This Saturday, the Spirit are focused on the task at hand, as they take on the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Championship (12 p.m. on CBS). Coined the “team of destiny” by goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe after their first-round playoff win over North Carolina, Washington’s players said during Friday’s news conference that their focus is to win the franchise’s first league title.
“I feel like we’ve been embracing that all year because every time something doesn’t go our away, which a lot of things have not gone our this year, we’ve just been performing, keep showing up every day and just keep saying ‘it is meant to be,'” striker Ashley Hatch said.
It will be Washington’s second appearance in the championship game after losing in penalty kicks in 2016 to the Western New York Flash. This time around, the Spirit are riding high on an eight-game unbeaten streak, which includes two playoff wins. Ashley Sanchez’s daring chip shot in the 68th minute helped Washington knock out No. 2 OL Reign 2-1 in the semifinals.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 14, 2021
While there was doubt about how the team would perform following the removal of former coach Richie Burke, interim coach Kris Ward said it was the fuel the players needed to hit an extra gear.
“I think people have kind of leaned into that chaos and mentality, and I think that was a big turning point for us this season. That’s when we kind of started this final push,” captain Andi Sullivan said.
As Washington remains unstoppable, Chicago has also been unbeatable. The Red Stars defeated top-seeded Portland to get to the championship game and have shut out four of their last five opponents. They also feature loads of experienced players, including U.S. women’s national team stars Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz, Tierna Davidson and Mallory Pugh.
In the three games this season against Chicago, Washington has lost twice and drawn once but all of those matches were before the coaching change. Ward said he does not plan to make huge personnel changes to combat Chicago. Instead, the Spirit will look to play its offensive style and adjust as the game progresses.
“We’ve had to adjust and adapt during a lot of the games,” Ward said. “All the games leading up [to the championship] has helped prepare everyone to be able to change in game if there are things that need to happen.”
Everyone outside of midfielder Tori Huster (ruptured Achilles tendon) is good to go for Saturday. Washington’s offensive weapons were recently rewarded for their outstanding play throughout the year. Hatch, who had already captured the Golden Boot award, was named to the NWSL’s Best XI First Team. She was joined by striker Trinity Rodman, who was named Rookie of the Year, after the 19-year-old scored six goals and added six assists in her first professional season.
Under Ward, the Spirit transformed its defense, thanks to a lot of player input. Since returning to the field after two COVID-19-related forfeits, Washington has collected five shutouts in eight games. Bledsoe’s efforts in goal led to her receiving her second straight Goalkeeper of the Year award.
One person who has a special tie to bringing a championship home to D.C. is Sullivan, who grew up Lorton, Virginia, and played with multiple youth soccer teams in the region. The midfielder recalled heading to RFK. Stadium as a young girl to see her favorite player, Mia Hamm, with the Washington Freedom of the defunct Women’s United Soccer Association, and in later years, seeing the Spirit at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Maryland.
The Freedom are the last D.C.-based women’s professional soccer team to win a championship after winning it all in 2003. After the year her teammates, members of the organization and its fan base have had to endure, Sullivan said she agrees with her teammate Hatch in saying, “Why not us?”
“I would be overjoyed to bring that first championship back home,” Sullivan said. “Hopefully, I don’t allow myself to think about it too much. But we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”