- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Washington Spirit’s 2021 season can be split into two.

The first portion was arguably as bad as any professional sports team will have this decade. On Sept. 16, the Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League were below .500, having just forfeited their second game of the season due to violating COVID protocols.

In addition to the challenge of forfeiting two games, the organization was involved in a much more serious scandal in August and September following abuse and harassment accusations against the team’s coach, who was suspended and later ousted.

But then there’s the second portion of the Spirit’s season, which has led to the team being one win away from an NWSL championship crown to culminate one of the more remarkable turnaround stories in recent sports history.

After that second forfeit, the Spirit have gone undefeated with six wins and two ties. The Spirit went from clawing for an NWSL playoff berth amid scandal to being in the championship match against Chicago on Saturday.

“We obviously had a lot of off-field stuff,” Spirit striker Ashley Sanchez told reporters after the team’s semifinal win on Sunday. “And I think that brought us closer as a team. Since then, we really haven’t had any hiccups and we’ve just been continuously getting better.”

In August, Spirit coach Richie Burke was suspended by the team following reports from The Washington Post of abuse and harassment claims by players and former employees. A month later, he was banned from coaching in the NWSL following an investigation from the league.

The league also fined the Spirit $25,000, and CEO Steve Baldwin resigned in early October.

The team replaced Burke with interim coach Kris Ward, who has yet to lose a game at the helm.

If the abuse scandal wasn’t enough, the squad is also currently without a traditional practice facility.

The Spirit have been practicing at Episcopal High School in Alexandria since mid-October instead of at Audi Field or at Segra Field, D.C. United’s new facility in Loudoun County.

According to The Athletic, the Spirit’s ownership and the United’s brass are in disagreement over the 10-year deal the sides signed in 2019 to give the NWSL franchise use of the two facilities.

The Spirit drew an average of 4,096 for this season’s home games, down from 6,105 in 2019. The 2021 attendance number is seventh among the 10 NWSL teams, with Portland ranking first at 14,391.

Despite the turmoil, the winning streak at the end of the regular season granted Washington its first playoff berth since 2016.

The Spirit defeated OL Reign on Sunday, 2-1, to advance to the title match. Trinity Rodman scored the team’s first goal, while Sanchez scored the game-winner in the 68th minute.

The goal was the seventh of the season for Rodman, who is just 19 years old. The daughter of former NBA star and eccentric personality Dennis Rodman, Trinity Rodman became the youngest player to score an NWSL playoff goal. She was named NWSL Rookie of the Year on Thursday. 

Aubrey Bledsoe, who was named NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year on Thursday, has posted five clean sheets during the team’s winning streak. No game was as important to have Bledsoe in goal than the team’s 1-0 win over North Carolina in the first round of the playoffs, in which the veteran goalie tallied eight saves.

“Once we made the change in August, everyone’s been a little bit more laid back,” Bledsoe told reporters after the win over North Carolina.

The Spirit’s opponent in the title game will be the Chicago Red Stars, who defeated Portland 2-0 in the semifinals. During the regular season, Chicago defeated Washington twice following a 1-1 draw.

“This could be the Cinderella story we’ve been talking about the whole season,” Spirit defender Tegan McGrady told WTTG earlier this week. “We’re not sure anyone, even us sometimes, would have expected to be in the position that we are. But the fact that we’ve come so far, and the fact that we’ve put all adversities to the side and done exactly as we can has kind of been an eye-opening experience for all of us.”

The championship match Saturday in Louisville, Kentucky, starts at noon. 

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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