In the first NWSL semifinal last weekend, OL Reign scored early, but the Washington Spirit showed remarkable poise playing a goal down in the club’s first semifinal since 2016. A certain feeling kept the team together, steaming toward the two goals necessary to clinch a berth in the final.
“Just that sense of, ‘we’re going to figure it out, it’s going to come for us’,” explains Taylor Aylmer. “That feeling started earlier, when we clinched a spot in the playoffs. People started to realize that this is something special — something few expected after we had to forfeit two games.”
Indeed, after the team breached safety protocols, forcing the forfeiture of two September regular-season matches, on top of a harassment scandal that ousted a head coach midseason and has the club’s majority owner on the ropes, the Spirit did not appear destined for a happy fate.
Added to the Spirit roster in July, Aylmer discovered the source of that feeling in the solidarity of the Spirit players. “It’s been really special as a group to be together and to feel all the pieces falling into place,” she says. “You feel that energy every day in training. From all 11 starters to the energy from the bench, it’s all of us figuring it out, one way or another, together.”
The young midfielder came on as a late substitute in the November 14 semifinal to defend the lead over OL Reign. The week prior, she started her first career playoff game at Audi Field in the quarterfinal against North Carolina, helping the club a 1–0 victory in extra time. It was quite the stage for just her tenth appearance in the league. “A super exciting moment,” she recalls.
A 2020 graduate of Rutgers, Aylmer went undrafted and spent the pandemic year as a trialist for then-Sky Blue FC in the spring and for the Spirit in the fall. In between, she trained with a group of aspiring pros near her home in Garnerville, New York. She drew upon her experience with the Scarlet Knights: “The environment was great there. Every single day you have to go out and perform at your best — that was instilled at Rutgers,” she said. “There are so many alumnae that have played at the professional level. It was motivating to look up to them and to play with some who went on to play professionally, to think, ‘Okay, I played with her, this is now my goal,’ and to be able to hear their experiences and get advice from some of the older girls. It was very important to moving forward in my own career.”
Aylmer grew up in the competitive environment of an older sister, who played at Manhattan College, and a younger sister who swims for James Madison University. “Our parents really put us in all sports growing up. They let us figure out what we were interested in naturally,” she recounts. “Having an older sister pretty close in age (we’re about 22 months apart), we did a lot of training together and when she started to lean towards soccer I think that pushed me to lean toward soccer.”
“When I was about 12 years old I just said to my parents that I don’t want to do anything else besides soccer. I don’t want to miss a soccer practice for a softball game anymore. I always wanted to be at soccer, so fully turned the focus there.”
Training with her sister developed her left foot and defensive awareness. “She’s a naturally left-footed player, and I was naturally right-footed, so when we were training together she would always be better at doing things with her left foot and that made me so mad as a kid! It made me get so much better with my left foot. I remember people would come up to me and think that I was naturally a left-footed player, but it was just solely because I was constantly training with her. That competitive atmosphere of each of us wanting to be better than the other drove each of us to get better at our weaknesses, to edge the other one just a little more.”
“We played different positions so we saw the game differently,” Aylmer explains. “She played center back, and when I was younger I played forward. Always going home and having her to bounce ideas off, I saw the game from a different perspective afterward. Speaking to her helped my own soccer IQ expand from the linear path that I was looking in.” That defensive awareness did not go unnoticed. “I had a coach one day tell me, ‘I don’t think you’re a forward, I think you’re a midfielder.’ He threw me in there and that’s where I’ve stayed.”
In 2021, Aylmer still had several steps to climb. Once again a trialist in New Jersey, the rebranded Gotham FC signed Aylmer as a National Team Replacement (NTR) player for the spring Challenge Cup, in which she made one appearance. Then Washington picked her up as an NTR in July.
Aylmer notched her first assist at Louisville, the site of the NWSL Championship, in the July 25 match against Racing. Subbed on with a lead to defend, a corner kick had her take up a position at the back post. “Tegan (McGrady) sent in a great ball. From where I was at, there was no obvious chance that I was going to be able to score from that angle. So I kept the ball alive; brought it back across the face of the goal. Sam Staab just put it away, nice and easy.”
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) July 26, 2021
The assist helped Aylmer make her case to stay with the squad when the national team players returned after the Olympics. Signing a regular contract for the remainder of the season was the climax of a long journey.
“There were a lot of moments during that year , because of the pandemic and feeling on the outskirts of this league, that I wasn’t sure if I was going to find my way into it fully. There were a lot of lows,” Aylmer admits. Signing the regular contract “was definitely a big high for me and a big personal milestone. It was one of the first times I really felt like I was a part of this league and part of a team. It felt like I could get my roots and really start to develop more as a player in this environment and flourish.
“I’m super grateful for the Spirit giving me that opportunity. The whole team was outright so welcoming. There’s great leadership on this team with our captains. I give a lot of credit to them, but just every single player, from the moment I stepped into this team environment, made the transition so smooth.”
Aylmer understands sportsmanship as supporting your teammates. She received the Big Ten’s Sportsmanship award in 2020. “The main thing for me was to be a captain — a competitor that leads by example, keeping people to a standard, but also doing it with kindness. Everybody reacts differently. Sometimes you can have a coach that could be getting in on a girl in training; if she’s having a bad day, then realizing that as a player and being her friend that day, a little more so, to help her out,” she explains. “A lot of people think of sportsmanship as you versus the opposing teams, but a lot of times I look at it as, how do I treat my own teammates and what did they think of me as a teammate?”
Since signing the contract in August, Aylmer has flourished. Her first NWSL goal came in her first start, against OL Reign in a crucial October game. “Julia (Roddar) took the ball up on the left side,” she recalls. “She was going 1v1 and I remember she crossed it. I saw the forwards, Trinity (Rodman) and Tara (McKeown), gravitate towards the front post. The back post was wide open, and I was thinking a second ball bounce or rebound could potentially pop out that way. And then the ball made it through the entire box and just kind of bounced perfectly, right in front of me. I honestly wasn’t expecting it to get through the way it did! It was a great ball. Julia did all the work, I just had the easy job to finish.”
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) October 17, 2021
Aylmer and the Spirit aim to finish off their incredible late-season run in the NWSL Championship against the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday at 12pm ET. The game will be broadcast on CBS in the USA and Canada, and on Twitch abroad.