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Women's Soccer having a tough time? Currently only pro woman's tennis is thriving?

National Women’s Soccer League Final to Cap Season of Turmoil

Players raised allegations of mistreatment at several teams, but also got results

Trinity Rodman and the Washington Spirit face the Chicago Red Stars in Saturday’s NWSL championship game.

By Rachel Bachman, WSJ

Updated Nov. 19, 2021 5:45 pm ET

All young leagues scramble for funding and grapple for attention in an already crowded American sports landscape.

Along with those challenges, the ninth-season National Women’s Soccer League this year faced a sexual-misconduct scandal that shut down play for a weekend and plunged the league into multiple investigations.

But the upside of a grim NWSL season—the rising prominence of players’ voices within the league—will be on display in the time and location of Saturday’s championship game between the Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit.

NWSL athletes, already frustrated at a lack of previous action from the league in addressing concerns about toxic workplaces at several teams, objected to an eye-rubbing 9 a.m. kickoff time at Providence Park in Portland, Ore., to accommodate its noon Eastern TV time slot. So last month, league officials relocated the final match to Lynn Family Stadium, home of NWSL team Racing Louisville.

In other words, NWSL players now have enough muscle to push a championship game 2,300 miles East and into a kickoff that’s at noon local time. The game will be broadcast on CBS.

The NWSL “is at a really challenging point, honestly,” said former U.S. women’s national team star Julie Foudy, who’s also an investor in the Los Angeles NWSL franchise, Angel City FC, that launches next year. “But I am always a believer that when something as bad as what’s happened in the last months happens, I think it’s an opportunity to rebuild. I think it’s long overdue that the players should be given more of a voice in this.”

In a story last month in the Athletic, two former Portland players alleged that years earlier, former coach Paul Riley had pressured them to kiss each other as he watched, sent them lurid photos and greeted one player at a purported film session in his underwear. At an earlier coaching stop, Riley also coerced one of the players into having sex, the player told the Athletic.

Riley, who was fired as coach of the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage shortly after the Athletic story came out, has denied having sex with or making sexual advances toward the players.

That story followed, and was followed by, other allegations of workplace misconduct against several NWSL teams’ coaches and executives, including at the Spirit. There, coach Richie Burke was terminated for cause after a Washington Post report described his verbal and emotional abuse of players, and Steve Baldwin stepped down as CEO last month as players called for Baldwin, also an owner, to sell the team.

The allegations across the league spurred the U.S. Soccer Federation to launch an investigation led by former U.S. attorney and deputy attorney general Sally Q. Yates, best known for telling government lawyers not to defend then-President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

As if all that weren’t enough to deal with, the NWSL has also seen its on-field exploits curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Spirit forfeited two September games because of breaches in league Covid protocols. The status of Chicago star forward Mallory Pugh was pending after she was sidelined for the Red Stars’ semifinal due to Covid exposure, but she trained with the team Friday and is expected to play Saturday.

Kealia Watt, the Red Stars’ co-leading scorer along with Pugh, suffered an injury in the semifinal and is out.

The NWSL still boasts some of the world’s best women’s players, and play. U.S. women’s team star Megan Rapinoe returned from a tumultuous path to the team bronze at the Tokyo Olympics to win NWSL player of the month for August for the Seattle-area OL Reign.

Rapinoe’s teammate, ​​OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, earned the league’s MVP award by assisting teammates and, on one highlight-reel goal, chipping a shot over North Carolina’s goalkeeper and into the far corner.

Brazilian star Marta of the Orlando Pride showed with a midsummer score from nearly midfield that she’s still kicking at 35 years old.

The Spirit have one of the league’s most dynamic attacks, making Washington the favorite Saturday if the Red Stars are indeed depleted of their top scorers.

The Spirit’s Ashley Hatch, a former star at BYU, led the league in scoring with 11 goals in 22 games. Spirit forward Trinity Rodman is second in the league with 33 shots on goal.

The 19-year-old Rodman—the daughter of Chicago Bulls great Dennis Rodman—was drafted No. 2 overall out of Washington State this year. Not only is Trinity Rodman a rookie standout for the NWSL, Foudy said, she’s “going to be one of the future studs for the U.S.”

NWSL players are in the midst of negotiating their first-ever collective-bargaining agreement with the league, something that could bring higher salaries. It also could bring more stability to a league that sorely needs it.

“We committed this season to leaving the NWSL better than we found it,” said Meghann Burke, executive director of the NWSL Players Association, in an email. “As we wind down the 2021 Season, players across the League, no matter everything else, should feel deep in their bones that we have done everything in our power to achieve just that.”

Write to Rachel Bachman at

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