Spirit players celebrate during a match this season Credit: Xavi Dussaq

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There were various points in the Washington Spirit’s 2021 campaign that seemed to spell doom, but Sept. 16 may be the date that sticks out most. On that day, the NWSL announced that the Spirit would be forced to forfeit a second straight game due to violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols. Amid a tumultuous season that had already seen the team’s head coach fired for cause and an ugly public ownership battle, losing six valuable points on the field seemed too much to overcome for a team fighting for its playoff life.

But Spirit veteran and U.S. national team defender Kelley O’Hara had other ideas.

The two forfeits “fired up Kelley O’Hara in a way that I’ve not seen before,” Spirit interim coach Kris Ward said after the Spirit beat OL Reign, 2-1, to advance to the NWSL championship match. “And her entire mentality from that point was—how do I phrase this politely?—‘Forget you guys, we’re going to go on and we’re going to win anyway.’”

That’s exactly what the team has done. 

Following the Spirit’s two forfeits, the team has had eight games, including two playoff matches. The Spirit has won seven of those and tied one. Washington’s most recent victory earned the Spirit a berth in the NWSL championship game, where the team will look to win its first title against the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday, Nov. 20, in Louisville.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a team that has been through more in the last four months than most endure over a decade. It all started with a coaching change. Richie Burke, who multiple players accused of emotional and verbal abuse, was replaced by Ward, who has yet to lose any of his 11 games in charge. The interim boss has overseen an improved defense and brought a much-needed element of stability to the group.

“Once we made the change in August, everyone’s been a little bit more laid back,” Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe said after the Spirit defeated North Carolina in the first round of the playoffs.

Bledsoe has been a major part of the Spirit’s revival—the veteran goalkeeper has been in top form in the second half of the season, especially in a heroic eight-save display against North Carolina that vaulted the Spirit into the league semifinal against OL Reign. 

Ahead of Bledsoe, two key offseason additions in O’Hara and Emily Sonnett have been essential to the team’s defensive turnaround and, perhaps more importantly, their collective mental resilience. It’s no coincidence that the team’s on-field improvement started in August, when the pair returned after winning a bronze medal at the Olympics with the U.S. national team. In Ward’s 11 games in charge, the Spirit has conceded just six goals—an average of .55 per game after conceding 1.2 per game this season under Burke. 

“We’ve improved defensively and [Sonnett] and Kelley both are a big part of that just in terms of the organization of the team,” Ward said.

Further up the pitch, the Spirit have been propelled by two emerging stars in Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman, who each scored against OL Reign to lift their team to the final. At 22 and 19 years old, respectively, the pair looks set to be a fixture for the Spirit and the USWNT moving forward.

“In real time, you’re seeing the metamorphosis of some real superstars,” Ward said.

Having young stars like Sanchez and Rodman certainly helps, as does the continued development of NWSL leading scorer Ashley Hatch, but the crucial factor behind the Spirit’s rise has been its ability to thrive in situations that would make other teams wilt. 

“I think overall the togetherness from adversity is what has propelled us into the final match,” Sonnett said after the OL Reign match. 

Sanchez agreed, adding: “We obviously had a lot of off-field stuff. And I think that brought us closer as a team. Since then we really haven’t had any hiccups and we’ve just been continuously getting better.”

Sept. 16 could have been the date the Spirit’s season effectively ended. Instead, thanks to the strength of the team’s character and its extraordinary resilience, it was only the beginning. 

“Within those next two weeks everyone was like, ‘Yeah we are going to go for it. Yeah, forget you guys, we’re going to do this,’” Ward said. “As difficult and as hectic and crazy as that moment in time was, it really was a galvanizing effect for us.”

On Saturday, it could culminate in a championship.