With 12 teams vying for six playoff spots, the Washington Spirit was in control of its postseason fate on National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Decision Day Oct. 15. Win, and the squad would have been guaranteed a quarterfinal game on home turf. Lose, and it would be the Spirit’s last game of the 2023 season.
Yet, despite a valiant effort in the face of several unlucky calls, the Washington Spirit (7-6-9) fell 0-1 to the North Carolina Courage (9-7-6). In a closely contested league, the loss cemented Washington’s fate as it fell to eighth place and below the six-place playoff cutoff line for the first time this season. This result marked the second consecutive year the Spirit has not reached the postseason since hoisting the NWSL Championship in 2021, despite having arguably one of the best talent pools in the league.
Following the loss, the Spirit announced its decision to fire Head Coach Mike Parsons on Oct. 17. The Spirit had hired the former manager of the Netherlands women’s national team and Portland Thorns FC to rebuild the side after a disastrous 2022 campaign that saw Washington finish second-to-last in the league.
Parsons was suspended from managing the Spirit’s season finale after receiving his third yellow card of the season in Washginton’s penultimate game, a scoreless tie against OL Reign. Assistant Coach Mike Bristol managed the Spirit side through the loss as acting head coach. Tara McKeown, who has anchored Washington’s defense as a right center back all season, was also unavailable due to yellow card accumulation.
Disaster struck in front of 15,479 fans at Audi Field — a 2023 season attendance record — when a VAR review in the 23rd minute elevated an initial yellow card shown to star forward Trinity Rodman to a red. Rodman appeared to slip while trying to tackle Courage captain Denise O’Sullivan from behind, tripping O’Sullivan’s ankle with her studs completely exposed. The 21-year-old left the pitch in tears and the Spirit not only had to play a woman down, but without its main offensive threat.
Mere moments after Rodman’s exit, North Carolina quickly capitalized on the chaos when forward Tyler Lussi fired the ball into the net from the far post off of a well-placed cross from midfielder Manaka Matsukubo. Although Matsukubo seemed to be in an offside position, the referee confirmed to reporters at a post-match press conference that the goal stood because a VAR review concluded the no-call “was not a clear and obvious error.”
Spirit captain and goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury said that Rodman’s red card was unfortunate, but it was not the cause of the team’s postseason troubles.
“It wasn’t this game,” Kingsbury said at a post-game press conference. “We’ve played 22 games this season and we’ve conceded late or dropped points here and there. So as much as it sucks, and it definitely made it harder to get a result tonight, we had plenty of opportunities this season. We had the chances even with a red card to get a result today.”
Washington started with a relatively strong 4-1-3 record, a cautious indicator that it had rebounded from its abysmal 3-9-10 season record in 2022. However, the Spirit had a tumultuous end to the season, closing out the final ten games of the season with a 2-5-3 record. The Spirit’s deep pool of national talent proved to be a double-edged sword, with the Spirit suffering its worst defeats while seven of its players were absent due to call-ups from their national teams during the World Cup.
Despite the Courage goal, Bristol said he was proud of the Spirit’s ability to adapt to the unpredictable circumstances.
“The players put everything they could to try to get the goal back,” Bristol said. “We had multiple chances to try to do it with some balls in the box that were bouncing around. And I thought the players put everything that they had into it, especially playing down a player.”
The Spirit’s best chance to equalize came in the 38th minute when a cross into the box from forward Ouleymata Sarr in the left wing had players scrambling in front of the goal. Midfielder Paige Metayer beat Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy to the ball, but the Courage defense made a goal-line save as the ball rolled toward the net, ultimately denying the Spirit an equalizer.
“I knew that we would have to sit, be a little bit more organized and patient waiting for our opportunities to counter,” Kingsbury said. “We had those opportunities. I think we even had some of the better opportunities.”
“Besides their goal, which was debatably offside, we really kept them away from creating anything dangerous, so I was really proud of the way we fought,” Kingsbury added.
Although the Spirit’s last-ditch efforts to turn the tide of its final game were not enough to clinch a postseason spot, Kingsbury and forward Ashley Hatch expressed that, unlike last year, the team will not have to rewrite the entire script. Instead, the Spirit will look to use the offseason to improve on the systems it has already started to build.
“This league is so competitive and the gaps between each team are so small that every point matters,” Hatch said. “So I just think it’s on the player side just to be a little bit more disciplined. Keep improving, keep improving relationships on the field.”
After reports of pervasive abuse perpetrated against the Spirit players and female front office staff surfaced, disgraced owner Steve Baldwin sold the team to Y. Michele Kang in March 2022, who has since invested in training programs that are tailored toward the specific health and physiological needs of women athletes.
“This is the first year that we’ve had all of these tools, so I think it’s just we’re going to keep growing, just keep getting better and fine-tuning all the support that we do have,” Hatch said.
Kang’s level of investment has not only raised the standard for the Spirit but for the entire league, according to Kingsbury.
“We’re building something here that is going to have deep roots, something that’s built to last, and anything that is worth something takes a while to build a strong foundation,” Kingsbury said. “We have the tools for success. We are supported, probably the most in the league. So that just gives us so much hope for the future that we will be back and we’ll be better than this year.”