NWSL Playoff Final: Risen – Spirit by name, Spirit by nature…

The Washington Spirit rose up to secure their first ever NWSL Championship this weekend, coming back from a goal down to beat an injury-ravaged Chicago Red Stars 2-1 (a.e.t.) at the Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville. There were 10,360 people in attendance and they were treated to a tense, fiercely contested two hours of football, after the initial 90 minutes finished all square at one each. Rachel Hill put the Red Stars ahead in first half stoppage time. Andi Sullivan (just about) equalised from the penalty spot midway through the second period. Full back Kelley O’Hara got the 97th minute winner heading in Trinity Rodman’s left wing cross…

Semi-Finals

Washington’s Trinity Rodman celebrates her equaliser against OL Reign.

D2B’s day job got in the way of being able to apply a full bloggage on the excellent NWSL semi-finals, but we were able to watch both and make some notes. So, here’s a whistle stop recap of how Washington and Chicago made their respective ways to the Louisville showpiece:

The Washington Spirit travelled to Tacoma in, er, Washington state to take on number two seeds OL Reign – in the rain. But they found themselves a goal down inside three minutes when Eugénie Le Sommer tapped in Megan Rapinoe’s cross from the left.

Kris Ward’s side had not started well but showed good character to steady their nerves and get back on terms just nine minutes later.

Centre back Sam Staab hit a perfectly weighted fifty-yard pass over the top of the Reign backline and Trinity Rodman let the ball bounce across her body before dispatching a low, first-time finish. (Reign would have been advised to have watched the Spirit’s last regular season match of the season against Houston – where they scored virtually the same goal.)

Home keeper Sarah Bouhaddi denied Rodman and Tara McKeown with workaday stops before Le Sommer got herself in behind the Spirit defence a minute before the break – beating Aubrey Bledsoe with a neat lob but also bypassing the keeper’s right-hand post.

Rapinoe fired over the bar early in the second period and Quinn couldn’t get a low shot past Bledsoe as the hosts looked to retake the lead. Le Sommer blazed across the face of goal in the 65th minute.

Those misses would prove costly. The Spirit got their noses in front on 67 minutes after Andi Sullivan’s corner ricocheted to Ashley Sanchez on the angle of the six-yard box. The attacking midfielder sized up her options and scooped the ball deftly over Bouhaddi with enough off-spin to take it inside the far post.

Seriously, this is special. The wonderfully gifted Ashley Sanchez combines vision and technical skill – all in a split second…

Substitute Bethany Balcer and Le Sommer both wasted opportunities and Spirit centre back Emily Sonnett made three vital defensive blocks in the space of 20 seconds.

The Spirit looked for the most part like they would hold on, but it always felt like Reign would get one last chance for an equaliser.

It fell to Le Sommer in the fourth minute of stoppage time who met Dzsenifer Marozsán’s left-wing cross but couldn’t head past Bledsoe.

The Chicago Red Stars played their semi-final at Providence Park, home of Shield Champions (and number one seeds) the Portland Thorns. The visitors went into the game without star forward Mallory Pugh and central defender Kayla Sharples (COVID restrictions), as well as crocked box-to-boxer Tori Huster. A lot of attacking expectation, then, was piled on to the shoulders of winger Kealia Watt who had enjoyed an excellent season; but her match was over inside half an hour through injury.

Rory Dames’ side had worked hard to frustrate the Thorns attack successfully up to this point but now the question was: where were the goals going to come from? An answer came less than ten minutes later from Watt’s replacement Katie Johnson. She worked half a yard of space wide right of the penalty area and somehow managed to squeeze a shot between the near post and Portland keeper Bella Bixby.

Morgan Weaver almost replied immediately for the hosts with a header from Meghan Klingenberg’s cross but Cassie Miller hauled it in. Angela Salem couldn’t apply a finish after a titanic 43rd minute goalmouth scramble.

A second half Portland storm was expected but, after Sophia Smith had fired two efforts off frame for the hosts, Chicago doubled their lead. Morgan Gautrat squared the ball to Sarah Woldmoe 25-yards out, the midfielder got the ball out of her feet and drove it into Bixby’s top left-hand corner.

Sarah Woldmoe digs out a Sunday night special for the Red Stars…

In front of their third highest crowd of the season (15,832) the champions started to look bereft of ideas. ‘Rocky’ Rodriguez had a sight of goal from the edge of the ‘D’ in the 76th minute but Miller got down to her right and made the stop. And that was it. Portland were out and Head Coach Mark Parsons had completed his final match in charge before heading to Europe to take charge of the Netherlands national team permanently.

