Can a list define what changed about Washington sports in the 2010s? Certainly not. But it could help identify the most important mile markers. And it could be fun. So why not take a stab at assembling the top 10 Washington sports moments of the past decade?
Let’s be clear up front: This is subjective. And it’s mine. Pick it apart. Swap in something you like and out something you think is ridiculous.
For me, the “Top” in “Top 10” is intentionally ambiguous. Most of these moments served as a pivot point for one of our local teams or most prominent athletes. But some of them were just fun.
So, debate away. Here they are, in chronological order:
May 18, 2010: The draft lottery
Remember how the decade began for the local NBA franchise: Six days in, Gilbert Arenas — as charismatic and mesmerizing a star as the team had had since it was called the Bullets — was suspended indefinitely by Commissioner David Stern after he brought guns into the locker room following a dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton.
The Wizards were hopeless. Before Arenas, they had missed the playoffs 15 times in 16 years. Even with him, they still weren’t true contenders. And then the Arenas era imploded in a style that somehow fit the franchise.
Then one night, with a 1-in-10 chance in securing the top pick, the Wizards saw something go their way.
Abe Pollin, the longtime owner, had died the previous November, so his widow, Irene, stood on a stage when Adam Silver, then the NBA’s deputy commissioner, opened an envelope to reveal the Philadelphia 76ers would pick second, leaving Irene Pollin slack-jawed because the Wizards had won the lottery.
More than a month later, new owner Ted Leonsis’s team took Kentucky point guard John Wall with the first pick. Yes, Wall’s past three seasons have been marred by injury. But he’s a five-time all-star who has averaged 19 points and 9.2 assists. And at another low point for a franchise all too familiar with them, he represented something Wizards fans are unfamiliar with: good fortune.
June 8, 2010: Merry Strasmas
The 2008 and ’09 Nationals combined to lose 205 games. Before this Tuesday night in June — when 40,315 people filed into Nationals Park — winning seasons seemed unlikely, division titles absurd, annual contention outlandish. Stephen Strasburg helped change all that.
Strasburg was the first pick of the 2009 draft. In his first 11 professional starts in the spring of 2010, split between Class AA and AAA, he posted a 1.31 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 55 innings. MLB Network broadcast his major league debut, with Bob Costas on the call. Nothing since baseball returned to Washington in 2005 approached this level of anticipation.
And then, the strangest thing happened: Strasburg exceeded the hype. Trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates by a run in the fifth, he struck out opposing pitcher Jeff Karstens to end the inning. He struck out the side in the sixth. After Adam Dunn’s two-run homer gave the Nats the lead, Strasburg faced Garrett Jones, Delwyn Young and Andy LaRoche in the seventh. Strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.
His final line: seven innings, four hits, two runs, no walks and 14 strikeouts. In 238 starts since, he has exceeded that total exactly once.
Sounds like someone who someday would be a World Series MVP and sign a $245 million contract. It wasn’t a straight line (see Tommy John surgery 2010, shutdown 2012), but Washington baseball hasn’t been the same since.
June 19, 2011: Rory romps
The Washington area has hosted five major golf championships, the most recent being Congressional Country Club’s third U.S. Open. In so many ways, this was the pinnacle for local golf, an event in which the international sports spotlight fell on Bethesda. That the winner was worthy makes it a standout event.
Two months before the Open, 21-year-old Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy led the Masters after each of the first three rounds — then closed with an 80 to gag it away. His next major was at Congressional, and McIlroy, who had since turned 22, owned it. He led by three after one round, six after two, eight after three and eight to win. He set the U.S. Open scoring record — by four strokes. He not only became the first player to reach 13 under par at an Open, but 14, 15, 16 and 17 as well. He became the youngest major champion since Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters.
No one who was there can forget the massive galleries that lined the slopes beyond the pond near Congressional’s 18th green when McIlroy putted out to win. But pro golf closes the decade in a much different place in D.C. Woods’s tournament didn’t survive here, and for the first time in 40 years, Washington has no regular PGA Tour stop. That only strengthens McIlroy’s spot in our sports history.
