Washington Spirit wins 2021 NWSL championship (video highlights)

2021 NWSL Championship: Washington Spirit captain Andi Sullivan celebrates after scoring the equalizer on a penalty kick
Jamie Rhodes USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Spirit are NWSL champions.

Following a season of turmoil and a reckoning over player safety and treatment in the NWSL, the Spirit defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 (extra time) to win the 2021 NWSL Championship Final at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky.

While the Washington Spirit controlled the stats sheet, it was Chicago that found the back of the net first.

After Mallory Pugh – who missed the Red Stars’ semifinal win due to Covid-19 protocols – went down with an injury and left the field, the Red Stars made the most of the dying seconds of the first half. Defender Arin Wright crossed the ball to Rachel Hill, who headed it past Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe.

Pugh – who did not practice with her team for 10 days as a result of league Covid protocols – did not return for second half and was replaced by sub Danielle Colaprico.

In addition to Pugh, the Red Stars have had plenty of other roster challenges this season. USWNT players Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher are currently recovering from long-term injuries, while Casey Krueger (illness) and Kealia Watt (injury sustained in semifinal) both missed the final.

In the second half, Spirit forward Trinity Rodman – who was named 2021 Rookie of the Year on Friday – created opportunity after opportunity, including this beautiful shot that hit the post:

“I think that’s actually where [Washington] came into the game,” Red Stars head coach Rory Dames said of Rodman’s post shot. “That kind of rattled the group.”

Rodman’s rookie NWSL season caught the attention of U.S. women’s national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski. The 19-year-old – who has yet to record a senior national team cap – was invited to join the USWNT for its upcoming friendlies in Australia, but declined the opportunity according to Andonovski.

The Spirit finally got on the board in the 67th minute.

After Red Stars defender Tierna Davidson was called for a foul against Tara McKeown, it was Spirit captain Andi Sullivan who stepped up to take the penalty.

It wasn’t the most beautiful goal, but it counted just the same. Red Stars goalkeeper Cassie Miller picked the correct side, but Sullivan’s shot trickled below the hands of the diving keeper.

With regulation ending in a 1-1 tie, the 2021 NWSL final headed to extra time. In the 97th minute, Rodman lofted a perfect cross-pitch pass to Kelley O’Hara, who headed it past Miller to record her first NWSL goal of the season.

But Chicago wasn’t going to just hand over the trophy. Spirit keeper Bledsoe recorded the save of her career after Makenzy Doniak managed to unleash a point-blank shot (video below). A few minutes later, Red Stars forward Katie Johnson had a beautiful shot that floated just over the goal.

After the game, Bledsoe was named MVP of the 2021 NWSL championship.

Washington Spirit wins 2021 NWSL title following season of adversity

The Spirit’s title win comes following a season filled with adversity. From coach Richie Burke being fired following abuse allegations – to an ongoing power struggle between the team’s owners – to a Covid outbreak that resulted in two forfeited games in September, the Spirit winning the 2021 NWSL title appeared improbable – if not impossible – just weeks ago.

“We kind of just went into playoff mode after we were given those forfeits because we had no other choice,” O’Hara said after the win.

“Sticking together – that’s been our theme since August,” Bledsoe said on the CBS broadcast. “We never quit, we never gave up on each other.”

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O’Hara echoed that sentiment. “The fact that we’re ending [the season] as NWSL season as champions is pretty crazy,” the 33-year-old said. “People have no idea what we’ve all gone through. The resiliency and the perseverance of every single player on this team is pretty incredible.”

The Spirit also didn’t have the smoothest ride through the 2021 NWSL playoffs. Their quarterfinal round match against NJ/NY Gotham FC needed extra time, while they overcame a 1-0 deficit in the semifinal round to book a spot in Saturday’s final.

NWSL Champions by Year

  • 2013: Portland Thorns FC (defeated Western New York Flash 2-0)
  • 2014: FC Kansas City (defeated Seattle Reign FC 2-1)
  • 2015: FC Kansas City (defeated Seattle Reign FC 1-0)
  • 2016: Western New York Flash (defeated Washington Spirit 3-2 on penalty kicks)
  • 2017: Portland Thorns FC (defeated North Carolina Courage 1-0)
  • 2018: North Carolina Courage (defeated Portland Thorns 3-0)
  • 2019: North Carolina Courage (defeated Chicago Red Stars 4-0)
  • 2020: While the NWSL held two tournaments – a summer Challenge Cup and a Fall Series – there was no season championship due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • 2021: Washington Spirit (defeated Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in extra time)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC