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Washington Spirit defeats Chicago Red Stars to win first National Women’s Soccer League title

Spirit players celebrate with the trophy after defeating the Red Stars in the NWSL championship match in Louisville. (Jeff Dean/AP)

LOUISVILLE — The Washington Spirit had absorbed waves of adversity over three trying months to not only salvage its National Women’s Soccer League season but make an implausible run to the championship game.

And on Saturday, facing another tall task after falling behind just before halftime, the Spirit culminated an extraordinary display of courage and resilience to defeat the Chicago Red Stars, 2-1, in extra time for the first title in its eight-year existence.

Since the season began to crumble in August, marred by allegations against its outgoing coach, ownership turmoil, a league investigation and two forfeits, Washington did not lose on the field (9-0-3).

Under the supervision of interim coach Kris Ward, the Spirit won its playoff opener against North Carolina in extra time and came from behind to upset OL Reign in last weekend’s semifinals.

The drive reached the pinnacle here before an announced 10,360 at Lynn Family Stadium. Washington took the lead on Kelley O’Hara’s header in the 97th minute before turning to game MVP Aubrey Bledsoe for a stunning save in the waning moments.

“People have no idea what we’ve all gone through, and the resiliency and perseverance of every single player is pretty incredible,” O’Hara, a longtime U.S. national team defender, said after her first goal of the year. “It’s something I haven’t seen from an NWSL team I’ve been on. It’s the best feeling ever to be ending on a win and being champions.”

Inspired by rookie sensation Trinity Rodman, Washington had tied the game midway through the second half on captain Andi Sullivan’s penalty kick. In extra time, O’Hara received Rodman’s pinpoint cross and nodded it into the far corner from six yards.

“I was doing a lot of one [on] ones, and sometimes it wasn’t working too well because they had cover behind,” Rodman, a 19-year-old forward who on Thursday was voted NWSL rookie of the year. “Once I cut it inside, I knew I wouldn’t be able to dribble inside. I saw runners [at the] near post marked, and I saw Kelley popping on the back. Her getting there was insane.”

On her 30th birthday, Bledsoe, the NWSL goalkeeper of the year, made a diving save on Makenzy Doniak’s bid in the 117th minute.

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The Spirit became the first women’s pro soccer team from the nation’s capital to celebrate a championship since 2003, when Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach led the Freedom to the WUSA crown.

The Spirit joined the NHL’s Capitals (2018), MLB’s Nationals (2019) and the WNBA’s Mystics (2019) in winning a league trophy for the District in the past 3½ years.

This one was surely the most unlikely.

The match capped a tumultuous few months for the Spirit.

Richie Burke stepped down as head coach in early August for “health reasons” and remained with the organization. But after The Washington Post detailed allegations of verbal and emotional abuse against him, Burke was suspended, then fired.

Additional allegations were levied against owner Steve Baldwin and an executive, Larry Best. The league opened an investigation and banned the team from NWSL governance.

Violations of pandemic protocols resulted in the two forfeits in early September.

Amid it all, there was an ongoing struggle for control of the organization between the principal investors, Baldwin and Y. Michele Kang. Baldwin, who has controlling interest, said he would sell his stake but has resisted players’ demands to make a deal with Kang.

He has engaged in negotiations with billionaire Todd Boehly, a Bethesda native and part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers and Sparks.

Kang has the support of the fan base. Behind the south goal Saturday, several banners pressing Baldwin to sell his stake to Kang hung from railings in front of Washington’s supporters’ group, Spirit Squadron.

“Sell the Team Now, Steve, to Kang.”

“Steve, Sell the Team to Michele.”

One sign was courtesy of the locals: “We Support Spirit Fans. Sell the Team, Baldwin.”

Marla Messing, the NWSL’s interim CEO, said she hopes a sale will be completed by the end of the year.

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The Red Stars entered the match with a five-game winning streak but without four high-profile injured players — goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, defenders Julie Ertz and Casey Krueger, and forward Kealia Watt. Then in the 13th minute, they lost captain Vanessa DiBernardo, the playmaker.

The first half proceeded uneventfully toward intermission when the Red Stars struck. Because of a leg injury to Chicago star Mallory Pugh, three minutes of stoppage time turned into five.

From the left flank, Arin Wright, a Lexington, Ky., native and former Kentucky Wildcat, burned O’Hara and surged toward the end line. She swung in a cross that sailed over Bledsoe to the back post.

Left back Tegan McGrady was caught watching the ball, an instant of inattention that allowed Rachel Hill to nod in a header a step from the target.

Pugh, a former Spirit player and 2021 MVP finalist, did not return. The Spirit ruled the second half.

Rodman took the initiative and in the 61st minute smashed a 25-yard bid high off the left post. At every opportunity, she tried using her creativity and speed to unbalance Chicago.

“When you think about how young she is and the ceiling she has, it’s actually incredible,” Red Stars Coach Rory Dames said. “She is electric.”

The momentum had swung, and before long, the Spirit drew even.

Chicago’s Tierna Davidson tripped Tara McKeown as she collected the ball in the box. Captain Andi Sullivan’s penalty kick was not great, but goalkeeper Cassie Miller did not get down quick enough and the ball slid under her.

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The Spirit kept coming.

“We finally got back to doing what we’re good at: moving them, breaking them down, finding the spaces, using our weapons and just playing,” O’Hara said. “We settled into the game in the second half and dominated.”

It took until extra time to go ahead, and in a late-season rush that Bledsoe has described as “destiny,” the Spirit completed its emotional mission.

“It was just that shared purpose of, ‘We want to go; we don’t care what’s being thrown in our way, and we’re going to continue to fight to make it,’ ” Ward said. “They always had the quality. I am really just happy for them to have everything they worked for realized.”

Notes: Sullivan, attackers Ashley Sanchez and Ashley Hatch and defender Emily Sonnett will report to the U.S. national team this week for two friendlies in Australia. Davidson also made the 23-player roster for matches in Sydney and Newcastle.

Read more Washington Spirit news

Steve Baldwin agreed to sell his controlling stake in the Washington Spirit to Y. Michele Kang, ending a long and contentious fight over who would own the National Women’s Soccer League champions.

After standout rookie season, Washington signed Trinity Rodman to four-year, $1.1 million deal.

The Post spoke to eight women who work or have worked for the Spirit, as well as three current and former players, who said they had been subjected to a workplace culture that was toxic for women and, many said, for women of color.

Kris Ward, who as interim coach guided the Washington Spirit through turbulent times and to the National Women’s Soccer League championship, was given the permanent job.