Washington Spirit beat Chicago Red Stars for first NWSL championship after overcoming early-season turmoil

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Washington Spirit players and coaches celebrate winning the 2021 NWSL Championship match against the Chicago Red Stars on Nov. 20.
Washington Spirit players and coaches celebrate winning the 2021 NWSL Championship match against the Chicago Red Stars on Nov. 20.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville showed its soccer spirit on Saturday, as fans from near, wide and far gathered at Lynn Family Stadium — the home of newly-minted National Women’s Soccer League franchise, Racing Louisville — for the NWSL championship game.

Portland was originally going to host the title game, but the league decided to switch to Louisville to accommodate the players' preference for a noon start time for the championship game. Coincidentally, fallout from sexual harassment allegations against former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley started surfacing in the public domain around the time the decision was made. But fast forward to Saturday, and the pregame air was heavy with excitement as fans flowed in to take their seats.

"We came in from Massachusetts," said Lauren Farris, who traveled with her companion, Chris Hammer, to Louisville for their first NWSL game.

"We flew in and landed in Cincinnati at midnight," said Hammer. "We drove straight down, so we’re excited to explore the city after the game."

But extracurricular exploring had to wait as Saturday's championship affair went into two overtime periods before the Washington Spirit pulled out the 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars to be crowned 2021’s NWSL champions.

The first half was full of near-misses, as the Spirit and Red Stars dueled in front of over 10,000 fans. Chicago fired the first shot, as forward Rachel Hill tried to connect with defender Tatumn Milazzo for a try at Washington’s net, but Spirit midfielder Ashley Sanchez thwarted the attempt with a header.

Chicago took a few more runs at Washington’s net, but Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe held firm while Washington tried to find its offense. Spirit forward Trinity Rodman, this year’s NWSL Rookie of the Year, lined up Washington’s best shot of the first half, but Red Stars goalie Cassie Miller denied her bid at the net.

Chicago finally found Washington’s goal in the closing minutes of the first half when defender Arin Wright found Hill, who snuck a shot behind Bledsoe for the 1-0 lead.

Washington answered with urgency in the second half, with Rodman leading the charge on many of the Spirit’s shots. But it wasn't until midfielder Andi Sullivan went down in a scrum and drew a penalty that Washington finally got its best chance to tie the game.

Sullivan lined up her equalizer shot and knocked it past Miller to tie the game at 1-1 in the 66th minute. Both teams worked to find the game-winning goal in regulation, but the match went into overtime.

Washington finally found the winning goal six minutes into the first overtime period, when a driving Rodman fired an arcing pass over to defender Kelley O’Hara, who was waiting in the corner.

O’Hara turned, fired and gave Washington its definitive 2-1 lead and the NSWL crown.

"Once I cut it inside, I knew that I wasn't going to be able to dribble inside to get that opportunity," said Rodman. "I saw runners near-post were marked, and I saw Kelley pop off of that. She got her head on it. That recognition was amazing."

The Spirit had to play through a lot of adversity and controversy in 2021. Washington weathered storms that included the departure of former coach Richie Burke, who was investigated by the league for creating a toxic environment around the team, forfeiting two matches because of COVID and a power struggle amongst the team's ownership group. Overcoming those things was both hard to describe and liberating for the players.

"I can't describe it, because of everything we've been through," said O'Hara. "The fact that we're champions is pretty crazy and very special. I'm really proud of this team. The resiliency and perseverance of every single player on this team is pretty incredible. It's the best feeling ever to be ending on a win."

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: NWSL championship: Washington Spirit beat Chicago Red Stars for title