To call the Washington Spirit’s season turbulent would be an understatement.
The football team coach was fired after he was accused of verbally abusing his female players. A handful of employees, mostly women, quit amid reports of a toxic work culture. Two of the team’s owners got into a public fight, leading to one promising to sell his stake – but only after players issued a statement urging him to sell. Oh, and two games were forfeited due to a coronavirus outbreak among players.
By comparison, making a playoff semifinal last weekend on a soggy converted baseball field was just another day at work.
“We’re good,” defender Emily Sonnett said after the Spirit defeated star-studded OL Reign 2-1 on Sunday. “Aside from star power and international talent, I don’t think the Spirit gets enough credit.”
The Spirit can take that honor after a satisfying end to a nightmarish National Women’s Soccer League season, with their defeat of the Chicago Red Stars, 2-1, in Saturday’s championship game in Louisville, Ky.
Now Spirit and the rest of the NWSL will look to a future that remains obscure as it grapples with several serious problems.
The league’s first eight seasons were dominated by questions of whether the league could survive where previous attempts at professional women’s football had failed. The ninth tested whether the league would survive an abuse scandal.
Four NWSL head coaches have been fired or quietly left in the past year following several allegations of abusive behavior. One of them, Paul Riley, was accused by a player of coercing her into a sexual relationship. Eight of the league’s ten teams have changed coaches since the start of the season, and anger over the mishandling of abuse reports led to the ouster of the league’s commissioner and top attorney, a weekend postponement with matches and weeks of on-field protests and off-field soul-searching.
When it crowned its champion this weekend, the NWSL was headed by an interim commissioner, and it continued to be the subject of a number of overlapping investigations into the conduct of the league office and some of its teams. There is no timetable for when the investigations could be completed, not even a hint of what they will find and the changes that may result.
Still, a series of overtly positive developments has afforded the NWSL, and its players are hopeful that better days are ahead.
Two new teams, Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave FC, will join next season, expanding the league to 12 teams and into football-crazed Southern California. Los Angeles-based Angel City is backed by high-wattage investors like Natalie Portman and Mia Hamm, while billionaire investor Ron Burkle owns San Diego, which hired former US coach Jill Ellis as its first president. Both teams have already hired experienced coaches.
Not to be outdone, the Kansas City league team owners have announced plans for a new $70 million stadium on the city’s waterfront. When completed, it will be the country’s first football stadium built primarily for a professional women’s team. And soon the league and its players are expected to approve their first collective bargaining agreement, an important step in formalizing the playing and working conditions for players.
In the coming days, however, the league hopes that the focus will be on the present.
The path the Red Stars took to the championship game wasn’t nearly as turbulent as the Spirit’s; they are one of two teams to have the same coach all season. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
“This year has been absolutely insane off the field with everything that has happened,” defender Sarah Gorden told The Equalizer on Thursday. She said the past two years, including the pandemic and the George Floyd murder and the national protests that followed, had been a testament to “how strong the women are in this league, how strong the black women are in this league. ”
To reach the semifinals, the Red Stars defeated the favorite Portland Thorns on the road in front of nearly 16,000 fans. They did it while missing the strong players of the national team, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher, who struggled with injuries all season. They also didn’t have striker Mallory Pugh, who was out of the game due to the competition’s coronavirus protocols.
The finale cut a season off with one disappointing revelation after another. Andi Sullivan, a Washington midfielder, spoke on Friday about “absorbing” the season’s chaos, and her coach, Kris Ward, said the team partially addressed the chaos by viewing the practice and playing fields as refuges away from everything different.
But if the confetti is removed from the Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville after Saturday afternoon’s finals, players will be off the field for months and the NWSL will enter the most sweeping low season in its history.
There will be an expansion draft to execute, a team to sell, coaches to hire, and accusations to investigate.