” said Morgan Gautrat (nee Brian), one of Chicago’s most consistent players this season. “That’s why we go to practice every day and we play every minute like it’s the last hour.”

For anyone unfamiliar with Spirit’s off-court problems or calculus in the NWSL in general, Saturday’s final had all the usual trappings of a celebratory ending to the regular season: The whole thing. grandstand at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. Supporters on each side pounded drums and cheered. The players are in high form, competitive, focused.

“The crowd brought it – there were a few people following me,” O’Hara said with a laugh. MOLocal Racing Louisville fans took it upon themselves to carry some large, hard-to-miss signs for Spirit: “We support Spirit fans. Sell the team, Baldwin.” Spirit fans have made the trip carrying their own signs urging Washington Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin to sell amid an overt and ugly power struggle for control of the sentence. club. Baldwin, who stood by former Spirit coach Richie Burke, even as the players were accused of abuse, was pitted against Y. Michele Kang, the minority owner who won the support of the clubs. Spirit player.

Other signs dotted around the stadium carried even heavier slogans such as “Listen. Trust. Protect.” And “#NoMoreSilence. NWSLPA Support.”

Those signs relate, of course, to Burke, the coach accused by Spirit players of taunting them with name-calling and racist remarks. When Baldwin caught journalists reviewing it, he claimed Burke had health problems and gave him an office job instead of firing him, which prompted the NWSL step in and ban him. But the signs associated with a larger context of abuse and mistreatment of players have forced calculation in this year’s NWSL.

The most shocking accusations come against former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley, who two players said forcibly kissed them as he watched, sent them sexually explicit photos and appeared during filming 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. what was framed as a habit that does not renew after bad results on the field. Riley quickly landed a new job, and was only fired last month when the players shared their stories publicly for the first time. NWSL commissioner, Lisa Baird, resigned last month after being fired for refused to investigate earlier this year.

“It’s been a really long year for every team, for different reasons – a variety of adversities on and off the pitch, and it’s essential to make this tournament better,” said Gautrat. “But I think it was a great performance – the last 120 minutes of football, beautiful goals and excitement.”

The NWSL championship doesn’t even have to go to Kentucky – a bit more controversial. It was originally scheduled to be played in Portland, Oregon, the city nicknamed Soccer City, USA – but in keeping with the nation’s east coast noon broadcast, it will be broadcast at 9 a.m. local time, attracted outrage from players and fans. The mishandling of the allegations against Riley from Portland Thorns’ main office doesn’t make the venue any more appealing.

But the players’ attempt to force the federation to move the event that started about 3,000 miles away is another testament to the power of the players. In a professional league, the players don’t need to get involved in fixing problems off the field as often as the NWSL players have, but they went above and beyond it many times, when the NWSL final was played. full display.

That’s as true for the Spirit players as it is for anyone else, as no club has tackled more issues – at least in public – this year. It’s fitting that Spirit is the best team in the NWSL to return after conceding their first goal: their whole season has been a bit off. They haven’t lost since Burke was finally sacked a few months ago, a hot streak took them to the finals, and on Saturday they enjoyed a well-deserved messy season.

“We’ve been in playoff mode since the end of September – we controlled what we could control and that won out,” O’Hara said. “We’re here.”


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