To call Washington Spirit’s weather turbulent would be an understatement.
The coach of the football team was fired after being accused of verbally abusing his female players. A handful of employees, mostly women, have quit amid reports of toxic workplace culture. The two team owners quarreled publicly, leading one to pledge to sell his stake – but only after the players issued a statement urging him to sell it. Oh, and two games were forfeited due to the coronavirus outbreak among players.
By comparison, playing the playoff semifinals on a waterlogged converted baseball field last weekend was just another day at work.
“We are good,” said defender Emilie Sonnet on Sunday after beating star-studded OL Reigns 2-1. “Apart from the star power and international talent, I don’t think Spirit gets enough credit.”
Spirit will get that credit, and a satisfying conclusion to a nightmare National Women’s Soccer League season, if they can beat the Chicago Red Stars in Saturday’s championship game in Louisville, Ky.
Later, Spirit and the rest of the NWSL will look to a future that remains unclear, plagued by a number of serious problems.
The league’s first eight seasons were dominated by questions about whether it could survive after previous attempts at women’s professional football had failed. Ninth tests whether the league can survive the abuse scandal.
Four NWSL head coaches have been fired or gone quietly over the past year following various allegations of abusive behavior. One of them, Paul Riley, was accused by a player of forcing her to have sex. Eight of the league’s 10 teams have changed coaches since the start of the season, and the uproar over the mishandling of reports of abuse led to the ouster of the league’s commissioner and top lawyer, postponing a weekend of games. Gone and the end of the week—field protests and off-field soul-searching.
As its champions are crowned this weekend, the NWSL is being led by an interim commissioner, and remains the subject of several overlapping investigations into the league office and the operations of many of its teams. There is no timetable for when the investigation might end, nor is there any indication of what they will find and what changes may result as a result.
Nevertheless, a series of openly positive developments has offered the NWSL and its players hope that better days are ahead.
Two new teams, Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC, will join next season, expanding the league to 12 teams and in soccer-crazed Southern California. Angel City, based in Los Angeles, is backed by high-wattage investors such as Natalie Portman and Mia Haim, while billionaire investor Ron Berkeley is the owner of San Diego, who appointed former United States coach Jill Ellis as its first president. . Both the teams have already hired skilled coaches.
Not to go ahead, the league’s team owners in Kansas City have announced plans for a new $70 million stadium on the city’s waterfront. When finished, it will be the first soccer stadium in the country built primarily for a women’s professional team. And soon the league and its players are expected to ratify their first collective bargaining agreement, an important step in formalizing playing and working conditions for players.
For the next few days, however, the league is hoping the focus will be on the present.
The path the Red Stars worked their way to the championship game wasn’t nearly as turbulent as the Spirits; They are one of two teams to have the same coach throughout the season. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
“Whatever was happening this year was absolutely insane off the field,” defender Sarah Gordon told The Equalizer on Thursday. She said the past two years, including the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd and the national protests that followed, were a testament to “how strong are women in this league, how strong are black women in this league”.
To reach the semi-finals, the Red Stars thrashed favorite Portland Thorns on the road in front of nearly 16,000 fans. He did so by remembering national team legends Julie Ertz and Alyssa Nahar, who have struggled with injuries throughout the season. They also didn’t have Mallory Pugh, who was ruled out of the game due to the league’s coronavirus protocol. Pugh may even miss the final; His condition was not clear till Friday.
For casual fans approaching the finals, the game is likely to be decided by players they may not have heard of, reflecting the ongoing guard change with the national team, where Carli Lloyd has retired. and several players on the team, including Megan Rapinoe, are nearing the end of their careers. Instead, on Saturday they will see Washington’s Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman, the league’s rookie of the year, and Chicago’s Gordon, all of whom were named in the league’s best 11 this season.
What they can offer the league and its fans, at least for a day, is respite from a season filled with one disappointing revelation after another. Washington midfielder Andy Sullivan spoke on Friday about “soaking up” the chaos of the season, and his coach Chris Ward said the team dealt with the chaos by seeing the practice and playground as a sanctuary away from everything else. .
But as confetti is cleared from Louisville’s Lynn Family Stadium after the final on Saturday afternoon, players will be off the field for months, and the NWSL will enter the most consequential off-season in its history.
There will be an expansion draft to operate, a team to sell, coaches to hire and charges to investigate.