Four Things I Learned at the 2021 NWSL Championship

2021 NWSL final Sonnett

Emily Sonnett lead the Spirit defense in the 2021 NWSL championship game. Photo by Michael Cox/Keeper Notes.


by Grant Wiedenfeld

The Washington Spirit won their first NWSL trophy Saturday in Louisville, with a 2-1 come-from-behind win over the Chicago Red Stars in exta time. A Lynn Family Stadium record crowd of 10,360 watched the first NWSL championship game in more than two years. A few thoughts on the game:

The Spirit’s aggressiveness made the difference
When Washington tired toward the end of the first half, Chicago scored a quick strike in the 5th minute of stoppage time, and then hoping to finish out the game like its 2-0 victory over Portland in the semifinal. But the Spirit kept coming — Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman, Kelley O’Hara, and Emily Sonnett in particular. Chicago head coach Rory Dames said Rodman’s rocket off the crossbar in the 61st minute rattled the Red Stars, who soon gave up a penalty. O’Hara continuously pushed up the right side and swung the ball across to Rodman, who took advantage of Chicago’s young fullback Tatumn Milazzo.

In the first extra-time period, Rodman returned the favor with a bold cross to O’Hara who headed home the game-winner in the late afternoon sunshine. But there was still another 20+ minutes left in the game. Washington’s defense had played physical from the start, led by Sonnett. She aggressively climbed up anyone’s back to win aerial battles. An overly aggressive head-to-head collision nearly gave Chicago a chance at the death, but Aubrey Bledsoe’s golden gloves held firm to the trophy.


Collaborative leadership lifted the Spirit to another level
When Richie Burke was terminated as Spirit head coach in August and then the club had to forfeit two September games for Covid-19 protocol violations, few expected the team to recover. Instead, the Spirit went undefeated after those forfeits, all the way through the final. Acting head coach Kris Ward would not take credit for that spectacular run. Instead he praised the players’ leadership as well as his taff. Asked about a tactical maneuver in the second half, when the 2021 Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch dropped into midfield to create an advantage, Ward admitted that it wasn’t his idea. “That was all her. We give the players a lot of latitude,” he explained. Before extra time Ward did not even say anything to the squad. Between the team captains, leaders, and assistants, everyone dialed in together.

Although Burke deserves some credit for assembling the talented Spirit roster, we saw Washington play their best soccer after his departure. The shift to a collaborative approach liberated the players to take on more responsibility and to be more creative. (Jason Anderson and Andre Carlisle described that change in detail for Black & Red United.) Of course such an approach would not likely succeed without the experience of players like O’Hara, Sonnett, Bledsoe and Sullivan — who are now all NWSL champions. One wonders how the expansion draft and potential changes in ownership and the front office (even signing Ward to a long-term contract) will affect that collaborative environment next season.



Louisville is a soccer city
Being in the Eastern time zone gave the city a special advantage for hosting a championship game that CBS scheduled for noon eastern. But being a soccer town is what brought an NWSL expansion franchise here in the first place. A fair chunk of fans Sunday were wearing purple — local fans who paid to see the best teams in the nation face off. They helped Racing Louisville the #2 team in average attendance in the club’s inaugural season.

Chicago defender Arin Wright, who had the assist on Chicago’s goal, is only one of two current players in the league from Kentucky, alongside Racing rookie forward Emina Ekic. But if confident words of Dr. Lynn, who addressed the media Friday, are a good indication, then there will soon be more players from the area. And having had a taste of the championship atmosphere, Louisville fans will certainly be eager for Racing to climb up the table and into playoff contention next year.

The influx of visitors for the game cannot be overlooked as part of what made this game so special. When O’Hara scored her first-ever playoff goal to give the Spirit the lead, thunderous applause erupted, matching the enthusiasm of Saturday football everywhere in the United States. Two flagbearers lapped from end to end waving the Spirit banner, pressed on by the hearty screams of redemption. The Spirit Squadron had arrived early with large signs urging “Sell the Team, Steve” — a protest action directed at the beleaguered controlling owner. The Squadron drummers did not stop until that first extra-time period ended. Bledsoe turned to give them a look and a wave of her towel as she trotted off to the other end of the field for the second extra-time period. That one gesture was enough to send the Spirit supporters to peak cheering again. Later the team posed for a photo in front of the supporters section with the trophy.

Chicago’s supporters could also be heard singing throughout the game from the Waterfront side of the park. Although they were certainly disappointed by the outcome, they witnessed a fine game that exemplified the Red Stars’ resiliency.


Chicago’s cohesion over a long season
Few expected the Red Stars to reach the NWSL final since they would be missing key players throughout the season. Defender Julie Ertz was injured in the first regular-season game and did not return after the Olympics, where Alyssa Naeher also went down for the season. Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger were away on national team duty as well, with Krueger absent for the playoffs. Mallory Pugh’s absence in the semifinal due to Covid-19 protocols seemed to spell doom. So Chicago’s defense seemed exposed, and their attack appeared to rely on opponent own goals to stay afloat in the standings.

Surprisingly, down the stretch the Red Stars played their best defensively, anchored by ironwoman Sarah Gorden at center back, with Cassie Miller and Arin Wright holding tight and Milazzo stepping up at fullback. Meanwhile the attack saw major contributions from Katie Johnson and Rachel Hill, assisted by Sarah Woldmoe and Wright. Makenzy Doniak nearly equalized at the death, if not for a fine save. At center midfield Morgan Gautrat had perhaps her best season in the league. None of them current national-teamers, the heroes were the NWSL rank-and-file.

Before the game Rory Dames spoke about why Chicago was playing its best in the playoffs, saying that two paths appeared early on, when Ertz went down. The team could choose to “feel sorry for themselves” or to focus on the game plan with the next woman up. Having adopted that mentality early, they were at their most poised when late season absences occurred and were disrupting other teams.

Gautrat said afterward that Dames and DiBernardo were the glue that brought the team together all season. He is the longest-tenured coach in the league by far — the team’s only coach since the league’s inception, in fact. For her part, DiBernardo has started every Red Stars playoff game in their history. In such a turbulent year, those strong roots, as well as the experience of Gautrat, Woldmoe, Kealia Watt, and Danielle Colaprico made the difference in the team’s cohesion and execution under pressure.

Sadly, when Pugh went down at the end of the first half, the next woman up (Colaprico) was not a forward. Doniak was the only attacker left on the bench when DiBernardo was injured in the first ten minutes. Holding off the Spirit proved a task just beyond reach. Truly they battled valiantly and put Washington on the ropes in the last ten minutes, nearly netting an equalizer.

All the Red Stars were sick of finishing second. Nonetheless, they ought to feel some pride in their accomplishments this season and for reaching an NWSL final twice in the last two years (2019 championship game, 2020 Challenge Cup final). Dames indicated that the team will look different next season as players depart in the expansion draft or for personal reasons. But if he’s back tas coach and Gautrat returns in the same form, expect Chicago to be in the playoff mix no matter how much turnover occurs.


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