The Washington Spirit are 2021 NWSL champions after defeating Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in extra time. Spirit players Andi Sullivan and Kelley O'Hara scored goals for the club in the victory.
It is the first championship title for the Spirit franchise, and it comes after an exceptionally long year, both on and off the field. They survived the termination of the former head coach Richie Burke, a month long absence of play, including two forfeits due to violating Covid-19 protocols, and fighting between the ownership group in the wake of those investigations which led to the resignation of primary owner Steve Baldwin after a letter from players demanded change.
For the Red Stars, it is the second time they've come up one win short. The club has made the NWSL playoffs six consecutive times, including an appearance in the inaugural 2020 Challenge Cup final, abut still find themselves on the hunt for their first ever NWSL trophy.
After the match some players from both sides had thoughts about where their respective sides go from here.
Will Chicago ever grab that elusive final win?
While the Spirit's controversies have been well covered, this was not an easy year for Chicago either. For a team that spent the season losing key players like Julie Ertz to injury, the fact that Vaness DiBernardo was forced off after 15 minutes and Mallory Pugh at halftime must have seemed par for the course. After all, they made it to the finals without Pugh who missed the semifinals thanks to Covid-19 protocols. Yet the team fought their way to another final, with perhaps what many considered their best shot at a trophy despite all of the setbacks. The roster has plenty of players who have been in this scenario before, while others it's their first time.
For winger, and finals goal scorer Rachel Hill, coming up short again doesn't change what she thinks about this group. "I wanted to be at Chicago because I know they're a team of winners. And getting to the final of the Challenge Cup, and then again this year that's exactly why I came here," she said. "This club just continues to win and make it far. We'll win the whole thing someday, but I think just being here and being around a group that knows how to win games and knows how to stick together through it has been incredible."
For midfielder Morgan Gautrat, this is just more motivation. "It's hard, you know, in 2019 we went to the final and I think that was a great first experience for us. Obviously, it did not go the way we wanted it to. And, for the next two years. It's been hard because we've had that taste in our mouth of losing and a final like that" she said. "And honestly, it's why we go to practice every single day. It's why we play every single minute like it's the last because we know that once we get to the final game, this is what it takes."
But, more than that, given the challenges that Chicago faced this year, Gautrat sees a lot of positives to take away from this season. "I think in playing such a long season like this, there's something to be said about having your entire team be healthy, the entire team playing every single game, minute in and out, and I think that we've fought through that all year," she said. "You know, we've had people in and out constantly. So we've had to work through that. And I think just working through those types of things, and having the players step in big moments and playing different roles every single game has been something that we've had to battle through. Actually that's the first time I've seen that in a professional year. How many players [we] used. You know how many players played in this final? It's pretty unbelievable. And it was also a tough challenge for us. For many people, playing different roles, different strengths, different weaknesses, and having to battle through that. But for us, I think it's one of those things where it's tough because, like Hill said -- I came here to win championships and to play with great players. So for us, it's something -- we've come up short. We want to win. We want to win for the city, and hopefully one day we'll do that."
Is the window closed for the Red Stars?
Chicago has had an extended core group of players on the team for a period of time now, some who have been drafted by and stuck with the team since 2014 and 2015. The team this year had a mix of players who had previous finals experiences and others who were new to the side, and with the double expansion draft around the corner, and usual roster turnover that occurs for teams in the offseason, there is always the way-too-soon hypothetical of whether or not this current window of playoff appearances is coming to a close for the team.
Red Stars head coach Rory Dames doesn't think so though. "I don't think I would say it's closed, though obviously there's roster turnover, expansion drafts, there's players that want to go to places that are closer to home [...] but i wouldn't say that the window is closed. If you go through some of the players, Sarah Gorden, Morgan [Gautrat], Gilly [Arin Wright], some of them had their best seasons this year. So, it's hard to say that that door is closed when players are finding their best form. We've just got to scratch the surface with Mal. I thought Kealia [Watt] found great form ... I would say the door is always open, I don't think it's closed."
Spirit the team of Destiny soon to be Dynasty?
As for the winners, winning one is nice, but it always brings questions about more. Washington Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe had been referring to her club as a team of destiny. As the group lifted their first trophy together, they did so with a young core of players -- including 19-year-old Trinity Rodman -- that had been built up through drafts and trades. With players like 2021 rookie of the year Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, and Andi Sullivan with long careers ahead of them, the moment is perhaps the beginning of a new era in NWSL.
One of the team's veterans, and the game-winning goal scorer Kelley O'Hara is at least open to the idea. "You can't say dynasty with one win. It does start somewhere. DC is the 'district of champions' baby, apparently. I found that out last night, and I was pretty jacked up about it. Yeah, and like I said, we do have a very young team, which is awesome. And they're really good, and really exciting to play with, and put out a lot of amazing performances."
Neither the Spirit nor the Red Stars were expected to get here this season, both were lower seeded teams that didn't have the benefit of a bye in the playoffs. But both will walk away feeling like this run can power them into next season. For Chicago they leave wondering what might have been...again, and if next year can be just a little bit different, while for the Spirit, as O'Hara put it, "I think it's just the beginning for this club and there's a very good future here."