Kelley O’Hara brings NWSL trophy home in first season with Spirit

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - NOVEMBER 20: Kelley O'Hara #5 of Washington Spirit celebrates after scoring during extra time against Chicago Red Stars during the NWSL Championship held at Lynn Family Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Chicago fans everywhere were hoping for a two-trophy summer after the city’s WNBA team won their first-ever championship earlier in October. With the Red Stars battling in the NWSL championship less than a month later, it was looking like the Windy City might become the temporary center of the women’s sports world.

But the Washington Spirit had other plans. After Candace Parker went home to Chicago to lead the Sky to the title, it was Washington’s Kelley O’Hara who did the same thing Saturday, bringing a title to her adopted hometown of D.C. in her first season with the Spirit.

Not only that, she even scored the winning goal, heading home the game-winner in extra time to propel the Spirit to a 2-1 win.

O’Hara, who grew up in Georgia and attended Stanford University, moved to Washington, D.C. while playing for the Utah Royals (now the Kansas City Current) in order to be with her partner. The nation’s capital has since become the city she calls “home.”

“Since moving here, I’ve loved every second of it,” O’Hara said in December. “I love the city. Love the energy it brings. Love what it has to offer.”

If the 33-year-old didn’t appreciate the city as much as she did, she says she never would made the move from the Royals to the Spirit — a trade that happened in December 2020 in which Utah received $75,000 in allocation money and a first-round draft pick if O’Hara played in half the Spirit’s games in 2021 (she played 17 of 24 during the regular season).

Almost a year later, after a season in which her leadership played a major role in her young team’s success, O’Hara’s headed home the golden goal in the 97th minute to win Washington their first-ever NWSL title.

The perfectly placed assist came from Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman, who created numerous scoring chances for Washington throughout the second half of the game.

The 19-year-old would normally be dribbling further towards the goal, but the Red Stars had covered behind in those 1-v-1 situations. Instead, she looked for the cross.

“I saw runners near post were marked and I saw Kelly popping off the back, so she got her head on it. That recognition was amazing and her getting there was insane,” Rodman said after the game.

Sitting beside her at the podium, O’Hara laughed. Scoring goals isn’t something the right fullback does very often. This one, in fact, was her first of the season.

Usually, the script is flipped, with O’Hara sending the ball into the box and Rodman getting the final touch on it. But it’s hardly a surprise that O’Hara buried the difficult goal. At Stanford, she won the MAC Hermann Trophy as the best player in the country while playing forward — scoring 26 goals with 13 assists her senior year. Professionally and for the USWNT, she spends a large chunk of her time contributing to the attack by making deep runs up the wing.

Outside of her play, O’Hara’s unmatched energy has brought a winning mentality that the young Spirit team needed this year, especially after they forfeited two games late in the season due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

“That fired up Kelley O’Hara in a way that I’ve not seen before,” acting Spirit coach Kris Ward said after the team’s semifinal win over OL Reign. “Her entire mentality from that point was like, ‘All right’ — how do I phrase this politely? ‘Forget you guys. We’re going and we’re going to win anyways.’”

Through O’Hara’s first season with Washington, Ward has repeatedly praised her leadership with the team, her competitiveness on the field and her ability to motivate teammates to persevere through the off-field turmoil, which included former coach Richie Burke being dismissed for verbal abuse, the aforemention COVID outbreak, and an ongoing ownership struggle between Steve Baldwin and Michele Kang.

The Spirit had the NWSL’s youngest team this year, making O’Hara’s veteran leadership crucial. Despite the club’s behind-the-scenes mayhem, the Spirit went undefeated since mid-August outside their two forfeits.

Much of the credit for that went to O’Hara’s infectious “never-say-die” mentality, even if she deflects credit elsewhere.

“I don’t think it was just me. I think it was the whole group,” she said after the championship. “I think it was our ability to persevere, to be like, ‘This is what’s happened.’ We can’t change what the league chose to do, how [the outbreak] was handled, which a lot of it seems suspect in some areas, but there’s nothing we can do. You can’t control that…

“We’ve been in playoff mode since the end the September and we controlled what we could control and that was winning. And here we are.”

As a two-time FIFA World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist with the USWNT, O’Hara provided championship experience to a group of young players who have the potential to follow in her footsteps, with Rodman in particular seeming like a lock to be a future USWNT star.

“We do have a very young team, which is awesome. And they’re really good and really excited by the win and put on amazing performances,” said O’Hara. “I think it’s just the beginning for this club.”