If you had told me last year the Washington Spirit would be crowned 2021 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Champions, I would have called you crazy. And that was even before some team members began to allege a few months ago that the team’s coaching staff and management were racist and misogynistic.
Last week, Washington won its first championship since the league’s founding in 2012. The feat was one of the most impressive in U.S. sporting history, not only because of the fierce competition the team faced on the field but also because of the myriad obstacles the players confronted off of it.
Heading into the 2021 season, the Spirit’s prospects were limited. Since 2016, the team had struggled to finish a season above mediocrity and often failed to make the playoffs. This year, that uncertainty only worsened. Its roster was young, and its turnover rate was high — including the losses of its national team powerhouses Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle.
Even my expectations were modest. They were further dampened this April when the Spirit placed fourth out of five teams in the East Division of the 2021 Challenge Cup, which preceded the regular season. Even the beginning of its regular season, which yielded a record of 6-5-5, was mediocre.
The turning point for Washington came during the unlikeliest of times. Emboldened by the brave testimony of former player Kaiya McCullough in The Washington Post in August, more players courageously broke their silence on their head coach’s verbal and emotional abuse. Corroborating their accounts, a series of off-the-field scandals erupted, exposing the misogynistic and racist culture that pervaded the team’s management and coaching staff.
Former Head Coach Richie Burke emotionally abused players, players said. The front office’s toxic workplace culture, which included using degrading nicknames for female players, was exposed. Players demanded accountability from owner Steve Baldwin — who was complicit in the abuse scandals — in a public ownership dispute. The players, coerced into silence for nearly three years, fiercely confronted this onslaught while still excelling on the field.
With every new obstacle, the Spirit players never faltered. If anything, the turmoil bolstered their tenacious spirit. Miraculously, after forfeiting a pair of games in early September because of a COVID-19 outbreak, Washington went undefeated, defeating several competitive teams for a playoff spot. The players’ dogged determination was on full display in the postseason, too, as they edged out the North Carolina Courage in the quarterfinals and came from behind to upset the OL Reign in the semifinals.
The Spirit’s resilience carried them through the NWSL Championship final. When Rachel Hill of the Chicago Red Stars scored the first goal minutes before halftime, I was not worried. I knew Washington would fight for every possession and equalize the game. That’s who the Spirit players are: fighters.
Surely enough, off a perfectly executed penalty shot by Andi Sullivan and an overtime header from Kelley O’Hara, Washington came from behind to win a championship no one had ever thought possible.
After the players lost everything, they reclaimed their joy. In watching the team celebrate its goals, it is clear they play for themselves — and also for each other.
Even after shattering league expectations, the players sent a clear statement they are not done yet. In a USWNT friendly against Australia last Friday, NWSL Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch brought her fighting spirit to the international stage when she scored only 24 seconds into the game. Spirit teammates Andi Sullivan, Emily Sonnett and Ashley Sanchez — who made her national team debut — joined Hatch in the resounding 3-0 victory.
The future is also bright for 19-year-old Trinity Rodman. Voted NWSL Rookie of the Year, the youngster embodies Washington’s relentless temperament, tallying 36 shots on target, seven goals and seven assists this season.
Washington’s triumph was nothing short of remarkable. But the Spirit’s journey to the title should never have been so onerous for the athletes. We can celebrate the tenacity and courage of the players, but we cannot glorify their struggle and accept the circumstances surrounding their fight.
The NWSL must use this offseason to meet the demands of the NWSL Players Association and fix its issues with verbal and emotional abuse. The most courageous players in American sports deserve a league that is receptive to their demands for fair treatment.
Carrie McDonald is a sophomore in the College. The Equalizer appears in print and online every other week.