With two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal, U.S. women's national team defender Kelley O'Hara is no stranger to the big stage. On Saturday, she added an NWSL championship to her accolades with the Washington Spirit's 2–1 extra-time win over the Chicago Red Stars.
After a tense 90 minutes wasn't enough to decide a champion, O'Hara took it upon herself in extra time in the 97th minute to score the deciding goal. Taking a long, looping cross from Trinity Rodman, O'Hara sent a clinical header across goal to clinch the Spirit's first NWSL title.
With the goal, the 33-year-old became the oldest player to score in an NWSL championship match.
After going winless in three matches against the Red Stars during the regular season, Washington waited until the championship to break through vs. Chicago, doing so on its sixth comeback win of the year.
After a back-and-forth first 45 minutes, the Red Stars struck first just moments before halftime. Five minutes into stoppage time in the first half, Chicago's Arin Wright flew past O'Hara and sent a cross into the box. At the back post, Rachel Hill waited for the pass and headed the chance in for the opening goal.
But the Spirit came out of the halftime break with a vengeance, outshooting the Red Stars 16–2 in the second half.
Rodman came close in the 61st minute with a shot from well beyond the 18-yard box. The 19-year-old forward, the daughter of former NBA star Dennis Rodman, rocketed her chance off the post despite clearly beating Red Stars goalkeeper Cassie Miller.
But the Spirit wouldn't have to wait long to find an equalizer. Washington was awarded a penalty in the 66th minute after Tierna Davidson brought down Spirit winger Tara McKeown inside the penalty area. Andi Sullivan stepped to the spot and snuck her penalty just underneath Miller, who somehow couldn't reach the shot.
Rodman, who was named the NWSL Rookie of the Year on Thursday after recording six goals and six assists in the regular season, dealt with a series of knocks and apparent cramping throughout the second half. But her assist in extra time proved to be crucial after an impressive debut season.
In its first playoff appearance since 2016, the Spirit lost to the Western New York Flash in the last championship to go to extra time. On Saturday, the D.C. side used the extra stanza to its advantage, taking home its first ever NWSL title.
The championship is remarkable considering what the Spirit have been through this season. Coach Richie Burke was suspended and then fired after allegations of verbal and emotional abuse in August, with an investigation also resulting in the club being omitted from league governance. More allegations surfaced regarding owner Steve Baldwin, shedding light on a toxic culture that was allowed to permeate throughout the club.
Baldwin has been pressured by the players to sell the club to minority owner Y. Michele Kang, with Kang herself writing a letter to investors imploring them to force Baldwin to sell the club. Fans have openly displayed banners demanding that Baldwin sell the club as well. What's resulted has been a contentious, public battle, with Baldwin ultimately exploring a sale, but not to Kang. Beyond all of that off-field distraction and scandal, the Spirit had to forfeit two games and were fined $25,000 for a violation of COVID-19 protocols.
"Congratulations to the Washington Spirit on winning your first-ever NWSL championship. Despite a year with no shortage of challenges, you’ve made the District and your country very proud.
Despite all of those challenges, the club went unbeaten after Kris Ward stepped in as manager, fielded the league's top rookie in Rodman, its Goalkeeper of the Year in Aubrey Bledsoe and its Golden Boot winner in Ashley Hatch. And it now fields a legendary group of NWSL title-winners.
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