In N.W.S.L. Season to Forget, One Last Day to Cheer

To call the Washington Spirit’s season turbulent would be an understatement.

The soccer team’s coach was fired after being accused of verbally abusing his female players. A handful of employees, mostly women, quit amid reports of a toxic workplace culture. Two of the team’s owners feuded publicly, leading one to pledge to sell his stake — but only after players released a statement urging him to sell. Oh, and two games were forfeited because of a coronavirus outbreak among players.

By comparison, playing a playoff semifinal last weekend on a waterlogged converted baseball field was just another day at work.

“We’re good,” defender Emily Sonnett said after the Spirit defeated the star-studded OL Reign, 2-1, on Sunday. “Aside from star power and international talent, I don’t think the Spirit get enough credit.”

The Spirit will get that credit, and a satisfying conclusion to a nightmare National Women’s Soccer League season, if they can defeat the Chicago Red Stars in Saturday’s championship game in Louisville, Ky.

Afterward the Spirit and the rest of the N.W.S.L. will look toward a future that remains murky as it grapples with several serious problems.

The league’s first eight seasons were dominated by questions about whether it could survive where previous attempts at women’s professional soccer had failed. The ninth tested whether the league could survive an abuse scandal.

Four N.W.S.L. head coaches were fired or departed quietly in the past year after various accusations of abusive behavior. One of them, Paul Riley, was accused by a player of coercing her into a sexual relationship. Eight of the league’s 10 teams have changed coaches since the beginning of the season, and the furor over the mishandling of reports of abuse led to the ouster of the league’s commissioner and top lawyer, the postponement of a weekend of games and weeks of on-field protests and off-field soul-searching.

As it crowns its champion this weekend, the N.W.S.L. is being led by an interim commissioner, and it remains the subject of a number of overlapping investigations into the conduct of the league office and a number of its teams. There is neither a timetable for when the investigations might conclude, nor even a hint of what they will find and the changes that may result.

Still, a string of overtly positive developments has offered the N.W.S.L. and its players hope that better days are ahead.

Two new teams, Angel City F.C. and the San Diego Wave F.C., will join next season, expanding the league to 12 teams and into soccer-crazed southern California. Angel City, based in Los Angeles, is backed by high-wattage investors like Natalie Portman and Mia Hamm, while billionaire investor Ron Burkle owns San Diego, who hired the former United States coach Jill Ellis as its first president. Both teams have already hired accomplished coaches.

Not to be outdone, the owners of the league’s team in Kansas City have announced plans for a new $70 million stadium on the city’s waterfront. When finished, it will be the country’s first soccer stadium built primarily for a women’s professional team. And soon the league and its players are expected to approve their first collective bargaining agreement, an important step in formalizing the playing and working conditions for players.

For the next few days, though, the league is hoping the focus will be on the present.

The path the Red Stars took to the championship game was not nearly as turbulent as the Spirit’s; they are one of the two teams to have the same coach all season. But that does not mean it was easy.

“This year was absolutely insane off the field with everything that was happening,” defender Sarah Gorden told The Equalizer on Thursday. She said the last two years, including the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd and the national protests that followed, had been a testament to “how strong the women in this league are, how strong the Black women in this league are.”

To get to the semifinal, the Red Stars knocked off the favored Portland Thorns on the road in front of nearly 16,000 fans. They did it while missing the national team stalwarts Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher, who have been battling injuries all season. They also didn’t have forward Mallory Pugh, who sat out the game because of the league’s coronavirus protocols. Pugh could miss the final, too; her status remained unclear as of Friday.

For casual fans tuning into the final, then, the game is likely to be decided by players they may not have heard of, mirroring the changing of the guard that is under way with the national team, where Carli Lloyd has retired and a number of the team’s players, including Megan Rapinoe, are nearing the ends of their career. Instead, on Saturday they will see is the Washington’s Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman, the league’s rookie of the year, and Chicago’s Gorden, all of whom were named among the league’s best 11 this season.

What they can offer the league and its fans, for at least one day, is a respite from a season filled with one disappointing revelation after another. Andi Sullivan, a Washington midfielder, spoke on Friday about “soaking up” the chaos of the season, and her coach, Kris Ward, said the team dealt with the chaos in part by looking at the practice and playing field as a sanctuaries away from everything else.

But as the confetti is cleared from Louisville’s Lynn Family Stadium after the final on Saturday afternoon, players will step away from the field for months, and the N.W.S.L. will enter the most consequential off-season in its history.

There will be an expansion draft to conduct, a team to sell, coaches to hire and allegations to investigate.

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