A bruised and beaten up Chicago, meanwhile, were off to Kentucky for the Championship Final…

The Final

Over 10,000 people were at the Lynn Family Stadium to watch the Championship Final.

Chicago’s Mallory Pugh would be back for the playoff final but her partner in crime, Kealia Watt, would not make it. Katie Johnson retained her place in the front three but Rory Dames moved her to centre forward with Pugh and Rachel Hill working either side.

Washington Head Coach Kris Ward made no changes to the eleven that started at OL Reign.

The teams had met three times previously during the year, with Chicago winning twice and the other match being drawn.

With the Red Stars short on fire power they ideally needed a cagey opening to find their way into the match. They got just that, but were unfortunate to lose midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo in the 13th minute to another injury. Makenzy Doniak replaced her.

Chicago were working harder than their opponents and forged the first meaningful effort on goal approaching 25 minutes with Aubrey Bledsoe diving to her right to push away Johnson’s half-volley.

But the Washington Spirit were never going to be kept quiet for the entirety and raised their levels approaching the half. Ashley Sanchez engineered a crossing opportunity for Trinity Roadman out on the left, but McKeown drove her effort over the bar. McKeown turned provider for Rodman in the 45th minute, but the Rookie of the Year fired straight at Cassie Miller.

Mallory Pugh got a knock as the clock ticked into three minutes of stoppage time and Red Stars fans would be hoping that she’d be able to return post interval. And that was that for the opening half…

Only it wasn’t. Three minutes of stoppage time became five and Chicago took the lead with Pugh still looking on from the side lines.

Full backs Arin Wright and Kelley O’Hara squared up out on Chicago’s left, O’Hara slipped and that gave Wright the half-yard she needed to race to the by-line and chip an inviting cross to the far post that Rachel Hill powered home.

We can’t have been the only observers trawling through memories of Portland a week earlier when the Red Stars overcame all manner of odds to beat the Thorns – on paper a stronger, more talented and certainly less injury-afflicted club. Rory Dames’ and his charges had given themselves a chance again…

Pugh was subbed at the break with midfielder Danielle Colaprico taking her place.

Increasingly it was looking like Chicago were going to have to try holding out for the clean sheet. But they had already achieved just that against both previous playoff opponents. The onus, then, was on Washington to find a goal.

To their credit the Spirit were so much better in the second period. Swedish left back Julia Roddar replaced Tegan McGrady at half time and that seemed to quieten the dual threat of Hill and Tatumn Milazzo. Simultaneously, Andi Sullivan and Dorian Bailey started to get on the ball more in midfield increasing the pressure on the Red Stars’ defence. And it wasn’t long before chances started to come.

Rodman came within a post’s width of levelling when she spun away from her marker in the 61st minute and rifled a 25-yarder against the upright. Two minutes later O’Hara whipped in a dangerous delivery from the right that Rodman nodded wide. O’Hara provided another ball in two minutes later which was intercepted, but broke to Dorian Bailey arriving in the penalty box. She dragged her effort past the post.

At the midway point of the second half Washington got their equaliser. Rodman, out on the left again, worked some space to fizz a pass into the penalty box. McKeown arrived and took the ball in stride but Tierna Davidson stuck out a leg and tripped her. It was a straightforward decision for the match official.

Spirit captain Andi Sullivan strode forward and placed the ball, but her spot kick belied a confident demeanour. She struck it poorly. Miller guessed left; left was right, but maybe the keeper was expecting more velocity on the ball and she dived over it.

Scores level it was game on, but Chicago looked shell shocked. Dames’ game plan since the half hinged on keeping Washington out. Injuries were limiting the team’s ability to attack effectively. What now? Try and find a winner? Or play for extra time and penalties?

Spirit boss Kris Ward had no such concerns. The match, and the NWSL Title, was there for the taking. They were going for the throat. Three minutes after they restored parity Roddar put in a cross from the left which McKeown glanced just the wrong side of the near post.

On 81 minutes Sullivan tried a snap shot from 25-yards that Miller turned away low to her right. Sixty seconds later the Red Stars’ keeper was back in action again, denying Ashley Hatch after she’d shaken off the attentions of Davidson.

Rodman played Sanchez into the penalty area in the 84th minute but the Spirit’s semi-final hero blasted into the side netting. It would be her last contribution before being subbed out for Taylor Aylmer.

When the whistle blew for full time Red Stars fans may have hoped that their players could find a second wind and raise their levels for 30 additional minutes, but the pattern set in the second half held and Washington continued to push for a winner.

