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NWSL Championship 2021: How the Spirit and Red Stars can win their first title

The NWSL Championship is finally here. The No. 3 Washington Spirit and No. 4 Chicago Red Stars will kick off at 12 p.m. ET on Saturday at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Ky.

The parallels between the teams are plentiful. Washington and Chicago haven’t met since Aug. 1, and yet their seasons have followed a similar pattern to get to this point. Each team lost seven of their first 18 games and then dominated the last six weeks of the regular season, winning 11 games apiece. Then, they each came out on top of semifinal upsets to reach the championship game.

There’s a lot to unpack with this matchup, so let’s dive in.

Season overviews

We’ll start with Washington. The Spirit won just six of their first 18 matches, most coming under former coach Richie Burke, who was fired in August after multiple players accused him of emotional abuse. Shortly after his departure, the Spirit had to forfeit two games for violating COVID-19 protocols.

In the first two weeks of September, Kelley O’Hara led a change in the team’s mindset and, under interim head coach Kris Ward, the Spirit didn’t lose a single game over the next six weeks.

Washington finished the season with nine of their 11 victories as clean sheets. They proceeded to defeat the North Carolina Courage 1-0 in the quarterfinals and claim a 2-1 upset win over No. 2 OL Reign in the semis.

Now, the Spirit are back in the final for the first time since 2016 and the second time in franchise history. Tori Huster is the only remaining player from that 2016 squad, but she will sit out Saturday with an injury sustained during the quarterfinal.

Similar to the Spirit, the Red Stars won seven of their first 18 matches before going unbeaten in five of their last six games. They didn’t have nearly the same level of off-field turmoil that Washington did, but they had obstacles of their own, coming primarily in the form of injuries to key players.

They lost star midfielder Julie Ertz to a season-ending injury in their first game of the season, a 5-0 loss to the Portland Thorns. A couple of months later, starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher went down in the United State’s women’s national team’s Olympic semifinal loss to Canada and was sidelined for the rest of the season. Naeher’s USWNT teammate, Casey Krueger, has also been out for weeks due to illness. Mallory Pugh and Kayla Sharples missed the Red Stars’ semifinal game due to the NWSL’s COVID-19 protocol, but will return for the final after clearing protocol. Kealia Watt exited the semifinal early with a knee injury and was also ruled out for Saturday.

Despite the string of injuries, the Red Stars defeated No. 5 NJ/NY Gotham FC 1-0 in the quarterfinal sand then shut out the No. 1 Thorns 2-0 to reach their second-ever league championship game.

Regular season matchups

The Spirit and Red Stars have met three times this season, with Chicago getting the better of Washington 2-0-1.

The first meeting was a 1-1 draw on June 19. Both teams were quiet in the first half. The Spirit were without 2021 Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch after she went down with an injury in the 35th minute.

Each team switched into gear for the second half, generating multiple chances until Spirit forward Trinity Rodman (named Rookie of the Year on Thursday) broke the scoreless tie when she found the back of the net in the 85th minute off an assist from Andi Sullivan. The Red Stars responded in added time when they were awarded a penalty kick that Morgan Gautrat converted.

Their second matchup was a 1-0 Chicago victory on July 2. Washington’s Julia Roddar got credit for an own goal after deflecting Sharples’ header off of a Pugh corner kick.

And then came the Red Stars’ 3-1 win on Aug. 1. Pugh opened the scoring in the 19th minute after stealing the ball in the midfield, carrying it up the field to the outside of the box and firing a shot past keeper Cassie Miller. Rachel Hill added Chicago’s second goal off a corner in the 39th minute.

Rodman put the Spirit on the board in the 71st minute before Gautrat scored from the spot to seal the win for Chicago.

The Red Stars are 8-1-3 in their last 12 matches against the Spirit.

Team strengths

Chicago

The Red Stars’ biggest strength is their depth, especially considering how many key players they’ve lost along the way.

“The belief of the group that the next one is going to step up and do the job has been huge for us, and tactically we didn’t change anything,” said coach Rory Dames.

Their depth was put to the test last Sunday, when they played most of their semifinal against the top-ranked Thorns without leading scorers Pugh and Watt. Katie Johnson subbed in for Watt and scored the game’s first goal minutes later.

“I thought her work rate defensively was outstanding,” Dames said after the game. “Tatumn [Milazzo] certainly didn’t play like a rookie tonight. Cassie Miller — can’t say enough about Cass.”

Washington

The Spirit’s strength has been adaptability. Through a coaching change mid-season that brought with it tactical changes and new training structures, Washington has not only responded positively but thrived.

Under Ward, the Spirit often adjust their formation and strategies multiple times mid-match, and the team loves to use their subs.

“Regardless of what’s being thrown at them, they’ve been able to take it on and say, ‘OK, we can adjust to this, we can play a different formation, we can play a little higher, we could play a little lower,” Ward said. “They’re very malleable in that way.”

Four players to keep an eye on

Aubrey Bledsoe: This 2021 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year is a big reason the Spirit are here, after she made eight saves to keep her team in the quarterfinal game, which the Spirit eventually won in overtime. With a brick wall like Bledsoe as the last line of Washington’s defense, the Red Stars’ attackers have their work cut out for them.

Ashley Sanchez: An underrated player who doesn’t get enough credit while playing next to Hatch and Rodman on offense, Sanchez makes an impact all over the field. Since joining the team in 2020, the 22-year-old has secured a starting role in the attacking midfield, refined her decision-making skills and become a game-changer for the Spirit, as evidenced by her crafty goal in the semifinal.

Morgan Gautrat: The veteran has hurt Washington with two successful penalty kicks this season, but besides being a threat from the spot, Gautrat rules the center of the pitch. The semifinal Player of the Match leads an experienced midfield, which will be critical to the Red Stars’ success in a high-stakes game against a young Spirit team.

Sarah Gorden: A nominee for 2021 Defender of the Year, Gorden is versatile on defense, moving from outside back to center back when Ertz left with her injury. Most defenders don’t even think about carrying the ball in their own third of the pitch, but Gorden, Chicago’s Iron Woman, isn’t afraid to use the space when it’s in front of her.

The Spirit win if …

They get numbers into Chicago’s box. The Spirit have success when they can place accurate balls into the 18 because they’re lethal on rebounds. Hatch, in particular, always seems to be in the right place at the right time. The Red Stars’ defense has few holes, which is why long lobs over them and into the box, where Washington has some of the top goal scorers in the league, could be the tactic that turns the game in the Spirit’s favor.

The Red Stars win if …

They capitalize in the first half and play a low block in the second. The Spirit have thrived as a second-half team this season, so if the Red Stars can get an early goal or two and their defense can enter lockdown mode, the Spirit will have a hard time catching them.

Saturday’s game will be historic no matter the outcome, with the Spirit and Red Stars each looking to win their first title in franchise history. The match will be broadcast on CBS at 12 p.m. ET for the U.S. and Canada, and internationally on Twitch.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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