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In season of adversity, Washington Spirit find strength to win NWSL championship

(Joe Robbins/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When the whistle blew at halftime of the 2021 NWSL Championship, the Washington Spirit knew that, after everything they’d been through this season, now was not the time to panic. Then they went out and completed their final magical comeback of the year, defeating the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 to win the first title in franchise history.

“I think we just finally got back to doing what we are good at, which is playing,” said Spirit outside back Kelley O’Hara, who headed in the game-winning goal in extra time. “Moving them, breaking them down, finding the spaces, using our weapons and just playing.”

Much of the Spirit’s season was defined by off-field controversy. They’ve had a coach fired for verbal abuse, owners fighting over controlling percentages and two forfeits dictated by the league’s COVID-19 rules. Those forfeits weighed heavily on the players. O’Hara called how the league handled those games “suspect in some areas,” and the team came together to win in spite of, as Andi Sullivan put it the day before, “those who want to make it harder for us.”

That adversity informed how the team played on the field. The group that won the NWSL championship somehow became underrated in their tactical awareness and problem-solving ability. On Saturday, their knack for solving puzzles helped them overcome a gutsy performance from the Red Stars to claim the ultimate prize.

Adaptability was the theme of the Spirit’s season. Before Kris Ward took over as interim head coach, the team played with a hyper focus on how much they had the ball; under Ward, they emphasized what exactly to do with the ball. The defense has been steady, and the young attacking core helped them win important games to close out the regular season. Chicago midfielder Morgan Gautrat had said it was going to take something special to win the game, and it took Washington time to unlock a Red Stars defense that had proven impenetrable in recent weeks.

For the first 45 minutes, the Red Stars had the game right where they wanted it. They were able to dictate a slow tempo, disrupt passing lanes and take Washington’s most dynamic players out of the match. Chicago’s war of attrition against injuries was tested again Saturday; Vanessa DiBernardo went down in the 13th minute while dealing with a hamstring injury, and Mallory Pugh exited the game at halftime after a crunching tackle from O’Hara.

Chicago dealt with the most obvious on-field adversity, but the Spirit still found themselves down at halftime 1-0. Somehow the Red Stars took advantage of the time after Pugh left the field in stoppage time, with Arin Wright sending a beautiful ball in to the back post for Rachel Hill to ricochet in. For a moment, it seemed like the upset might be on and the Red Stars might be able to stifle another team into submission at the end of a very long season.

But the Spirit, as they’ve done all year, made another adjustment.

“The first half, we were pretty static,” Trinity Rodman said after the match. “There was not a lot of movement at the top, and initially that’s why we couldn’t swing the ball because there was no movement. But I think definitely second half, with everyone moving off the ball, their defenders having to make a decision of, ‘Do I stay? Do I go?’ I think that was the biggest thing.”

To place Washington’s off-field adversity in the same conversation as their on-field dominance undercuts what the team has been able to accomplish when the distractions slip away. Ward led the Spirit to an undefeated end to the season, and the defense of O’Hara, Tegan McGrady, Sam Staab and Emily Sonnett solidified their positioning in a purposeful way. The off-field stories have been both a distraction and a focusing tool. So, at halftime on Saturday, the Spirit players knew they had the experience to find a way to win without abandoning the principles that got them to the final.

The turnaround started with a few Washington players. After Chicago had successfully matched numbers to take away the threat of Ashley Sanchez, Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch started to sit back to give Washington a numerical advantage in the midfield. Rodman overcame her first-half frustrations to work her way into the game and Chicago’s defenders’ heads, exploiting the space on the wings and waking up the Spirit’s offense with a crack off the post in the 61st minute.

The penalty Tara Mckeown won in the 66th minute was bad luck for the Red Stars, but it was also the natural consequence of the pressure Washington had been putting on Chicago since the half began. As fatigue was setting in for the Red Stars, the Spirit ramped up their intensity, looking for the final pass or shot that would get them the equalizer. As it turned out, getting into dangerous areas was the most effective game plan.

If the Red Stars had held on for even 10 minutes past the 67th-minute mark, they might have been able to frustrate Washington enough to steal a 1-0 win, despite their flagging numbers. The Red Stars have been successful this season when they’ve frustrated their opponents enough that they can’t successfully execute. The equalizer, off of a penalty kick from Andi Sulilvan, gave the Spirit proof of their own comeback.

The final game-winning dagger came early in extra time, when the Red Stars were down even more starters. That left Rodman with the time to place her cross, finding a streaking O’Hara who rose over Makenzy Doniak to head the ball past Cassie Miller and put Washington ahead.

Chicago won their duels in the first half of the game, pushing Spirit players off the ball to open up space. But in the second half, Washington eased into the game and flipped the duels on their head. Such was the build-up to O’Hara’s massive game-winner, with the outside back boxing Doniak out physically to put the ball into the back of the net. The Spirit made an adjustment in tactics and effort, and it made all the difference on Saturday afternoon.

The Red Stars have to wonder what might have been if they could have fielded a full healthy roster, but what the Spirit accomplished in 2021 is one of the more miraculous sports stories of the year.

“I’m really proud of this team — people have no idea what we’ve all gone through,” O’Hara said. “And the resiliency and the perseverance of every single player on this team is pretty incredible. It’s something that I haven’t seen on any NWSL team that I’ve been on. So it’s the best feeling ever to be ending on a win, and being champions.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.