NWSL comes to the conclusion of its landmark season

Washington Spirit players celebrate after defeating the OL Reign in the semifinals of the NWSL soccer playoffs Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Tacoma, Wash.

Washington Spirit players celebrate after defeating the OL Reign in the semifinals of the NWSL soccer playoffs Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Tacoma, Wash.
Image: AP

In a lot of ways, having the Washington Spirit in the NWSL final is perfect for the league. No matter where the league goes from here, what it becomes, the 2021 season will be viewed as a turning point. While the stories themselves were horrifying, heartbreaking, and infuriating, sunlight is always the best cleanser. Nothing can improve without reconciling its past, and the courage of various players coming forward to make all they had faced public is worthy of everyone’s esteem.

And all of this happened while the players are still without a CBA, and now the league is without a full-time commissioner, thanks to the various stories of workplace abuse, assault, and the dismissal of those in the past from the league that have taken place.

The Spirit were the first to have stories come to light about torturous and damaging working conditions, thanks to former coach Richie Burke. Kaiya McCullough and three other players detailed the abuse and harassment they faced from Burke in August in a Washington Post story, and the Spirit’s front office didn’t handle it well. First in hiring this puke of a human being when there were already complaints from youth players following him that the club dismissed. Then they simply “reassigned” Burke as the story broke, before eventually removing him from the organization, but there was a sense that they knew this was coming and were more interested in ass-covering than making changes. Fans demanded that Steve Baldwin sell his controlling stake in the team, which he has since promised to do.

It is patronizing and minimizing what the Spirit have gone through and where this will all lead to tie Burke’s outing as a monster and departure to on-field results. There are more important things at work here. It is hard to ignore the symbolism, however, of Burke being put in the dumpster he belongs and the Spirit not having lost since, to zoom from out of the playoffs to the 3rd seed, and then the championship final after winning two playoff games. And the two losses that are on their record were due to forfeits thanks to COVID protocols which the Spirit violated and were also fined for. COVID has also hung over this season, somehow making it fit more perfectly that they’re in the final.

They won’t be the only ones in the final having dealt with COVID issues, except their opponent the Chicago Red Stars have that in the present tense. MVP candidate Mallory Pugh missed the semifinal and isn’t likely to participate in the final thanks to being on the COVID list. Pugh is rumored to be an anti-vax dolt, and her positive test came after she was out with boyfriend Dansby Swanson celebrating the Braves World Series win days before the Red Stars’ trip to Portland. Pugh also pulled out of the next two USWNT friendlies in Australia, where again the rumor has been that Australia’s enforcement of all visitors being vaccinated will keep her from participating.

Strictly on the field, the Spirit could not be in better…spirits? Fuck, I did that, didn’t I? Five Hail Marys and five All Fathers. They’ve won six in a row and seven of their last eight, including their playoff wins over North Carolina and OL Reign. And they’ve done it in various ways. Their first-round win over the Courage was a bonkers, back and forth, lacrosse-style trading of possession and chances where no one could really find the net until extra time. Their semifinal win over OL Reign was something of the opposite, ceding a ton of possession to the Reign, getting by on some luck with some wonky finishing from their opponents, and then striking on the counter. Step up, Trinity Rodman:

Also, it never hurts to have a moment of brilliance to win it, thanks to Ashley Sanchez.

The Spirit will get to see a banged-up Red Stars team Saturday in Louisville. Not only is Pugh unlikely to play, and she’s most of the Red Stars attack, but Kelia Watt probably won’t play either, thanks to a knee injury suffered against Portland in the semifinals. They haven’t had Julie Ertz or Alyssa Naeher since the Olympics. The Red Stars were able to overcome the Thorns anyway thanks to a couple of thunderbastard goals…

…and then their usual smothering defending that starts in midfield thanks to the “You Shall Not Pass!” play from Morgan Gautrat.

And that’s how Saturday shapes up. Washington is capable of taking the game to Chicago, which isn’t really interested in doing so both thanks to tactics and the personnel they have on hand and available, especially if Pugh and Watt don’t play. It could be as simple as whether Sanchez, one of the league’s best attacking midfielders, can find space between or around Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo, and if she can’t can Rodman create enough havoc out wide. The Red Stars were happy to close off the middle against the Thorns and let Sophia Smith see what she could do on her own out wide in the semifinal, and we could see a repeat of that.

It’s hard to ignore the arc of the Spirit this season, removing the giant, gross toad of a coach and then ripping off a streak that has them on the brink of a championship when freed of him. However cynically you might view such a thing, the league would want to use it as an example as well in the future. Hopefully, it’s a metaphor for what comes next for the NWSL as well. 

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