Red Stars, Spirit each vie for 1st title in franchise history in unexpected NWSL final

November 19, 2021
Red Stars, Spirit each vie for 1st title in franchise history in unexpected NWSL final
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With the National Women’s Soccer League championship match on the horizon, history has and will be made for the Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit.

The Red Stars overcame top-seeded Portland Thorns to earn a berth in the final, while the Spirit paved their way to the title game by defeating second-seeded OL Reign.

In addition, both teams will be vying for their first NWSL title in their respective franchise history.

Each squad includes a Canadian, as Chicago features reserve defender Bianca St Georges of St-Charles-Borommée, Que., while Devon Kerr of Barrie, Ont., serves as a backup goalkeeper for Washington.

The finale, set for noon ET on Saturday, will be the first time the two sides have met since Aug. 1. The Red Stars comfortably took the season series, sporting a 2-1-0 record against the Spirit.

Red Stars riding high

Fourth-place Chicago (11-5-8) went 4-2-1 in the final two months of the regular season despite losing key defender Julie Ertz and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to major injuries.

The Red Stars also missed eventual MVP runner-up Mallory Pugh for their semifinal victory over the Thorns, as she was in COVID-19 protocol.

In what was yet another a stellar year for Portland and Canadian soccer legend Christine Sinclair — who won the NWSL Shield as the top side during the regular season — the Red Stars surprisingly managed to upset the favourites.

WATCH | Red Stars shut out Thorns to advance to NWSL title game:

Red Stars advance to NWSL championship with win over Thorns

Katie Johnson and Sarah Woldmoe each scored as Chicago Red Stars defeated Christine Sinclair’s Portland Thorns 2-0. 0:58

Despite being outshot by a startling 21-5 margin in their 2-0 win over Portland on Saturday, the Red Stars leaned on a firm back-line in order to secure a second consecutive trip to the NWSL title game.

“Resiliency is actually one of our words for the year,” Red Stars head coach Rory Dames said after the semifinal victory. “One of the main words that we built the culture here off of if you go back to the early years here with the teams we had.

“So, the group bends but they don’t break. When they’re on the field and they cross the line, there is a high level of belief for one another. They know their roles, they play within themselves.”

Though her status remains a question mark, if Pugh can return for the final the Red Stars are sure to pose a stiffer challenge for a Spirit team that wasn’t able to figure them out during the regular season.

Spirit aim to further defy odds

The Spirit have endured adversity of their own, with the team having gone through a harassment investigation that led to the firing of coach Richie Burke, and CEO Steve Baldwin stepping down from his role at the request of the players.

In addition, the team was dealt the blow of two forfeited games in September due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the squad.

Despite a handful of speed bumps, they find themselves with an opportunity to defy the odds.

Washington enters the title game looking to capitalize on its first trip back to both the playoffs and final since 2016, when it fell to the Western New York Flash.

WATCH | Ashley Sanchez seals Spirit’s ticket to NWSL title game:

Ashley Sanchez sends Washington Spirit to NWSL championship

Washington Spirit defeats OL Reign 2-1 and advances to the National Women’s Soccer League championship game. 0:21

Led by the league’s leading scorer Ashley Hatch and anchored by 2019 goalkeeper of the year Aubrey Bledsoe, Washington (11-6-7) has been on a roll, closing out the regular-season 5-2-1 in its last eight games.

Rookie of the Year finalist and daughter of Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman, Trinity Rodman — who at 19 years old is the youngest player to score in these playoffs — has also made her presence felt by tallying seven goals, adding six assists this season.

Despite falling behind 1-0 early in the semifinal to the Reign, the Spirit quickly responded with a 12th-minute goal from Rodman, later securing a result through an outstanding finish from Ashley Sanchez to claim a 2-1 victory.

Regular season performance does not always equate to playoff success, and in this case the Spirit will be looking to prove it by finally topping the Red Stars when action gets underway at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky.

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