(Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

Across social media, the Washington Spirit have been using the phrase “#RiseUpDC,” but behind the curtain, the team’s theme is “Together.”

At practices, before games, in the locker room and on media calls, the players have intentionally used the word through the second half of the season following a chapter of abuse allegations against former coaches, COVID-19 cases that resulted in forfeited games and ownership changes.

“Staying together, really just focusing on that,” defender Sam Staab said. “[It] switches our mentality to be like, ‘Let’s just send it.’ We’ve had a pretty tough year, so we’re just going for it.”

The Spirit exemplified that approach Sunday, with their deep bench playing a key role in a 1-0 extra-time win over the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL quarterfinals.

“It takes every one of us, and we’ve really come together and relied on each other throughout this entire season and especially tonight,” goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said after the game.

‘We’re so deep’

North Carolina controlled much of the game in the opening 45 minutes, forcing Bledsoe to make multiple challenging saves and reminding everyone why she is a nominee for NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year.

Washington’s six substitutions rolled in through the second half, giving them a boost in momentum.

45’ M Tori Huster in for M Tayor Aylmer
70’ M Julia Roddar in for D Tegan McGrady
70’ F Tara McKeown in for F Ashley Sanchez
98’ D Anna Heilferty in for M Tori Huster (injury)
115’ D Paige Nielsen in for M Dorian Bailey (injury)
118’ M Saori Takarada in for F Trinity Rodman

The first sub to start the second half was Tori Huster, the only remaining player from the Spirit team that advanced to the NWSL finals in 2016, and she made her veteran presence felt immediately. The Spirit fired off multiple shots in the first five minutes of the half, taking the pressure off of Bledsoe and repeatedly testing Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy.

Tara McKeown, the 22-year-old who started 11 of 21 games this season, helped turn Washington’s offensive energy around with multiple runs up the field that were not there in the first 45.

When Huster went down just outside North Carolina’s box a few minutes into extra time, with what is expected to be a serious injury, the Spirit had to send on a sub for their sub. In this case, it was 22-year-old Anna Heilferty. The rookie was entering her first playoff game when the stakes were highest, but the Spirit didn’t flinch, even against an experienced team like the Courage.

“We’re so deep, the amount of talent that we have,” Bledsoe said of the bench.

After the Spirit had registered 13 shots on target, Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch buried the golden goal in the second period of extra time. The 2021 MVP candidate had been having a quiet game up until that point.

“I believe in every single one of our players and every single girl that steps on the field,” Hatch said. “Our subs made a huge difference in the game today. … That belief in each other is what helped us win this game.”

‘They’re the Little Engine That Could right now’

Spirit interim coach Kris Ward describes himself as someone who’s “not afraid to use the bench.”

“We’ve got an unbelievable bench and they proved that in so many ways,” he said.

Ward has taken a hands-off approach this season since being named interim coach in August, recognizing the players have needed emotional support and space to come together, more than they’ve needed coaching.

“I think once we made the [coaching] change in August, everyone’s been a little bit more laidback and it really helps when we’ve got a young, creative team,” Bledsoe said. “It’s just been a good time of everyone just trusting in each other’s abilities, and you’re really seeing us start to play free and play together and it’s really exciting.”

Ward’s guidance has helped the Spirit advance the furthest they’ve been as a program since 2016. Before the playoffs began, Staab said she and the team were ready to move on from the turmoil of the season and focus on themselves.

Ward was in hands-on coaching mode after Sunday’s quarterfinal, pleased with the second-half energy but challenging the offense to slow down the attack. As much as the young team lets him, at least.

“Sometimes, youth is just going to youth, and they’re just going to go and that is an advantage in and of itself,” Ward said with a laugh.

Going into Washington’s semifinal against OL Reign next Sunday, there will be coaching, but Ward won’t lose sight of the togetherness that got the Spirit to this point in the first place.

“That’s been a big key for us, just getting through things together,” he said. “They’ve always had each other’s backs, and so it’s just trying to keep the train rolling. They’re the Little Engine That Could right now.”

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.