Nov. 19, 2012: Maryland moves
When the ACC was formed in 1953, the University of Maryland was one of seven founding members. When the Terrapins broke through for their 2002 national championship in men’s basketball, they belonged to the ACC. When they won the women’s national title in 2006, they belonged to the ACC. Terrapins legends were ACC legends.
Yet on a Monday afternoon — two days after the Terps had been waxed by ACC rival Florida State in football — university president Wallace D. Loh made a stunning announcement: Maryland would join the Big Ten.
The move replaced decades of tradition with cold hard cash for an athletic department that had cut sports and was awash in debt. It also pushed the Terrapins to try to compete with national football heavyweights Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, now annual opponents. That led them to hire DJ Durkin, a former assistant at Michigan, as head coach in 2016. On Durkin’s watch, lineman Jordan McNair died after complications from heat stroke following an offseason workout. The school closes the decade still trying to regain its athletic footing.
Jan. 6, 2013: RGIII's knee
It’s both hard to overstate and difficult to remember the feelings Robert Griffin III engendered in a Redskins fan base that didn’t know how beleaguered it would become over the remainder of the 2010s. The Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 draft pick from Baylor threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns in his NFL debut. Washington won its final seven games — one of which, forebodingly, Griffin missed because of a knee injury — including the season finale against Dallas, which provided its only 10-win season of the decade, the NFC East title and the right to host Seattle in a first-round playoff game.
Even with an ailing Griffin, Washington trailed the Seahawks by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Griffin, whose right knee was in a brace, took a snap in the pistol formation, but it was low. As he chased the ball, his knee gave out. He collapsed in a heap. On the Fox broadcast, Joe Buck summed it up thusly: “Stunned silence here at FedEx Field as one of the brightest stars to come into the league in a long time, [who] has not been himself the bulk of the day, now can’t get up.”
It’s fair to say that injury changed the course of the franchise. Griffin threw for 20 touchdowns and five interceptions and ran for seven more scores as a rookie. In the remaining three years of his Washington tenure, he threw for 20 touchdowns with 18 picks and only one rushing score. He ended his career here as an irrelevant third-stringer who didn’t play a snap in the entire 2015 season.
Jan. 1, 2017: Cousins's big pick
In the regular season finale at FedEx Field, all the Redskins had to do was beat the New York Giants, who already had secured a playoff spot, to advance to the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1991-92. But an offense ranked third in the NFL failed to score in the first half for the only time all season. An offensive line that had protected quarterback Kirk Cousins all year allowed four sacks.
And still, with just more than two minutes to go, Washington got the ball trailing just 13-10. This would define the Washington career of Cousins, who was drafted in the fourth round in Griffin’s year and eventually wrested the starting job from him. Except it was for the wrong reasons.
With 1:27 remaining and Washington at the New York 43, Cousins looked over the middle for wide receiver Pierre Garçon. But he hesitated. Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie stepped in for the interception. Washington lost, 19-10, and missed the playoffs.
No Washington quarterback has thrown for more than the 4,917 yards Cousins did in that 2016 season. But that pick symbolized his tenure here. He left as a free agent a year later, and the team closes the decade wondering if its next franchise quarterback is in-house in the body of Dwayne Haskins — or if it will have to start all over again.
Feb. 2, 2017: Mystics' star turn
In the winter of 2017, the Washington Mystics had played 19 seasons in the WNBA and won only one playoff series. They had four losing seasons in the previous six years. They created no buzz.
But the Mystics had one factor in their favor: geography. Chicago Sky star Elena Delle Donne wanted to be closer to her family’s Delaware home. Mike Thibault, Washington’s coach and general manager, took advantage of those desires, sending the No. 2 overall pick in that spring’s draft, along with guard Kahleah Copper and center Stefanie Dolson, to Chicago for Delle Donne, the 2015 MVP who agreed to a contract extension with Washington.