Substitute Anna Heilferty set up Hatch in the 93rd minute but the Golden Boot winner was unable to beat Miller.

They only had to wait another four minutes for the crucial breakthrough. Rodman cut inside from the left and curled the ball to the far post where O’Hara was arriving, timing her jump and her header perfectly, powering it back across the keeper into the opposite corner. It was her first competitive goal since 2018.

That winning moment, Trinity Rodman to Kelley O’Hara… wait what? Kelley O’Hara?!!

Now Chicago had to score.

In the second period of extra time Colaprico’s deflected effort was reeled in by Bledsoe. Then Davidson fired in a shot from 18-yards that pinged off Sullivan and sailed wide. But every match seems to throw up that one moment on which the entire result hinges and this final was no different…

Spirit central defenders Emily Sonnett and Sam Staab hadn’t made a mistake between them in 118 minutes, but suddenly found Doniak in behind and heading towards their goal.

It would be a heart-in-mouth moment for both sets of supporters. Doniak struck her shot true but Bledsoe was set, sprung to her right and palmed the ball away at full stretch. It was a massive, clutch save for the league’s goalkeeper of the year.

But the stopper wasn’t quite done. In the time added to the injury time on the end of the extra time (!), Arin Wright hammered one last effort at the Spirit goal from 25-yards. It clipped the top of the cross bar, but replays showed that Bledsoe had got the merest of touches on it. And that would win her the MVP (Most Valuable Player) award on the day.

More importantly (and we’re assuming Aubrey would agree) it ensured Washington held on to win 2-1, securing them their first ever NWSL Championship.

Reflections

Predicting the semi-final score, ladies? Well, if so, you got it wrong…

Go all the way back to the pre-season Challenge Cup in May and the Washington Spirit didn’t strike many as potential playoff winners. They finished fourth in their Eastern group and only beat new franchise Racing Louisville.

But they only lost once in those four Challenge Cup games and that ‘hard to beat’ form held going into the regular season. By week five they’d lost just one of their opening six matches and sat third in the table.

They coped well with the exodus of US and Canadian players to the Olympics – largely because key players such as Ashley Hatch, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Hatch were undrafted. When the NWSL welcomed back its international stars the Spirit were still third, but other challenges had emerged. Head Coach Richie Burke had been sacked. Kris Ward stepped into the interim role. But more trouble was around the corner.

In weeks 16 and 17 the Spirit had to forfeit matches. Portland and OL Reign were awarded 3-0 wins over Washington after it was reported that there had been multiple breaches of COVID protocol. On top of all this the animosity between Spirit fans and club ownership – widely acknowledged in WOSO circles – was getting worse. Not exactly the culture of a winning organisation.

Week 19 was cancelled altogether after an investigative report in the Athletic accused North Carolina Courage Head Coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion with some of his (former) players. NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird was relieved of her duties and the ‘No More Silence’ movement was born.

It was a difficult moment for the league but none of this seemed to distract the Washington Spirit. From week 18 onwards they secured five victories and a draw, going into the playoffs as the third seed and the form team.

At season’s end their squad boasted the Golden Boot winner (Ashley Hatch), the Rookie of the Year (Trinity Rodman) and the league’s best goalkeeper (Aubrey Bledsoe). Head Coach Kris Ward did not lose a competitive match on the grass / turf. The only ‘L’s on his record were those games awarded by the league to opposing teams.

Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe. Strangely, though, not included in the Team of the Year… (scratches head…)

The Washington Spirit have played some of the best, most enjoyable football to watch during the season, combining young players who bring flair and fearlessness with those that have acquired the intelligence and steeliness of experience. Here is a group of players that look like they are having fun – just take a look at their pre-match team photos! (above)

We’ve heard it for the band. But what about the conductor? Interim Head Coach Kris Ward enjoys his moment with the Trophy…

D2B has covered the entire NWSL season over the last few months. At times it could be a bit of a slog to be honest, there are a lot of fixtures. But it was never, EVER boring watching the Spirit in the early hours of the UK morning. And to that end we say congratulations to the Washington Spirit. Enjoy the off-season. Give Kris Ward a permanent job and a pay rise. Make some more exciting draft picks and come back even stronger next season. Be assured: the rest of the league will be gunning for you!

Team of the season:

The NWSL Team of the Year (with Le Sommer shoe-horned into midfield). Cards on the table: D2B doesn’t whole-heartedly agree with all of these choices, but that’s for another day…

==

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s