This week, we look at the NWSL Playoff Semifinal and Championship Final results, as well as other league news, including more head coaching abuse allegations by players which has led to another team's head coach leaving, while Kansas City has moved head coach Hue Williams into the front office and—on a lighter note—we present the NWSL Best XI First and Second Teams (Team of the Years) for the 2021 season.
NWSL Playoffs—Washington Spirit overcomes its Organizational Chaos to Win the 2021 NWSL Title 2-1 in Overtime over the Chicago Red Stars
Two weeks ago our column looked at the first round of the playoffs along with part 2 of our regular season NWSL wrap-up (see: The Week in Women's Football: 2021 NWSL review - Part II; Stoney leaves Man Utd for Wave - Tribal Football). This week we review the surprising semifinal results and the NWSL championship final with a first ever title win for the Washington Spirit at the end of this long and exhausting season, following so much turmoil and upheaval of the pitch. Thankfully, the last three games provided great entertainment and some amazing stories. Unfortunately, a few days after the Final, allegations of emotional abuse were released against the Chicago Red Stars only head coach in their NWSL history, Rory Daimes, after he quickly retired when he heard news of an impending Washington Post story with player stories and testimonials.
In the semifinals on November 14, the two road teams—Washington D.C. Spirit, which was seeded third, and fourth seed Chicago Red Stars—went to the Pacific Northwest and came away with surprising victories in front of big crowds in Tacoma (5,273) and Portland (15,832), respectively. In Tacoma, the Washington Spirit continued its amazing run to the Final—it's first since 2016 and their first playoff games since that season— with a come from behind 2-1 win while Chicago had two shots on goal and scored on both of them for a famous 2-0 victory in Portland—a repeat of their 2019 semifinal victory (1-0 in Chicago when Matilda international Sam Kerr scored from a Yuki Nagasato assist—now with Chelsea in England's WSL and Racing Louisville, respectively)—to make the Championship Final for the second regular season in succession (2019 as 2020 was not a regular season due to COVID) and its sixth consecutive postseason berth but has yet to win a NWSL title. They lost to the North Carolina Courage (4-0) in the 2019 final. Chicago technically has made three Finals in three seasons, including their loss in the 2020 Challenge Cup—which was viewed as the equivalent of a major tournament, compared to the 2021 Challenge Cup (which Portland won over NJ/NY Gotham FC) which was viewed by most around the league as a pre-season tournament.
In Tacoma, French international forward Eugenie LeSommer gave the home side the lead in the third minute with a goal against the run of play but Trinity Rodman (19) scored before the halftime break to level the scores and Ashley Sanchez—the number four pick in the 2020 NWSL College Draft from UCLA—scored on a narrow angle from an absolutely brilliant outside of the foot lob over French international goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi for the winning goal in the 68th minute.
In Portland, Chicago had only two shots on goal but it was all they needed in their 2-0 win over the Thorns. Mexican international Katie Johnson subbed in early for injured starting forward Kealia Watt and scored the first goal from the right side after dribbling down the wing, before Sarah Woldmoe fired in a rocket with a narrow window for the clincher. Portland goalkeeper Bella Bixby (a native of the Portland area who played collegiately at Oregon State University) just missed making difficult saves on both goals and she was inconsolable about the defeat after the game and was hurried off the field by her goalkeeper coach (and former German two-time WWC winner) Nadine Angerer and a few teammates. In addition, Chicago's Mallory Pugh missed the game due to COVID protocols and the team has also been missing injured American national team members Julie Ertz in midfield and Alyssa Naeher in goal with long-term injuries. For Portland, English native Mark Parsons coached his last game for the Thorns and now takes up the head coaching position of the Netherlands national team on a full-time basis, after shuttling to Europe for fall WWC qualifiers. Parsons helped the Thorns with the 2017 NWSL title and 2016 and 2021 NWSL Shield (Regular Season Champions).
In the Championship Final on November 20 held in Louisville, Kentucky, the Red Stars took the lead from a Rachel Hill goal five minutes into first half injury time. Chicago's injury woes continued as team captain Vanessa DiBernardo was injured in the 13th minute and star Mallory Pugh left the game at halftime after going down from a foul late in the first half. The Spirit fought back with a penalty kick goal by Andi Sullivan in the 67th minute to send the game into overtime. Washington's attack was led by Tiffany Rodman, who was the league's Rookie of the Year. OL Reign's Jess Fishlock was a worthy winner of the league MVP award, but arguably and award based only on the last two months of the season would have gone either to Rodman or possibly her teammate and Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch. Chicago Red Stars head coach (much more below) said that the game changed in the 61st minute when Rodman smashed a shot off the crossbar, "They started getting her isolated in the second half. That one [move] where she cuts in and out and two seconds later it's off the outside of the post, I think that's actually where they came into the game. They were never in the game prior to that, where I felt they were dangerous, but that kind of rattled the group [Red Stars] and then they got us on the back foot." Long-time U.S. national team veteran Kelley O'Hara scored the winning goal for the Spirit in the 97th minute on the back post from a laser cross far out on the left side by Rodman. Rodman said about her assist on the winner, "Once I cut it inside, I knew I wouldn't be able to dribble inside. I saw runners near post marked, and I saw Kelley popping on the back. Her getting there was insane." Aubrey Bledsoe, the NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, was named the MVP of the championship game, with an outstanding late diving save on Makenzy Doniak's shot in the 117th minute.
