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

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

The championship game concludes a tumultuous ninth season for the league. The Spirit had to give up a few games this season due to problems with the corona virus. 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, who advanced to the semi-finals with a 2-1 victory over second-seeded OL Reign.

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

Mallory Pugh, who did not play in the semi-finals due to COVID-19 protocol, started for the Red Stars but left the game in first-half stoppage time with an apparent injury. Shortly after her departure, Rachel Hill scored on a cross from Arin Wright to give the Red Stars a 1-0 lead. Chicago defeated the best seeded Portland Thorns 2-0 in the semifinals.

Earlier in the game, Chicago’s Vanessa DiBernardo was sidelined with an injury.

Despite their struggles, the Spirit’s roster included Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch and Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe, as well as Rodman, the daughter of former NBA player Dennis Rodman.

Rodman almost evened the game in the 61st minute with a shot from distance that hit the post. But the Spirit pulled even moments later when captain Andi Sullivan scored a penalty that defeated Chicago goalkeeper Cassie Miller.

Chicago got another chance on Makenzy Doniak’s shot in the second extra time, but it was deftly stopped by Bledsoe.

Games 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, allegations he denied.

Burke’s layoff shortly before Riley was fired in the wake of the serious allegations leveled against him by former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. Following those reports, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned and the NWSL and US Soccer ordered an independent outside investigation.

The league canceled a weekend of matches and when play resumed the players paused for a moment to gather in a circle in the midfield in a silent display of unity.

Fans at Saturday’s championship game held signs that read “Sell the team, Steve” in reference to Spirit owner Steve Baldwin.

OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti was also sacked in the summer after an incident at the practice in which he was accused of inappropriate behaviour.

Next season, the league will expand from 10 teams to 12 teams with the addition of Angel City FC in Los Angeles and the San Diego Wave.

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

The game, which aired on CBS, came a day after Nike announced it had renewed its sponsorship deal with the league.

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