After a thrilling pair of playoff games last week that yielded two underdog finalists, the NWSL will crown a champion Saturday between the Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars, and it will cap off the most difficult season in the young league's existence.
Little more than a month ago, the National Women's Soccer League was going through a so-called reckoning during which the league simply stopped. The backlash and emotional toll over abuse from coaches -- and the systemic failures that allowed such behavior to go unchecked -- prompted the players to cancel a weekend of games. But ultimately, the soccer had to resume -- to get the NWSL back on track, the games had to continue.
After a season in which the NWSL earned too little attention for its spectacular on-field product and more attention for problems that supporters had long tried to brush aside to protect the league, Saturday's championship is a chance to remind everyone why the NWSL is worth saving through facing its problems and fixing them.
Consider the season-long story of the Spirit. Off the field, the club at the highest levels has been a dysfunctional mess. Coach Richie Burke was accused of abusive and racist remarks toward players and when club owner Steve Baldwin caught wind that journalists were looking into it, he claimed Burke had health problems and gave him a front office job instead of firing him, which prompted the NWSL to step in and ban him.
Meanwhile, an ugly power struggle played out between Baldwin, the majority owner, and Y. Michele Kang, a minority owner. The players joined the fracas, demanding that Baldwin sell the team to Kang, which has yet to yield the desired result. At another point, amid COVID-19 protocol violations, so many Washington players tested positive -- a handful of them reportedly unvaccinated -- that the club was forced to forfeit a pair of games.
It certainly wasn't how anyone would map out a championship season, and yet the Spirit players persevered thanks to their flair and hunger on the pitch. Look no further than breakout (and NWSL Rookie of the Year winner) Trinity Rodman, who made good on her promise before the season to make a name for herself by adding more creativity to her game.
Ashley Hatch, a player who has sat on the USWNT's periphery for years, enjoyed her breakout season, winning the Golden Boot this year with 10 goals in 20 starts. Another player in the USWNT mix, Andi Sullivan, reached a new level this year, as did goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. Up and down the roster, Spirit players stepped up and made strides despite the chaos happening around them.
As Rodman put it after the regular season: "Soccer has been our outlet for everything. We're motivated more than anything. We want to win so bad."
By contrast, the Red Stars have endured their own hardships to reach the final, but of the more expected variety. For instance, they had to face a heavy favorite, the Portland Thorns, in the semifinal in Portland, and they had to do it without midfielder Julie Ertz (injured), goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (injured), forward Mallory Pugh (COVID-19) and while losing forward Kealia Watt before the half-hour mark. Yet, they were the better team on the day.
This season, Morgan Gautrat (nee Brian) rediscovered the form that put her on the USWNT's World Cup-winning squad years ago, and center-back Sarah Gorden has put in a Best XI performance, playing every minute this season and anchoring the Red Stars' defense.
On paper, the Red Stars look to have the upper hand in this final match-up. In three meetings this year, the Red Stars have won two, with the other a draw. The latest came in August, a 3-1 win for the Red Stars. But the Red Stars' lingering question marks around Pugh and Watt, plus the Spirit's recent form, set up an unpredictable showdown. While NWSL script-writers may have picked a different final, there is no clear favorite here, which makes it all the more enticing.
Indeed, the on-field product has never been the NWSL's problem, and the NWSL championship this Saturday has the potential to be a top-tier display of soccer -- early kickoff time notwithstanding. The players in the league are some of the best in the world, and their ability to perform at the highest level despite the subpar circumstances is nothing short of impressive.
It raises the question: if the players can spend so much time and energy trying to address off-field problems and still perform well, how much better would the NWSL be if it cleaned up all of its messes? It's probably no coincidence that since Burke was ousted from the Spirit, the team hasn't lost a game (forfeits aside) and they've played their best soccer all year.
Meanwhile, in Portland, the epicenter of the Paul Riley ordeal, the players have struggled since the revelations that owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson protected Riley's career and chose to quietly handle the accusations against him. They went 1-1-4 and crumbled in the semifinal, a far cry from the 10-game unbeaten streak they enjoyed midway through the season en route to winning the NWSL Shield.
Indeed, through no fault of the players, there have been reasons to doubt the NWSL's self-proclaimed status as the best women's soccer league in the world. The best league, for instance, wouldn't let a coach accused of predatory behavior remain employed. It's even more galling that the Thorns -- widely viewed as the NWSL's flagship club -- were at the heart of the controversy.
The best league wouldn't wait several years before hiring a commissioner, Lisa Baird, only to see that commissioner resign in disgrace after a year and a half because she ignored player requests to re-investigate Riley's behavior. And the best league wouldn't schedule a championship game at 9 a.m. PT only to move it to a new venue, on relatively short notice, after players complained. (Though the time slot in Louisville, noon ET, remains.)
But that's been the NWSL's story this season.
Still, even after the league sorts out all of its problems -- a long and difficult process that will extend far beyond the 2021 season -- it needs star players and competitive games if it wants to be taken seriously as a frontrunner for "best league" once again. Thankfully for the NWSL, that's exactly where the focus will be during Saturday's NWSL championship: on the players, who have always been the best thing about the NWSL.