The day prior to the game, Spirit players Andi Sullivan and Ashley Hatch, as well as interim head coach Kris Ward, talked to the media about how the team was able to put together such an impressive run of success—the Spirit was undefeated in 12 straight games (winning their last seven games in a row, with three of them in the playoffs) under Ward's command after Richie Burke's resignation/firing (not counting two forfeitures because of a COVID breakout (see more below)—as the Spirit's front office can't seemingly do anything correctly or easily—(See my link The Week in Women's Football: 2021 NWSL Regular Season review - Part One - Tribal Football). For more background on the scandal-ridden NWSL 2021 season, see: (The Week in Women's Football: The NWSL Coaching scandal and its impact on the league - Tribal Football).
Spirit captain Sullivan—who was named to the U.S. national team for their trip to Australia after the Final, said, "In the middle of turmoil, we really came together as a team and acknowledged all of our thoughts and feelings toward the situation. It brought us closer together to say, 'Why not go for it and why not us?' We can still do this and stick it to people who are rooting against us or people who are making it more difficult for us." She added that they became good at, "Soaking up the chaos and take the burden off of each other."
The players talked about how the two ultimate forfeitures and loss of a possible 6 points told them that everybody was against them and they used it as motivation. Since both games were against the first place Thorns (five points ahead) and OL Reign (three points ahead), the Spirit could have won the NWSL Shield as regular season champions if the league had allowed those two games to be played but—under duress all season with the multiple scandals and their willingness to ignore player abuse—took the easy way out. The Spirit players said that Aubrey Bledsoe had told them that they were, "a team of destiny" and they certainly showed that with the Championship victory. Ward said that the off-the field chaos seemed to allow the players to compartmentalize their problems while playing and practicing allowed them to focus more on the game.
Besides the stellar attacking play of Hatch, Rodman and Ashley Sanchez, the off-season acquisitions of U.S. international veteran defenders Emily Sonnett's arrival from Orlando after many years with Portland and Kelly O'Hara joining from the Utah Royals (now KC Current) was crucial to their success.
This writer was born in Washington D.C. and knows how infrequent it is that the city wins championships in any sport. President Joe Biden understood this and Tweeted after the game, "Congratulations to the Washington Spirit on winning your first-ever NWSL championship. Despite a year with no shortage of challenges, you've made the District and your country very proud."—President Joe Biden (@Potus)
Rory Daimes leaves Chicago Red Stars after more Coaching Abuse Allegations Emerge
Two days later, the Red Stars head coach Rory Daimes, who in 2013 was the only American-born coach in the league (still a rarity to this day), resigned from his position, saying in a press release, "For 11 years, I have dedicated myself to help build the Chicago Red Stars into one of the top international clubs. Effective today, I'm refocusing my attention to my family and future endeavors, and I am resigning as coach of the Chicago Red Stars. I'd like to thank the Chicago Red Stars organization, the fans and the players who I have had the opportunity to work with in their professional soccer careers. I look forward to watching the Chicago Red Stars and the NWSL continue to grow and evolve while supporting their players." Daimes also is the director of coaching and player development for Chicago's Eclipse Select Soccer Club, which has one of the nation's top girls programs, and which he founded and owns.
Hours after his resignation was announced however came a Washington Post story with interviews stating that, "players had seen Rory Dames cross a line into what they believed was verbal and emotional abuse: controlling, berating and humiliating players, and breaking the boundaries of the player-coach relationship." The league, at the time of player complaints a few years ago, did nothing, but one complaint actually went to U.S. Soccer—which had started the league and was a key financer for years—as a few of the Red Star players were national team contract players and technically their employer was the federation. Christian Press, a two time Women's World Cup Champion, said in a formal complaint to U.S. Soccer early in 2018, "I think Rory emotionally abuses players. He doesn't have a safe distance between himself and his players. He uses his power and status as the coach to manipulate players and get close to them." Press later said in an interview, "Things were happening that were inappropriate. But I'd been told to be quiet, that this was fine." Press felt that she was, "made to feel by U.S. Soccer that I was in the wrong, there was nothing to report, and that this was acceptable. For so many women in this league, you think you don't have any worth. And if you stand up and you say what you think is right or wrong, nobody cares." After the Paul Riley and Richie Burke cases (more below) were revealed, some people were worried about the league surviving; now the federation is under the gun.
