(Reuters) – Washington Spirit’s Kelley O’Hara headed home in extra time as they defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 to win their first National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) championship in Louisville, Kentucky, on Saturday.
O’Hara latched onto a long pass from rookie Trinity Rodman to score her first goal of the season past Red Stars keeper Cassie Miller in front of 10,360 fans at Lynn Family Stadium.
The scrappy Red Stars created opportunities but were hampered by the absence of key players such as Kealia Watt, who was hurt in the semi-final, and Mallory Pugh, who went off at the end of the first half injured.
Red Stars broke the deadlock just before the interval when Arin Wright floated a cross to Rachel Hill, who headed home.
The Spirit drew level in the 67th minute when captain Andi Sullivan’s penalty rolled past the outstretched arm of Miller.
After O’Hara’s header handed the Spirit a 2-1 lead in the sixth minute of extra time, Aubrey Bledsoe proved why she was named Goalkeeper of the Year when she made a diving save to keep out a point-blank shot by Makenzy Doniak to preserve the lead.
It has been a tumultuous season for the Spirit, whose coach Richie Burke was terminated by the league following allegations of verbal abuse of players that were detailed by the Washington Post in August.
“Being together has been our theme since August,” said Bledsoe, who took home championship game MVP honors on her 30th birthday.
“We’ve been through so much, we’ve overcome so much, but we did it all together. We never quit, we never gave up on each other, and that second half shows exactly who we are. I’m so proud of us.”
The Spirit came into the game riding high, having been unbeaten since September. They defeated the North Carolina Courage in extra time in the quarter-finals and battled back to take out the OL Reign to reach the final.
The championship match closes a painful season for the NWSL, during which sweeping changes were made in the league following allegations of sexual misconduct made against a former coach.
The report sent shockwaves through the NWSL, leading to the departure of former Commissioner nL1N2RG2UM Lisa Baird and the appointment of Marla Messing as interim CEO. U.S. Soccer and FIFA also announced they would investigate.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, editing by Pritha Sarkar)