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Five things about the Washington Spirit winning the 2021 NWSL Championship

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Some thoughts on Trinity Rodman, a year of good health, and condemning ghosts of the past to hell

Nikita Taparia

The Washington Spirit are the 2021 NWSL Champions! You saw it, I saw it, and it’s been documented by photographers, witnesses, and video. No one can say that Andi Sullivan and Kelley O’Hara didn’t score, or that the game went any other way. The players have the trophy, they’re bringing it back to the District. It’s real.

I didn’t want to let the moment slip away, so here are some quick thoughts on the game. No deep dives, just putting what’s floating at the surface out there before I go eat some dinner, while we’re all still 100% in celebration mode.

No more 2016 ghosts

Folks, we have to send some ghosts back to hell, where they belong. Let’s take them down in order:

No more worrying about when three minutes of stoppage time become four!

Did you guys catch the time of Aubrey Bledsoe’s last save? The one where she blocked the ball away from goal and then took it for a walk to the furthest corner of the box before eventually picking it up?

124th minute. The same time Lynn Williams broke so many hearts down in Houston. If this ghost were going to be one we fear any longer, that shot goes in. Today? No problem! Casual moment for someone having a nice afternoon on their birthday.

No more worrying about penalty kicks!

Down 1-0, the Spirit got a penalty kick thanks to Tara McKeown’s persistence. You know, a penalty. In an NWSL final. Those have never gone wrong before, right?

Wrong! They went wrong last time in almost impossibly cruel fashion! And since then, the Spirit have been a pretty wobbly team from the spot ever since, whether it’s regular season play, preseason, Challenge Cup, you name it. This year’s success rate entering today was, across all competitions, 75% (3 for 4), which is an extremely normal and average rate. It’s just that, in the context of Spirit history, you’d love to not have that one miss to help recall the missed shots in 2016’s tiebreaker against the Western NY Flash.

Well, now you don’t have to, because Andi Sullivan converted her spot kick. Cassie Miller may have guessed right, but there was enough power that she couldn’t get low in time, and now the instinctual image that comes to mind on future Spirit penalties can be a goal rather than Sabrina D’Angelo making saves.

An image is worth 1,000 words

We’ll have many more photos by the wonderful Nikita Taparia in the near future, but in the meantime, André Carlisle got one from field level of the whole crew: players, coaches, trainers, and all the fans that made it to Louisville.

A screencap of a spreadsheet is worth...some number of words?

Do you remember the first couple of weeks of September? Covering the Spirit, for me, meant writing about very bad news, and then seeing our site readership go up because of the unfortunate thing in NWSL where the bad times get more attention than the actual soccer. It was all important and valuable to discuss, but it was also unrelentingly heavy, and that’s for someone who wasn’t even directly involved in any of it. I truly can’t even imagine what it was like for the players and staff members.

Something happened within the group, and within individual players, after those forfeits. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to find out more about it as time goes on, but whatever it was, it’s also real-life magic. Look at that run of form. We’ve had pro soccer out here for over 25 years, and we don’t have anything like this. Seven straight wins, 11 unbeaten, and only one of them (that Halloween win over Houston) didn’t carry with it the distinct threat of everything going awry with one loss.

This isn’t a thing that happens! We have our whole lives to point to as evidence. It’s been more than eight years since any local soccer team brought a trophy back to the District, while most of the other local teams have turned D.C. into the District of Champions. The entire run of Spirit history consisted of often being good, but never quite being good enough, and the one time it looked like it might change, it came with the cruelest end to a game this league may ever see.

So back in mid-September, it felt like this just wasn’t going to be the year. The talent was there, sure, but you need circumstances to play along to win it all, and the circumstances were just about as bad as they could be. It’s the kind of situation that ends in “well, maybe next year” rather than thinking about a parade or a celebration at the stadium.

To be here two months later writing about the NWSL Champion Washington Spirit? It just does my head in, is what I’m getting at.

The kid’s pretty good

We’ll have more on the players and this game for sure, but it would be downright silly to not talk about Trinity Rodman’s performance today. She had the assist on the game-winner, obviously, and the pass that helped create the equalizing penalty kick. But more than that, she had the single play that most clearly turned the tone of this game (that 61st minute bullet off the post), and was so much of a problem for Chicago that they resorted to switching their fullbacks to cover her multiple times.

It was all in vain, too, because — despite showing signs of struggling with a persistent problem with back spasms that has been around for months as early as the 20th minute — Chicago simply didn’t have an answer. They dropped off so she couldn’t run in behind, so she tucked into the half-space. They flooded the half-space, so she started posting up out on the right touchline. They stretched wide to account for that, and all the sudden that familiar Red Stars “one single brick” defensive look that Gotham and Portland couldn’t open up started to have some gaps.

This was, in other words, a star performance on the biggest stage. NWSL, for all the talk of the biggest leagues in Europe catching up, is the hardest league to win in on the planet, and in the toughest game of all, Rodman was the player the losing side couldn’t cope with, couldn’t gameplan for.

The sky is truly the limit for this team, and for Rodman in particular.

For your health

A story from this game is simply how beat up Chicago was coming in, and it got worse as the game wore on. They started without Alyssa Naeher, Casey Krueger, Julie Ertz, and Kealia Watt (that’s three USWNT players and a higher-end NWSL starter), and then had to bring Vanessa DiBernardo out in the 13th minute. Mal Pugh came out at halftime, very likely due to injury. Rory Dames said that he’d normally have subbed Rachel Hill out as well, but she soldiered on through a knock until the 79th minute.

The Spirit were certainly missing players, don’t get me wrong. Tori Huster, a bona fide club legend and the beating heart of this team for nine years now, had to stay home after successful surgery to repair her achilles tendon. Bayley Feist and Averie Collins missed the whole season, and Jordan DiBiasi was unavailable for about 90% of it.

Here’s the thing though: that’s the whole list. In terms of player-games missed due to injury, the Spirit on average had just three players unavailable during the regular season (66 player-games missed in 22 games). The number is higher in the playoffs — eleven in three — but it’s still quite low.

This isn’t just a question of available to play vs. unavailable either. The Spirit weren’t just healthier in terms of names on the team sheet; they were fitter in decisive moments in all three playoff games. The Courage ran themselves out in the first hour, and the Spirit dominated the last 50 of that one to an extent rarely seen in an 11v11 game. The Reign took plenty of shots, but were ultimately unable to conjure up the energy to move Washington around enough to avoid the wall of white shirts their attempts kept smashing into.

And today, the game flipped markedly from the moment Rodman fired a long-range rocket off the post. Chicago didn’t wilt so much as they simply run out of gas. The Spirit, meanwhile, never slowed down. They got level on a play where Tara McKeown had to beat Tierna Davidson to the ball, and they won the game because Kelley O’Hara had one more lung-busting run to give.

There are so many angles we can talk about this game from, but one thing we have to acknowledge is that this Washington team is durable and very committed to the “good professional” aspects of soccer that we don’t see. It seems like a very small thing, but those ice baths, healthy meals, and early bed times pay off, and it’s a major factor the story of this Spirit season.