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In the 87th minute of a tied NWSL Fall Series match on Sept. 12, the Washington Spirit appeared to be in trouble. The Chicago Red Stars charged down the field and forward Kealia Watt sent a left foot strike above the outstretched hand of Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe.
The ball ricocheted off the horizontal crossbar, but Chicago’s Dani Rhodes was in the perfect position to collect the ball and simply tap it in to give the Red Stars a lead late in the game. Instead, Bledsoe, still flat on the ground, stuck her leg out for the save. The Spirit would go on to win the match, 2-1.
“That save was probably the single most significant moment in the game,” Spirit coach Richie Burke told reporters afterward. “I believe if that one goes in at that time of the match, it’s very difficult for us to get back and pick ourselves up off the floor. They bunker in and make it very, very hard, and we’d be a little bit disheartened at that stage, so Aubrey making that save, there’s not many goalkeepers in the world that make that save. So to say that’s a world-class save is an understatement.”
Bledsoe, in her third season with the Spirit, has become a leader on the team and one of the best players in the NWSL. Last season, the 28-year-old was named the league’s goalkeeper of the year after she started all 24 matches and ranked first in the league with 86 saves.
In November, Bledsoe earned her first call-up to the U.S. Women’s National Team as one of four goalkeepers at training camp. It was the culmination of her lifelong dream. But the accomplishment felt fleeting.
Bledsoe wants more than just an invite.
“I’ve been waiting for a call-in for a long time,” she tells City Paper. “But then at the same time, it’s been almost a year now since that happened, and I didn’t get a call back after. So as gratifying as it was to get the invite, I now want to be a mainstay on the team and there’s still work to be done, and it’s not enough just getting invited. I want to be there and be confident, be a leader on the team and also contribute on the field sometime in the future.”
Bledsoe is one of the Spirit’s three captains along with Andi Sullivan, a national team player, and Tori Huster, who has played with the Spirit since its inaugural 2013 season. With many of the veteran players injured, including Sullivan and Huster, Burke has had to rely on Bledsoe to play an even larger leadership role.
Throughout the NWSL Challenge Cup and the Fall Series, which wrapped up for the Spirit on Sunday, Bledsoe could be heard shouting instructions at her younger teammates, making sure that they were in the right position or giving words of encouragement.
“I feel like I’ve almost turned into a little bit of a coach,” she says. “Like, instead of shouting just kind of directions, I do find myself screaming for tactical things, just because although the youngsters, although they’re very, you know, energetic and they bring exuberance to our play, they don’t have the best technical minds all the time. I feel like they do a lot of running but kind of unnecessarily. So it’s just kind of helping them realize what the opponent’s doing or just adjusting for how they’re playing and defending more efficiently … Sometimes I tell them where to maybe pinch inside or stretch wide, just things like that, more tactical positional things, rather than simple commands.”
The truncated and splintered schedule meant that this season has become a developmental year for clubs, and Bledsoe recognizes that playing four matches against just two teams in the fall doesn’t offer the same challenges as a full NWSL season. Still, she’s noticed her own gradual improvements throughout the season.
The game, in a way, has become easier.
“I’m able to recognize more patterns, the way teams move, the way my defenders move,” Bledsoe explains. “I’m more confident and more relaxed. I used to be, like, mentally drained I feel like after games, because there’s just so much coming at you. And now, it’s slowed down a little bit with more games that I play and more comfort. I can tell I’m better at reading the game.”
She hopes to take that confidence into the rest of the season. The Spirit will play two closed-door, non-televised exhibition matches this month, one against the North Carolina Courage on Oct. 10 and another against collegiate players on Oct. 17, as a way to give players the opportunity to compete before wrapping up for the year. It’s unlikely that Bledsoe will play in the latter. Exit interviews are set to follow after, and the players will go their separate ways for the holidays.
Bledsoe intends to stay in the area until at least Thanksgiving and train on her own or with a few teammates before returning to her hometown of Cincinnati. She made a decision unrelated to the pandemic that she would not be returning to play in Australia for Sydney FC like she has for the past two seasons. The national team is expected to name its training camp roster later this month, and Bledsoe and her coach have high hopes that she’ll be on it.
“I’m the biggest advocate for [U.S. Women’s National Team coach] Vlatko [Andonovski] getting her into that national team because I think that’s where she belongs,” Burke told reporters. “She’s a really world-class goalkeeper.”
And as for the Spirit, Bledsoe plans to be back next season and beyond.
“I’m definitely happy with the Spirit,” she says. “They’ve been good to me personally, and I’m really excited to be a part of what we’re building. I have no plans to leave anytime soon.”