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

Kealia Watt chases down Trinity Rodman during a regular season game between the Spirit and Red Stars. (Daniel Bartel/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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


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.”


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.