Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara embody Spirit’s ‘never-say-die mentality’

Emily Sonnett slides to tackle OL Reign's Dzsenifer Marozsán during the Washington Spirit's win on Sunday. (Stephen Brashear/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

In a 2-1 semifinal win over OL Reign on Sunday, defender Emily Sonnett put her body on the line for the Washington Spirit. Literally.

“Sonnett was part center back, part hockey goalie tonight with how many shots she was blocking,” interim head coach Kris Ward said after the game. “She’s just a warrior. I fail for words sometimes with her performances.”

OL Reign’s star forwards put the Spirit’s backline under heavy pressure from the opening whistle, with Eugénie Le Sommer finding the back of the net in the third minute to set a new NWSL playoff record for fastest goal. From there, the Spirit’s defense didn’t relent. OL Reign tallied 23 shots to the Spirit’s 13 in the game, but only three of them ended up on frame as the Washington backline blocked 12.

“I think we were caught in a vulnerable spot and they capitalized, but I don’t think there was any panic amongst the group,” Sonnett said. “We still felt very comfortable through the first half.”

Sonnett’s ability to stay calm in the heat of the moment is one of her defining characteristics. Even playing on some of the biggest international stages with the U.S. women’s national team, she always seems to find a way to lighten the mood.

“Sonnett is hilarious,” Ward said. “I love her to death because she’s really quite funny. It’s funny to see that play out during the game, and like at the most intense moment, she’ll drop a one-liner on you that you just were not prepared for at all.”

After starting her NWSL career with the Portland Thorns, Sonnett joined the Spirit heading into the 2021 season along with USWNT teammate Kelley O’Hara, who had been with the Utah Royals (now known as the Kansas City Current).

Sonnett, 27, and O’Hara, 33, have been the anchors of Washington’s improved defense this season. In their last eight matches, including the quarterfinal and semifinal wins, the Spirit have conceded just three goals and recorded five shutouts.

“[Emily] and Kelley have been a big part of that just in terms of the organization of the team as well in this never-say-die mentality,” Ward said.

That mindset clicked in early September, after the team was forced to forfeit two matches for violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols that had resulted in four positive cases.

“That fired up Kelley O’Hara in a way that I’ve not seen before,” Ward said. “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.’ And she was steadfast in that and everyone jumped on board. …

“As difficult and as hectic and crazy as that moment in time was, it really, really was a galvanizing effect for us. Kelley and Sonnett were a big part of that because that was just how they reacted to that situation.”

On Sunday, Sonnett and O’Hara led a backline with Sam Staab and Tegan McGrady. When they weren’t blocking shots from Le Sommer, Megan Rapinoe, Dzsenifer Marozsán and Rose Lavelle, they were getting involved in the attack. O’Hara, in particular, made several runs down the flank and served in crosses across the Reign’s goal line.

After OL Reign’s opening goal, Staab helped Washington answer less than 10 minutes later, placing a perfect long ball from the Spirit’s half into Reign’s box and right onto Trinity Rodman’s foot. Rodman let it take one bounce before slotting it past Reign goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi.

“Sam Staab has upped her game and has been very, very good,” Ward said.

Selected fourth overall by the Spirit in 2019, Staab became just the second NWSL rookie to play every minute of her first season. Rodman, last year’s No. 2 pick, was named Rookie of the Year by JWS and looks like a lock to win the same award from the NWSL.

Ward likes changing the team’s formation to give opponents different looks. That often means adding a fourth player across the back, such as Julia Roddar or Tegan McGrady.

“They’re both very sound defensively and they both have great qualities going forward,” he said. “So we’ve got a lot of really great pieces there.”

Ward feels comfortable slotting in new — and often younger — players because Sonnett and O’Hara provide a steadying presence. As the Spirit head into the final next Saturday against the Chicago Red Stars, just one win away from the franchise’s first NWSL championship, they will rely on their veterans once more.

“Credit to them,” Ward said. “They come good on their word more often than not, so here we are getting ready to head to Louisville.”

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.