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NWSL championship weekend in Washington was an exercise in radical joy

After a season full of turmoil, the vibes at the nation’s capital for the NWSL final were oriented around the promise of the future

WASHINGTON — Portland Thorns striker Sophia Smith needed only four minutes to remind us why she became the youngest player in the National Women’s Soccer League to be crowned MVP. Smith’s tenacious offensive pressure allowed her to pounce on a misstep by a Kansas City Current defender, leaving her one on one with their goalkeeper, U.S. Women’s National Team member AD Franch. Smith sprang forward with the ball and hardly slowed pace as she glided around a lunging Franch to slip the ball into the net, giving the Thorns an early lead in a decisive 2-0 victory for their third NWSL championship.

Smith, who was voted MVP of the final, lives for those spotlight moments, which meant she couldn’t just leave the crowd with that goal. After scoring, she ran toward the corner flag and the cameras at Audi Field in Washington and gave everyone a Jordan shrug, an image that immediately went viral.

“There’s been a lot of people who don’t think that I deserved to win MVP,” said Smith, who was second to San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan in goals scored during the regular season with 14 and also recorded three assists. “So that [goal celebration] was a little bit of, you know … that’s that. I just felt good. I was feelin’ it.”

Given the fraught year of the NWSL, feeling good has become something of a radical act when it comes to the league. There is still a lot to be mad about, beginning with abusive coaches and the administration’s complicity in violations against players. It was a season that asked hard questions and provided few answers, but it also showed the league’s immense potential with record-breaking attendance at games and expansion teams whose success no doubt intensified bidding efforts for aspiring clubs in future seasons. According to CBS Sports, the NWSL championship was the most-watched match in the league’s 10-year history, averaging 915,000 viewers — up 71% from last year’s broadcast.

The championship match itself was a clash of past and promise: the legacy club confronting its proximity to the league’s dark history on its ascent toward even greater dominance, and the 2-year-old squad that rose from the ashes of its last-place finish the previous season with a signature combination of grit and joy that has been buoyed by extraordinary owner investment.

With all of that, the game asked a question of its own: Are those of us in the NWSL ecosystem willing to accept that confronting pain and celebrating progress are prerequisites to realizing the league’s fullest potential?

Said Portland Thorns defender Crystal Dunn: “I know being on the field means young girls could see me and say, ‘I actually have a chance now of staying in this sport and feeling more welcomed.’ “

Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

This was Smith’s second year in the NWSL. She was still in high school when former Thorns player Mana Shim filed a complaint about the sexually coercive behavior of former head coach Paul Riley. But Shim’s complaint, and the scores of abuse allegations against other coaches compiled in a recent investigation into the league, affected her nonetheless.

“It’s been a hard year,” Smith said ahead of the championship. She said it was “s—ty” that she and her teammates had to shoulder the burden of the trauma those investigations exposed when all they wanted to do was pour that energy into their sport.

But her love for the game — and the Thorns’ team culture of trust and openness in navigating the fallout from the investigation — grounded Smith this season and kept her optimistic about the league’s future.

“People are finally watching women’s soccer. We’re finally getting on bigger channels so people have easier access to us,” she said, referring to the record-breaking attendance numbers that multiple NWSL teams recorded this season and the championship game’s primetime slot on CBS.

“There’s a lot of negative stuff happening, and that can cloud your brain and make you forget about all the positive things. I don’t want people to forget that.”

Now that 30-year-old Thorns midfielder Crystal Dunn is “older-ish,” as she described it, she’s ready to take on more roles in the league, using her experiences to pave the way for an even more inclusive playing environment than the one she entered as a young adult.

“I realized that it’s not just about me as a player. It’s about what I represent,” said Dunn, who, like Smith, also plays for the U.S. Women’s National Team.

Dunn said her visibility to young Black players has inspired her to elevate her game in a whole new way.

“I know being on the field means young girls could see me and say, ‘I actually have a chance now of staying in this sport and feeling more welcomed,’ ” she said.

