That’s the Spirit: First NWSL title for Washington

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - NOVEMBER 20: Andi Sullivan #12 of Washington Spirit celebrates after scoring during the second half against Chicago Red Stars during the NWSL Championship held at Lynn Family Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Andi Sullivan and the Spirit are champions. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The NWSL’s youngest team is now its champion.

The Washington Spirit captured their first NWSL Championship on Saturday with a 2-1 win in extra time over the Chicago Red Stars, finishing a turbulent season on the highest of notes.

Washington had the upper hand for much of the match, but Chicago was the team that got on the board first with a goal from Rachel Hill in the fifth minute of stoppage time in the first half. The Spirit responded with an absolutely dominant second half, outshooting the Red Stars 15-1.

Spirit captain Andi Sullivan tied the game in the 67th minute with a penalty kick, but the team couldn’t break through for more. That set up an extra time period in which NWSL mainstay Kelley O’Hara picked an excellent time for her first goal of the season.

Chicago finally found some life in the second half, getting some strong chances at an equalizer. Unfortunately for them, Washington employs two-time NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe.

Minutes after that save, Washington players were mobbing each other in celebration of a championship.

Spirit’s youth movement on full display

Making the championship even sweeter for Washington is that they have every reason to expect to get better next year.

Six members of the team’s starting XI were 24 years old or under, creating a strong mix of youth and experience alongside O’Hara, Bledsoe and NWSL leading goal-scorer Ashley Hatch. 

The best player on the field may have been the youngest one as well. 19-year-old Trinity Rodman, daughter of Chicago Bulls legend Dennis Rodman and the second overall pick of the 2021 NWSL draft, helped set up O’Hara’s match-winner and looked spectacular at times in the second half.

Chicago was missing three big players

The Red Stars showed some incredible grit in reaching the championship match, but simply looked a step behind the Spirit for much of Saturday. The team was already playing without star defender Julie Ertz and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, then lost another important player Mallory Pugh at halftime.

Washington dealt with plenty this season

It hasn’t been an easy season for any NWSL team, but the Spirit players had a particularly tough time.

Washington was one of the league’s team to see a major scandal, with coach Richie Burke accused of emotional abuse a day after he was reassigned to the front office. The resulting scandal led to owner Steve Baldwin selling the team.

That story could be felt even at the championship match, as a “We support Spirit fans. Sell the team. Baldwin. #BelieveBlackPlayers” was still visible in the stands.

Additionally, the Spirit were forced to forfeit two regular season matches during the regular season due to a COVID-19 outbreak. None of that stopped the team from excelling though, as it ended the whole season on an 12-match unbeaten streak outside of those forfeits.