The deal was the most significant step in transforming the Mystics. With the sharpshooting Delle Donne leading the way, they won two playoff games in her first year, advanced to the WNBA Finals in 2018 and — following a regular season in which Delle Donne earned MVP honors — won the championship in 2019. Plenty of other players — Natasha Cloud, Kristi Toliver, Emma Meesseman, etc. — were major contributors, but the championship never would have happened without the trade for Delle Donne.
May 7, 2018: Kuzy does it
This wasn’t the Capitals team that was supposed to win the Stanley Cup. Heck, this Capitals team lost the first two playoff games at home to Columbus. But here was a familiar spot: Game 6 of the second round against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, the team that had beaten the Caps nine times in 10 playoff series. Pittsburgh, the team that had eliminated the previous two Capitals teams, each of which won the Presidents’ Trophy. Pittsburgh, which had won the Stanley Cup the previous two years.
On this night, the Caps were depleted. Tom Wilson was suspended. Nicklas Backstrom had a hand injury. But they went to overtime tied at 1. About five minutes in, Alex Ovechkin, the dominant Washington athlete of the decade, pushed the puck forward to a streaking Evgeny Kuznetsov, who bore down on Penguins goalie Matt Murray. Kuznetsov slipped the puck in and followed with his famous bird celebration, and the Caps skated into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 20 years.
The Cup, of course, came a month later over Vegas. But the Penguins were the mountain the Caps had to scale first. Once over it, anything became possible.
Aug. 12, 2018: Rooney to Acosta
While it bid weary RFK Stadium goodbye and waited for its new stadium in Southwest Washington to open, D.C. United began the 2018 season with 12 of its first 14 matches on the road. The club went 2-8-4 and seemed certain to miss the MLS playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Two things changed: In June, United agreed to acquire aging English star Wayne Rooney, and he began his MLS career with the unveiling of gleaming new Audi Field in July. Spurred by Rooney and a newfound home-field advantage, United started winning.
The seminal moment came against Orlando City on a sweltering Sunday night. With the score tied at 2 in stoppage time and United’s net unoccupied, Rooney chugged some 40 yards and tackled Orlando’s Will Johnson (who was prepared to launch a game-winner from near midfield), bounced up, carried the ball the other way and served a brilliant cross directly to the head of 5-foot-3 forward Luciano Acosta, who already had two goals. Acosta knocked the ball home, and United had its signature moment for its new home. Beginning that night, D.C. went 10-1-1 at Audi Field to close the regular season and make the playoffs.
As the decade closes, RFK is set to be razed, and a homesick Rooney is headed back to England. But what he did here changed the course of the District’s soccer franchise.
Oct. 9, 2019: The Nats move on
Still trying to process all the Nationals’ moments from this October? Remember their season would have ended Oct. 1 if not for an eighth-inning rally in the National League wild-card game against Milwaukee.
But to me, the events from the eighth inning on in Game 5 of the division series in Los Angeles against the Dodgers define this team and made everything else possible. Leading 3-1, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts kept in former ace Clayton Kershaw — who entered to get the final out of the seventh — to face Anthony Rendon leading off the eighth. Rendon homered. Roberts stuck with Kershaw against Juan Soto. Soto homered. The Nats had tied it — and they went to the 10th.
In four previous division series appearances, the Nats had suffered excruciating heartbreak — three times taking a lead in the fifth game, only to lose. Something had to change. Entering extra innings, Roberts stuck with reliever Joe Kelly, who had retired the Nats in the ninth. But Adam Eaton opened with a full-count walk, Rendon doubled him to third, and the Dodgers intentionally walked Soto.
That brought up Howie Kendrick. Kenley Jansen, who had struggled late in the year, was available, but Roberts stuck with Kelly, who offered a 97-mph fastball. Kendrick crushed it for a grand slam that provided a 7-3 victory and the first playoff series win in Nationals history.
Exactly three weeks later, Rendon and Kendrick would provide the seventh-inning homers that erased a deficit in Game 7 of the World Series in Houston, the shots that finished the fight. But none of that is possible without heroics from Rendon, Soto and Kendrick at Dodger Stadium. Finally, instead of enduring postseason pain, the Nats inflicted some.