Why the Washington Spirit’s NWSL championship is the most remarkable in U.S. sports history

LOUISVILLE — The ball swept off Trinity Rodman’s right foot and traveled across the field perhaps 40 yards in the air, descending to precisely the spot she planned: the very edge of teammate Kelley O’Hara’s scalp. The NWSL Championship would be decided, in that instant, by a pair of teammates toward the opposite end of brilliant careers.

In her first season with the Washington Spirt, but more than a decade into her time as a pro, O’Hara had slipped beyond her mark. In her first season with the Spirit, her first in professional soccer, Rodman read it perfectly and sent a cross designed to make the most of that move. Although Makenzy Doniak of the Chicago Red Stars recovered to present at least an obstacle, O’Hara fought through it and headed the ball toward the opposite post. It wasn’t a powerful shot, but it trickled over the goal line.

An NWSL season that too often was about anything but soccer was brought back to the essence of sport in that moment, which earned the Spirit a 2-1 extra-time victory over the Red Stars and their first NWSL Championship since joining the league as an original member in 2012.

“I honestly quite can’t describe it, because of everything we’ve been through and the fact that we’re ending it as NWSL champions,” O’Hara told reporters afterward. “It’s pretty crazy and very special. I’m very proud of this team. You have no idea what we’ve all gone through.”

This is Washington’s third major team-sport championship since 2018, but it was entirely different from the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup or the Nationals following a year later with a World Series title.

This is the most remarkable championship in the history of American sports. There never has been anything like it. This is a both an acknowledgement of the Spirit as a team and a reproach of what their organization has allowed them to endure.

Though it demanded the players involved be skilled, dynamic, tough, fierce, indefatigable and — perhaps more than anything — resilient, the triumph of these amazing women and their admirable qualities over the team’s often dreadful circumstance is something no one should want to see repeated.

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That includes the nature of the only two Spirit defeats in three months under interim coach Kris Ward: forfeits necessitated because the team was charged with violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols.

“I don’t think it was just me; I think it was the whole group. It was our ability to persevere,” O’Hara said. “What’s happened, we can’t change … The only thing we had control over was how we responded and what we did with the last games we had in the season. Besides the forfeits, we haven’t lost since August, which is pretty incredible. We kind of just went into playoff mode after we were given those forfeits — because we had to. We had no choice. We wanted to be in the playoffs. We wanted to be NWSL champions.”

There were multiple signs in the South end zone demanding Spirit owner Steve Baldwin sell the team, others that expressed support for the league’s players association. There were almost none, honestly, that were on the order of, “Go team.”

It has been that sort of year for the NWSL in general and for the Spirit in particular. Their coach at the start of the season, Richie Burke, stepped down in August for what were termed “medical reasons” and reassigned to the front office. He was “terminated for cause” nearly two months later, after an investigation into allegations of harrassment and a toxic work environment had been reported by the Washington Post.

A few days after Burke was dismissed, the Carolina Courage fired coach Paul Riley following reports in The Athletic that some of his former players accused him of sexual coercion.

These became the defining moments of the 2021 NWSL season, only a year after the league had triumphed by becoming the first U.S. team competion to resume play following the COVID shutdown, and resolving its persistent television issues by signing with CBS Sports.

The Washington-Chicago game drew an appreciative crowd of 10,360 that ranks as the third-largest largest in the history of the NWSL Championship, remarkable given the game site was moved here only a month earlier, when players complained that playing in Portland meant they’d have to contest their biggest game of the season at 9 a.m. local time. It was one more NWSL blunder that had to be addressed, but at least this was handled when it became an issue.

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What happened Saturday should not distract from the enormity of what has transpired away from the field, but it did offer a sterling example of the league’s inherent value.

“There was a great crowd, which was unbelievable. For us, we had our fans here out loud, and so did they. It was a great turnout for both teams and the league in general,” Chicago midfielder Morgan Gautrat told Sporting News. “Obviously, it’s been a very long year for every team for different reasons. There’s been a bunch of adversity on and off the field, and I think it’s necessary to make this league better. But I do think it was a great showing: 120 minutes, end-to-end soccer, good goals, excitement. So I think it was good for the league.”

The Red Stars entered the game with no Julie Ertz, no Alyssa Naeher, no Casey Krueger, no Kealia Watt (and no Kealia Ohai, either). You might as well have taken the deep-dish pizza and Navy Pier away from Chicago.

Not long after the game started, midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo left with injury, and just before halftime it was perhaps the last remaining Red Stars star, Mallory Pugh, who had to limp off with an injury.

Chicago somehow scored the opening goal almost immediately after Pugh crossed the sideline and jogged in front of the stands, hopeful to perhaps continue either upon a stoppage or following the impending 15-minute halftime break.

With only 10 Chicago players on the field and a lot of eyes on Pugh, the Red Stars moved tentatively forward, seemingly intent on keeping the ball near the Washington goal to minimize the opportunity for the Spirit to take advantage of their edge in numbers. As left back Arin Wright advanced toward the corner, though, she made a quick move that caused O’Hara to stumble, creating all the room necessary for Wright to send a searing cross in front of goal that eluded every defender and found winger Rachel Hill just inside the far post for a quick header into the net.

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“I think it would be unfair to Washington to say they beat us today because of who we didn’t have,” Chicago coach Roy Dames said. “Losing Vanessa (DiBernardo) hurts. Losing Mal (Pugh) hurts. But we’ve been next-person-up all year. We played the game. We lost. They won. Credit to them.”

There will come a time, perhaps not very long into the future, when it no longer will be necessary to identify Trinity Rodman, the 2021 NWSL Rookie of the Year, as the daughter of the basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman. Her performance against the Red Stars might be considered the first huge step in that direction.

She dominated the second half, starting with a shot she rifled off the left post in the 61st minute and ending with the cross that earned her an assist on the game-winner five minutes into extra time.

In between there was the energy she delivered that tilted the game toward the Spirit, including a dangerous cross in the 63rd minute. Two minutes later, the Red Stars were so vexed that defender Tierna Davidson fouled Tara McKeown directly in front of goal. The Spirit were awarded a penalty kick, and captain Andi Sullivan stepped forward to slip her shot directly under goakeeper Cassie Miller to tie the score (below).

(Getty Images)

“The journey’s been long. It’s not what I expected from my first season,” Rodman said. “But the team I was with, they’ve been amazing. I’ve looked up to every single person. I’ve gotten close to every single person on my team.

“We’ve just been extremely driven. We haven’t given up. We want to win. And I think we wanted it more than every other team in this league, and I think that’s why we got there.”