By the end of the match that required two extra time periods and two hours of play on the field, Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch did what she’s done all season. Hatch, winner of the 2021 NWSL Golden Boot award given to the season’s top scorer, positioned herself in front of North Carolina Courage’s goal and tracked the ball as her teammate, Trinity Rodman, made a shot attempt that bounced off the hands of Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy. The ball rebounded in front of Hatch, who quickly struck it into the top right corner of the net in the 113th minute of the match.
Hatch’s goal would be the deciding score in the Spirit’s 1-0 win over the Courage in the quarterfinals of the single-elimination NWSL Playoffs, played in front of 5,379 fans, including Basketball Hall of Famer and Trinity’s father, Dennis Rodman, at Audi Field on Sunday. It was the Spirit’s first playoff match and postseason win since 2016. The team will next play OL Reign on Nov. 13 in Tacoma, Washington.
“I kept telling our teammates, ‘It just takes one. It just takes one,'” Hatch told reporters after the match. “I saw Trin on the outside taking their player one on one … and I thought it’s either gonna go in or I’m going to be there for it. And so I was there for her nice low shot … As soon as I saw the ball drop, I knew that that was the one chance we were waiting for.”
The unbeaten streak is happening during a season full of off-field turmoil for the Spirit. The team’s former head coach, Richie Burke, was put on leave and later fired for alleged verbal and emotional abuse toward his players, while fans have demanded that team owner Steve Baldwin sell the team amid a public ownership battle. A large banner with the words “Sell The Team, Steve,” has been visible in the supporters’ section at matches, including at the playoff game on Sunday. The Spirit has lost at least one sponsor, Sandy Spring Bank, and back in September, the team forfeited two matches due to coronavirus protocol violations. The Spirit has managed to turn around the season and, not counting the forfeited matches, has not lost a match since Aug. 7, Burke’s final game as head coach before being replaced by Kris Ward on an interim basis.
“I hope we can all learn from it and keep it going in the coming years,” Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said Sunday when asked to explain the team’s unbeaten streak. “We’ve been insanely talented all year long. So I think it was not necessarily like adding anything, but more subtracting. And what I mean by that is in this period, we’ve got Kris, and [goalkeeper coach Paul Crichton], and [assistant coach Lee Nguyen], great support staff kind of filling some holes. And we’re all, like I said, in this together, everyone has stepped up and just doubling down on our efforts. And we’re not going to let adversity get us down. So I think once we made the change in August, everyone’s been a little bit more laid back. And it really helps when we’ve got a young creative team, like just kind of giving [Ashley] Sanchez, Trinity, Hatchy, the reins and being like, you guys know how to play, go do your thing, and they’ve come up big. So I think it’s just been a good time of everyone just trusting in each other’s abilities, and you’re really seeing us start to play free and play together, and it’s really exciting.”
Bledsoe shined on Sunday in a match that largely became a battle between the teams’ goalkeepers. Bledsoe finished with eight saves for a third straight shutout, while Murphy had 13 saves in a season in which she is leading the league in the category. The thin margin of victory in the NWSL Playoffs has Bledsoe believing that the Spirit will be playing in the championship match later this month.
“It’s just these fine, fine margins, inches really. It comes down to inches,” she said. “And I do believe we’ve got destiny on our side. That always helps. And once you believe in yourself, I think that propels you a little bit forward. And this team definitely has the self belief that we’re going to be there Nov. 20, in Louisville. So that’s really important, and I think that’s gonna propel us there.”
The Spirit may be without its co-captain Tori Huster after the midfielder had to be carried off the field after suffering an unspecified leg injury during overtime on Sunday, but the players head into the week high on confidence. Ward calls his team the “Little Engine That Could” and the Spirit has beaten its next opponent, OL Reign, twice during the regular season.
The players believe they can do something special.
“I think it’s just that belief in each other,” Hatch said. “And it’s that belief, it’s carried us throughout this whole season. I think having these obstacles and having to get through them together, has strengthened us as a team on and off the field. And that is what’s helped us on the field when we face challenges. And so I would just say it’s that belief, and we’ve done it over and over again, and hope we can continue to do that.”