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NWSL Ends Its Season of Reckoning With High Hopes and a Worthy Final

2021 has been riddled with scandal and abuse at the highest levels, but the final features two teams whose sporting achievement should be celebrated.

A title match often represents a finish line, the closing of a chapter and the coronation for a select few. Saturday’s NWSL final between the Red Stars and Spirit will certainly feature those aspects, but there's a bit more that comes with the territory to cap a brutal season that was so often derailed by what occurred outside of player control.

Instead, it’s become a year of player empowerment and a year when the lifeblood of the league finally became heard, though the events to make it so were heinous. They resulted in a long-overdue ousting of multiple coaches whose misdeeds and abuse were overlooked or ignored for far too long. They resulted in the resignation of a commissioner whose positive contributions on the business end were undone by neglecting player safety, the matter that should have come before all else. They resulted in a brief regular-season stoppage, with things spiraling to the point where a total reset was required.

NWSL's final will take place in Louisville

In all, some form of scandal, controversy or reckoning has enveloped the vast majority of the league’s 10 clubs. One at the heart of it, the Spirit, will play for the title at Racing Louisville's Lynn Family Stadium. Louisville also faced trauma this season, with its manager being ousted “for cause,” with little in the way of detail emerging beyond that. The match is being staged at its stadium only because of player backlash to the initial plan, a morning local time start in Portland, Ore. (due to the available TV window, noon ET on CBS), that was due to be played on the Thorns’ turf field. If the Spirit win, that means coming to terms with the fact that the owner they have very publicly tried to oust—and who is in the process of selling the team—will raise the trophy, or at the very least go down as a championship-winning owner. It’s become awfully hard to separate all the elements in play from one another and truly celebrate the sport.

The hope for the league is that in 2022 and beyond that no longer proves to be such a difficult and complicated task.

The West Coast additions of Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC should bring elements of glitz and class to NWSL. Angel City, backed by its star-laden ownership group, has already secured the signing of U.S. women's national team star Christen Press (while drawing the ire of the league for tampering with U.S. veteran and Gotham FC midfielder Allie Long). San Diego has landed the highly respected Casey Stoney as its manager, is guided in the front office by Jill Ellis and is kick-starting its project from the ground up. There's brightness even further down the horizon, as in 2024, the newly named Current will open a new $70 million, waterfront stadium in Kansas City to call its own.

Marla Messing, the league’s interim CEO, said Friday, without divulging any figures, that the league extended its partnership with Nike in what is the “most substantial agreement in NWSL history.” Its deal with CBS has also been extended by a year, owing to the pandemic’s derailing the first season of the rights arrangement.

The Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit will play for the NWSL title

And then there’s Saturday’s final itself. The Spirit, and what they’ve had to overcome—the player conflict with ownership, the toxic culture that was able to permeate without consequence for so long, the record of abuse of ex-manager Richie Burke, the club’s being suspended from league governance because of the depths of the issues, the forfeits due to COVID-19—makes for a tremendous story of resilience. They feature some of the sport's brightest talents, from reigning Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman to Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe, to midfield star Andi Sullivan and Ashleys Hatch and Sanchez, with the latter three heading to U.S. women’s national team camp for two friendlies in Australia after the season ends.

There’s Rory Dames’s Red Stars, who have overcome injuries to stalwarts like Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher as they go in search of a title that has proved to be elusive throughout the club's existence. The Red Stars helped foster Mal Pugh’s resurgence, and they’ve been carried by the resolute play of Sarahs Woldmoe and Gorden and the midfield mastery of Morgan Gautrat. (Casey Krueger and Kealia Watt will miss the final, howev

There’s still plenty to celebrate in NWSL, and the final in front of a boisterous crowd on national television will put some of those worthy elements on display. The mission going forward is to ensure that there will be no need to separate the sporting achievement from the toxicity that so overwhelmingly overshadowed and preceded it.

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