The Washington Spirit, having overcome endless challenges on the field and off in 2021, did it once again, beating the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in the 2021 NWSL Championship. After falling behind on a Rachel Hill goal just before halftime, the Spirit produced their sixth comeback win of 2021 thanks to a penalty kick from Andi Sullivan, setting the stage for USWNT veteran Kelley O’Hara to score an extra time winner on an assist from Trinity Rodman.
The Spirit, fielding an unchanged team after beating OL Reign in the semifinal last week, had to fend off some early Chicago pressure. However, early chances at both ends were few and far between, with the game’s first dangerous shot not coming until the 25th minute. Katie Johnson’s effort after the Spirit couldn’t work a corner clear forced Aubrey Bledsoe into a diving save, which turned out to be her only stop of the first half.
At the other end, the Spirit grew into the game, with Emily Sonnett heading a 31st minute corner just barely wide. Trinity Rodman’s cross for Tara McKeown gave Chicago a scare in the 37th minute, only for the latter to float her shot onto the roof of the net.
Washington picked their way through the Red Stars structure in typical fashion just before halftime, but after good work from McKeown, Rodman — having shaken a defender to open up a shooting window — fired right at Cassie Miller.
Just as the Spirit were finding their stride, they were caught cold by a Chicago goal. With Mal Pugh on the touchline with a knock that would require a substitution at halftime, the Red Stars moved the ball up the left side. Arin Wright froze Kelley O’Hara before whipping a cross to the back post, where Rachel Hill arrived before Tegan McGrady to bundle the ball over the line with virtually the last touch of the half.
Washington began holding possession for long spells to start the first half, but for 15 minutes had to settle for blocked shots. However, a 61st minute sequence saw them lull the Red Stars to sleep before Sam Staab broke some lines with a pass to Rodman tucking in from the left. Rodman had only one thing in mind, crushing a shot that beat Miller only to crack off the post.
That moment seemed to spark the Washington attack. Rodman headed wide a minute later, while Dorian Bailey’s shot through traffic dribbled wide in the 64th minute. Rodman then beat three players but fired right at Miller as the Spirit were beginning to find space attacking the Red Stars’ right flank.
The pressure paid off in the form of a penalty kick: Rodman crossed for McKeown in the middle, and she just barely beat Tierna Davidson to the ball, with the USWNT defender stepping on her foot. Referee Tori Penso pointed to the spot, and captain Andi Sullivan managed to put enough power on her 67th minute penalty to sneak it under Miller and level the score.
Washington were fully awake, and three minutes later, halftime substitute Julia Roddar picked McKeown out with a cross from the left that missed by a foot. Rodman’s mismatch saw Chicago eventually bring Wright over to her side, but she created another chance in the 84th, only for Ashley Sanchez’s falling effort to go wide.
Extra time was required, and the Spirit kept hammering away at Chicago. The breakthrough arrived, but not from an obvious source. Rodman moved into space on the left touchline before bending in a cross to the far post, where O’Hara made up for being beaten on the Chicago goal, storming into the area before adroitly floating her header across goal, tucking it neatly inside Miller’s right-hand post in the 97th minute.
Chicago adopted a kitchen sink approach to the final 15 minutes, and gave the Spirit a scare when Davidson’s shot from distance clipped Sullivan and briefly wrong-footed Bledsoe, only for the NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year to recover and save.
Just as Washington started to seem like they were settling the game down, an attempted header from Sonnett skipped off her head and suddenly, Makenzy Doniak was in behind. Doniak kept her shot low under pressure from Sam Staab, but Bledsoe — facing only her second challenge since halftime — came up with one last big stop, reacting sharply to save without giving up a rebound.
Despite the relentless Red Stars push to get level, Washington held on, ending an absolutely unbelievable season by lifting the NWSL Championship trophy for the first time ever.
Washington Spirit 2 (Sullivan 67pen, O’Hara 97)
Chicago Red Stars 1 (Hill 50+)
After extra time
Spirit (433): Aubrey Bledsoe; Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady (Julia Roddar 46); Andi Sullivan (C), Ashley Sanchez (Taylor Aylmer 88), Dorian Bailey (Paige Nielsen 119); Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch (Saori Takarada 116), Tara McKeown (Anna Heilferty 74)
Chicago (4231): Cassie Miller; Tatumn Milazzo (Bianca St. Georges 91, Nikki Stanton 116), Sarah Gorden, Tierna Davidson, Arin Wright; Sarah Woldmoe, Morgan Gautrat; Rachel Hill (Alyssa Mautz 79), Vanessa DiBernardo (C) (Makenzy Doniak 13), Mal Pugh (Danny Colaprico 46); Katie Johnson
Spirit - Roddar 101
Chicago - None