Daimes has always been known for screaming at his players during games—in part because for so many years Chicago drew such small crowds that people could almost hear him in neighboring Indiana—but the player state that it went far beyond that. According to the Post, one player who did not wish to be identified said that Daimes would be, "texting her at all hours, asking her to spend significant time with him outside of soccer and retaliating against her when she eventually tried to pull away from him. When he asked her as a young player to frequent lunches and dinners, she said, she did not feel able to say no." A teammate said about Daimes relationship with that young player, "It stands out to me how he'd use her personal life, how he'd really integrate it into his way of coaching her. He'd say, 'I know your boyfriend doesn't like me.' It had nothing to do with soccer. He loved having power over these 20-something-year-old women." Some players spoke out on the condition of anonymity, "fearing that speaking publicly could jeopardize their future in women's soccer, where most coaches, general managers and team executives are men."
The most jarring example of his emotional abuse was when he yelled at one player—who had a child—about her lack of communication on the field, "If you can't even talk on the field, he said, what kind of mother are you?" The player, who now plays in Europe, was stunned and started to cry. Daimes referred to another player from Appalachia as "trailer trash." Another player reported that, "I realized that this man would use information he has about me in a way that will harm me and in a way that he can manipulate me. I don't want him to know about the things that matter most to me."
Players said that Daimes humiliated people with his personal comments in public, but the players felt they had to be quiet and put up with it for the sake of their careers. He also liked to schedule their free time, even holding meetings in his hotel room, and asked pointed questions about their sexual lives.
The NWSL Players Association immediately released a statement the same day that Daimes resigned, saying that:
This type of coaching has no place in the NWSL, youth soccer or anywhere else. We stand with Christen Press, Jen Hoy, Sam Johnson and any player who comes forward to speak out against abuse of any kind.
We have said it before and will say it again now: the system has failed us. Through our investigation, we will seek out the root causes of these systematic failures to prevent this from happening to future generations.
Nothing short of a complete transformation of our league will suffice."
At a number of end of season games—including the Championships—fans would bring signs that said "No More Silence" and "Protect the Players." It is up to the league and the Federation to do that and clean house of any past abusers, as this year of upheaval continues to reveal systemic problems and player abuse, and probably more horrific stories will emerge in the future (see below).
Kansas City Current moved Huw Williams from the Head Coaching position into the General Manager Role
Note: Kansas City Current is also looking for a new job as last week they moved Huw Williams into the role of General Manager, a role he held successfully with FC Kansas City from 2013-2017. This was a move that had to happen as Kansas City only won three games in the regular season and was overmatched throughout, with little improvement or hope, though the fan support was strong. With these two announcements, James Clarkson of the Houston Dash is the only coach remaining ahead of 2022 who started the 2021 season in that position (Freya Coombe will lead Angel City FC after beginning 2021 with NJ/NY Gotham FC).
NWSL CEO Marla Messing update on the Business Side
In other league news during the Championship week, Interim league CEO Marla Messing told this reporter that the Collective Bargaining Agreement is moving along and they hope to have it resolved in the off season, and that the league renewed a sponsorship agreement with Nike—its biggest and most important after the scandal ridden season. She said they should have millions in revenue support and the CBS television agreement will run through 2023—it was due to expire next year after 3 seasons, but the 2020 regular season and playoffs were never held because of COVID.
More Specific Abuse Examples Attributed to former Spirit head coach Richie Burke
Canadian international forward Jenna Hellstrom revealed to TSN in Canada recently how badly former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke treated her in the COVID shortened 2020 season, forcing her back to Sweden for the 2021 season, where she had been playing club soccer since 2017. Hellstrom joined the NWSL to increase her chances of playing more games for the Maple Leafs national side and possibly making the 2020 Olympic Games Finals team, which won the Gold Medal this past summer (but she was not on the Finals squad).
Canadian international Jenna Hellstrom in action in Sweden with Orebro. Photo Courtesy of Damfotball.blog.
Hellstrom (25) said that joining the NWSL was a dream come true, telling herself that, "'You made it. That's the league.'" But after that one season with Burke, she didn't think that she would ever return to the league and even considered quitting the game. Burke verbally and emotionally abused her all season, screaming at her repeatedly during practice and games. He threatened to waive her and told her she would never play for the Canadian national team again.
