The Chicago Red Stars were one win away from clinching their first NWSL championship, but fell at the final hurdle on Saturday with a 2-1 loss against the Washington Spirit. The short-handed Red Stars came to Louisville as slight underdogs. They knew that winning against the in-form Spirit would be a difficult task, but after a valiant performance, they will be disappointed to leave empty-handed. It was a heartbreaking way to lose, with Kelley O’Hara converting from Trinity Rodman’s cross in extra time to secure the win.
“It’s a tough one to swallow...” said Red Stars midfielder Morgan Gautrat, who wore the captain’s armband for most of the match. “It’s been a really long year, and I’m really proud of this team.”
They have had to overcome many obstacles throughout the year, and today was no different. Going into the game, the Red Stars were already without four starters: Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz, Casey Krueger, and Kealia Watt. As mentioned before, this has been a recurring theme throughout the season. However, the injuries in Louisville started to get a bit ridiculous.
After only 12 minutes, Vanessa DiBernardo was removed from the game due to injury and was replaced by Makenzy Doniak. A few minutes before halftime, Mal Pugh’s name was added to the list of injuries. Danielle Colaprico would later replace her at the half.
However, in the final seconds of the first half, with only 10 players on the field, the Red Stars found the breakthrough. Rachel Hill lost her defender at the far post, and Arin Wright whipped in a cross that found Hill. Hill scored; it was Chicago’s first-ever goal in an NWSL Championship game and gave the Red Stars an increasingly unlikely lead.
Holding onto a lead with six starters out was too big of a task, though. After defending the lead for 20 minutes, Washington drew a penalty in the 66th minute when Tierna Davidson was called for a foul. Spirit captain Andi Sullivan scored, but Cassie Miller arguably should have done better, with the ball sneaking underneath her dive.
Though NWSL Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch was mostly stifled, Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman was arguably the best player on the field. She caused all kinds of trouble for Tatumn Milazzo and the Red Stars back line and caused Chicago to flip Arin Wright to defend her side.
Milazzo would be the next player who could not continue. Bianca St. Georges, who was injured for most of this season, came in as a substitute, filling in at left-back. Seven minutes later, she lost her mark on Kelley O’Hara after Trinity Rodman played a picture-perfect cross across the box. That goal would prove to be decisive, but the Red Stars did not roll over and made a strong push for an equalizer.
Makenzy Doniak had a great chance in the 117th minute. She got into a great position one-on-one with Bledsoe, but her shot was saved. The clutch save from Bledsoe earned her Championship MVP honors. Arin Wright had a shot that went inches over the crossbar in the final seconds. The Red Stars gave every last bit of energy that they had, but could not grind out a result.
Head coach Rory Dames said that “they played until the end, and as a coach, that’s all you can ask.”