At the beginning of September, the Washington Spirit were all set to play the Portland Thorns in Providence Park as they looked to secure their spot in the playoffs. As the week progressed leading up to that match, the NWSL announced that the Spirit and the Thorns would not be playing that match due to a breach in safety protocols by the Washington Spirit. As time wore on, not only did the Spirit have to forfeit that match, they also had to forfeit the following home game against OL Reign as well.
The Spirit were left with an uphill battle to make the playoffs, and that wasn’t the only battle this team was facing as the season reached its apex.
Let’s not forget that the Spirit had also had former head coach Richie Burke step down from the job for what was initially cited as “health reasons”. That story unfolded as September wore on and it became clear that Burke had been removed from the position following an investigation by the league into multiple issues of abusive treatment towards his players.
This all left Kris Ward (still interim head coach) and his team in a precarious position of not only losing out on a playoff spot but also having to contend with an upheaval in the front office (and an owner who refuses to sell despite a LOT happening under his watch).
Any other team may have folded under such circumstances but the Spirit were undeterred and didn’t lose a single game from the the beginning of August until they hoisted the NWSL Championship over their heads.
The Chicago Red Stars were also made of stern stuff this year and despite the numerous injuries before and during the final, gave the Spirit everything they could handle and more. They created a tactical plan that nullified a thrilling attacking front for the Spirit for the first 45 minutes of the match and put themselves in a great position by finding the right gap at the right time to give Rachel Hill an easy back post finish before half time.
Arin Wright, who had spent most of the first half trying (and succeeding) to keep Trinity Rodman quiet, thundered down the left flank before dropping a shoulder and skipping right by Kelley O’Hara. She then whipped in her cross towards Hill’s back post run, who had found a lot of joy on the right for Chicago against Tegan McGrady, and the Red Stars were 1-0 heading into the locker room at half time.
The Spirit were once again faced with a difficult road ahead and knew that with Chicago’s backline facing them, they would need to find the strength and determination that had brought them this far and push it to the forefront once again.
The second half saw a shift in mentality by the Spirit. Chicago were still blocking out the usual passing lanes that Washington liked to use but the difference this time was that the Spirit decided to play quicker on the attack and utilise the speed and technique that they had upfront to trouble the Red Stars backline. It didn’t always come off but when they needed to find a goal to bring them back into this match, that change in tempo brought them back on level terms.
Trinity Rodman’s individual skill came to the forefront and she dragged her defender out before picking out the run of Tara McKeown who was headed towards goal. McKeown’s touch took her away from Tierna Davidson and in a bid to stop the shot, Davidson made a rash challenge in the 66th minute to give away a penalty. Up stepped captain Andi Sullivan to take the penalty and she found the back of the net, just. Cassie Miller could have saved the penalty but she couldn’t bring her body fully behind the ball and could only watch as it rolled under her and into goal.
As Kris Ward himself noted after the game, the players didn’t need much to be said to them just before extra time started after that. They knew what to do and all he had to do was to offer some encouragement and let them handle the rest.
And handle it they did.
Kelley O’Hara, who has been cited by the players and those around the team as one of the driving forces behind what the Spirit have been able to accomplish this season, popped up with one of the most important goals of her career. She has a knack for doing that; see the game-winning goal against Germany in the 2015 World Cup semi-final.
Trinity Rodman had drifted to the left for the Spirit after not being able to find too much joy against Wright and instead of trying to go by her marker and go for goal, picked up her head instead to see if she could find a teammate. She found O’Hara, who had made a run forward, tracked by Makenzy Doniak, but all the same, available for a chance at goal if found with the right pass.
Rodman sent in a fantastic floated ball that dared O’Hara to outjump her marker and make something happen and that’s exactly what the right back did. She found more air and hang time than Doniak did and then proceeded to angle her header past Miller into the far corner of the net.
It seemed fitting that Rodman and O’Hara were the key to gaining the win for the Spirit. The two had combined well down the right all season and O’Hara may have felt that she needed to atone for her part in the Red Stars goal. She did so, surprising herself with the quality of the header and raced away to celebrate with her teammates in happy delirium.
The Red Stars didn’t go down without a fight however, and brought out the best in Aubrey Bledsoe twice after they had conceded the second. Doniak was played through on goal but Bledsoe rose to the occasion then and Arin Wright’s long range effort was tipped over the bar by the Spirit goalkeeper, keeping the lead intact until the final whistle blew.
The Red Stars were left to rue to not doing more after taking the lead and not adjusting to the Spirit’s uptick in tempo during the second half and extra time. They seemed to fade as the game wore on while the Spirit seemed to have found another gear. Add to that an uncharacteristic mistake at the back by a defensive four that had been as solid as you could get in the league; it clearly wasn’t going to be Chicago’s day.
At the end of the day, one of the best teams to watch in the NWSL found the goals that counted when it mattered and capped off a tumultuous season with a trophy that they had fought tooth and nail for for most of the season. Most importantly, they never strayed from their style of play. They kept being bold and decisive up front while defending resolutely at the back all the while playing a brand of soccer that anyone could enjoy watching. The Washington Spirit are worthy winners of the NWSL Championship and we hope to see them show up and show out for many seasons to come.