In a text message to TSN, Burke stated he has been "falsely accused by players with an axe to grind" and that any claims of verbal abuse made against him are unsubstantiated. TSN wrote that, "Hellstrom is used to being criticized. As an elite athlete, it comes with the territory. She has played under coaches who would tell her if she made a bad pass or needed to step up her game. But Hellstrom says Burke's behavior went far beyond what could be called 'tough love' or constructive criticism. She began to question her mental fortitude as he would endlessly berate her. It started to boil over, and I just started thinking, 'This isn't right. I've never felt this before,' I was going home every day crying, in practice I was crying. I hated soccer. I didn't ever want to play soccer and I was really thinking about retiring after that season." Former Spirit teammate Kayleigh McCullough—who came out against Burke two months ago in the original Washington Post story that forced the league to fire Burke after he had resigned for health reasons and was due to return to a front office position—said about Hellstrom and Burke's relationship, "He wasn't giving her any room to breathe, basically. And you can see her sort of spiraling on the field. I think everybody who knew Richie knew that he wasn't going to let up. It was like watching a car crash—you knew what was going to happen, but there wasn't really anything you could do about it."
Hellstrom's story about returning to Canada after the 2020 Challenge Cup in Utah was particularly difficult to read and shows how callous Burke could be. While she was home, her grandmother became very sick and was put on a ventilator and TSN reported, "She worried that if she went to Washington, due to Canada's regulations surrounding COVID-19 at the time, she would need to quarantine for two weeks upon her return to her home country. She wouldn't be able to say goodbye to her grandmother and risked missing her funeral. She decided to stay in Canada. "At the end of the day, there's a lot more to life than soccer." She let Burke know and he informed her that she would have to pay her own hotel expenses when quarantining when she returned to the Washington area. Burke said that it was the same as when another player stayed late on vacation and had to quarantine at her own expense when she returned to the team. Hellstrom said, "To me, that's very different, and he just didn't understand that." When some team veterans talked to Burke about his behavior, his response was, "I'm not in the business of making people feel liked." When she returned to the team and was ready to enter a Fall Series game, Burke told her, "Okay, you were just on a six-week vacation. Let's see what you got." Hellstrom thought, "Who says that to a player? It wasn't a vacation. It was watching my grandma die."
After the season, Hellstrom documented what she had to endure with Burke in a NWSL survey but when she heard nothing back, she was done with the NWSL and asked the Spirit to waive her rights, which the club did in December of 2020. She returned to KIF Orebro in Sweden; the club finished in eighth place with 30 points from a 9-3-10 (W-D-L) record, but finished only five points behind surprising fourth place finisher Eskilstuna United. She was the club's top scorer with four goals in 17 games and re-signed for the 2022 Damallsvenskan season.
Burke sent a text message to TSN when asked to respond to the story, "It was clear that Jenna Hellstrom didn't like me & I couldn't stand her either. I couldn't wait to get her out of the club because she was a cancer in the dressing room. She'd constantly make snarky comments at training & was influencing other players negatively." Burke is just making things worse. McCullough told TSN about Burke's comments, "That's completely untrue. Jenna was a very positive influence around everybody."
The league and teams must change its policy towards working with players and additional team staff if necessary to root out this issue once and for all. Player safety is paramount moving ahead. We thought we could do that with the Championship Game as a figurative start of a new era as the league turns 10 years old. Then the Daimes story hit and Burke responds to more stories about a player with, "I couldn't stand her" and "I'm not in the business of making people feel liked." If things don't change quickly, the league could lose its growing and substantial (in some markets) fan base—which will always support the players—but not this septic approach to coaching and player management.
NWSL 2021 Best XI First and Second Team Selections
The Best XI First Team and Best XI Second Team are based on a weighted voting scale comprised of players (50%), owners/GMs/coaches (20%), media (20%) and fans (10%).
2021 NWSL Best XI First Team
Goalkeeper: Kailen Sheridan (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
Defenders: Caprice Dydasco (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Alana Cook (OL Reign), Sarah Gorden (Chicago Red Stars), Carson Pickett (North Carolina Courage)
Midfielders and Forwards: Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit), Jessica Fishlock (OL Reign), Eugenie Le Sommer (OL Reign), Margaret Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit), Angela Salem (Portland Thorns FC)
2021 NWSL Best XI Second Team
Goalkeeper: Bella Bixby (Portland Thorns FC)
Defenders: Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC), Sofia Huerta (OL Reign), Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns FC), Emily Menges (Portland Thorns FC)
Midfielders and Forwards: Bethany Balcer (OL Reign), Rachel Daly (Houston Dash), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Ifeoma Onumonu (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Sydney Leroux (Orlando Pride), Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
Next Week: We present Part 1 of A-League Women's League in Australia 2021-22 Season, its 14th season.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get yours copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey
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