Spirit wins NWSL title 2-1 in extra time over Red Stars

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Kelley O’Hara scored in the 97th minute and Washington Spirit won the National Women’s Soccer League championship with a 2-1 victory in overtime over the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday.

The championship game ends a tumultuous ninth season for the league. Spirit had to lose a few games this season due to coronavirus problems. The team played under interim coach Kris Ward after Richie Burke was fired in September for violating the league’s anti-harassment policy.

It was the first league championship for Spirit, which advanced to the semifinals with a 2-1 victory over second-seeded Olympics Reign.

O’Hara, a defender who was on the U.S. national team that won the World Cup in 2015 and 2019, scored his first goal of the season. Her game-winning header in the back came after a pass from Trinity Rodman, NWSL Rookie of the Year.

Mallory Pugh, who did not play in the semifinals due to the COVID-19 protocol, started for the Red Stars but left the match in the first half break with an apparent injury. Shortly after his departure, Rachel Hill scored a cross from Arin Wright to give the Red Stars a 1-0 lead. Chicago beat the top-seeded Portland Thorns 2-0 in the semifinals.

Earlier in the match, Chicago’s Vanessa DiBernardo was ruled out with an injury.

Despite their struggles, the Spirits list included Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch and Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe as well as Rodman, who is the daughter of former NBA player Dennis Rodman.

Rodman almost leveled the score after 61 minutes with a superb strike from the right. But Spirit even pulled a short time later when captain Andi Sullivan made a penalty kick that hit Chicago goalkeeper Cassie Miller.

Chicago had a chance in the second extended period on Makenzy Doniak’s shot, but it was deftly stopped by Bledsoe.

Matches were canceled and players protested during the season after North Carolina coach Paul Riley was accused by two former players of sexual harassment and coercion, accusations he denied.

Burke’s firing match shortly before Riley was fired in the wake of the serious allegations leveled against him by former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. Following these reports, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned, and NWSL and US Soccer commissioned independent external investigations.

The league canceled a weekend of matches and when the game resumed, the players stopped the matches for a moment to gather in a circle in midfield in a quiet show of unity.

Fans at Saturday’s championship game had “Sell the team, Steve” signs referring to Spirit owner Steve Baldwin.

Olympic Reign coach Farid Benstiti was also sacked over the summer following an incident in practice where he was accused of behaving inappropriately.

Next season, the 10-team league expands to 12 teams with the addition of Angel City FC in Los Angeles and the San Diego Wave.

The announced attendance for the championship match at Lynn Family Stadium was 10,360. It was the second time that the title game went to extended playing time.

The game was aired on CBS, the day after Nike announced it had extended its sponsorship deal with the league.

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