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.”

2021 NWSL TIMELINE: Amid league failures, players reclaim control

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)

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Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.