If her screamer of a game-winning goal in the Thorns’ semifinal is any indication of that newfound motivation, the kids will be more than all right.

From left to right: Imani Dorsey, Lynn Williams, Margaret “Midge” Purce and Alana Cook celebrate after the U.S. Women’s National Team’s game against Australia in 2021.

Friday afternoon, the day before the championship, a group of elite Black women soccer players huddled on the playground of Hendley Elementary School in Washington, three miles south of Audi Field. Imani Dorsey, a defender for NY/NJ Gotham FC and the U.S. Women’s National Team, was joined by 13 other members of the Black Women’s Player Collective to speak to the Howard University women’s soccer team. The organization was established in the summer of 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in police custody and aims to “advance opportunities for black girls in sport and beyond.”

Most of Dorsey’s comrades in the collective also play in the NWSL, and they shared their thoughts about entering the draft, achieving a healthy work-life balance, and kneeling for the national anthem with the Bison players. They encouraged the student-athletes to cherish their time on a Black soccer team, given how rare they still are at the professional level in the U.S.

“Growing up in this area and being able to give back to players who are living here and understand that lived experience is really special,” said Dorsey, who grew up in the Washington area. “Knowing that boys and girls alike are seeing professional Black female athletes, and to be able to do that when the championship is in D.C., in my hometown, is something I never would have imagined in my life, honestly, but it’s so gratifying just to be a part of it.”

After the players’ discussion, both groups organized and played in a small-sided game with the Hendley students, part of a nationwide initiative the collective runs with Black Players for Change, their counterparts in the MLS. Laughter in the key of Black joy swelled from the concrete pitch, and Margaret “Midge” Purce, also a native of the Washington area and a teammate of Dorsey’s on Gotham FC, struggled to put into words how much it all meant to her.

“This is so emotional,” said Purce, who also plays for the U.S. Women’s National Team with Smith and Dunn. “To me, this is progress. It’s a continual effort to make the sport more accessible and comfortable for everyone.”

Black folks across the NWSL embrace the task of combating oppression with joyful representation. Daniel Morais considered himself a soccer fan until he realized the bias in his support.

“I had a moment where I had to check myself. I say I’m a big soccer fan, but why is it that I haven’t been to that many women’s soccer games?” said Morais, a senior operations manager for nonprofit social league District Sports. “[I said] ‘If you about it, make sure you about it.’ ”

Morais attended his first Washington Spirit match shortly thereafter, and had a two-hour conversation with other fans he met in the stands when the game ended. Most of the topics, he said, had nothing to do with the technical aspects of the game, but were instead about the social issues surrounding it. Morais had been to D.C. United games before, but he found his people with the Spirit. He became a season ticket holder within the week.

That was three years ago. Now, Morais is an active member of the Rose Room Collective, which describes itself on its website as an “independent supporter group for the Washington Spirit and D.C. United by and for people of color.” He’s familiar with the extreme highs and lows of NWSL fandom; the Spirit were 2021 NWSL champions in a year that also exposed the racist and psychologically abusive behavior of their coach, but this season the team finished second to last with a nearly identical roster.

The progress won’t always be linear, but the disappointing season didn’t discourage the Rose Room Collective — or the Spirit Squadron, the LGBT-led support group for the Washington Spirit — from showing off as the championship city hosts and organizing pickup games, brunches, and bar parties for the thousands of people who flew into the nation’s capital for the big game.

Morais said the degree of social responsibility distinguishes women’s soccer from the men’s game because of all the values it embraces — and strives to protect.

“You’re not really going just for the game in women’s soccer,” he said. “You’re going because you support pay equity, gender equity, racial equity. Sports have been an escape from the realities of life, but with women’s soccer, nah. It’s a microcosm in a lot of ways.”

Tamerra Griffin writes stories about women's soccer through the lens of the Black diaspora. A former soccer player herself, she was also a correspondent based in Kenya for BuzzFeed News, and has also reported in Sudan, Rwanda, Brazil, South Africa, Madagascar, and many other places.