Trinity Rodman Was the NWSL Final's True MVP
And she just might've been the true MVP of the entire competition.
The 2021 NWSL season hasn’t been short of surprises, which is why it was perhaps fitting that the Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars were the two teams that faced off to decide the final of the competition.
The Spirit looked way off championship form in the middle of the campaign, enduring inconsistent results as a byproduct of an abusive coach in Richie Burke, who was fired in August, kickstarting both a wider reckoning within women’s football and a 10-match unbeaten run (barring two forfeited games) for the Spirit.
Even as Washington’s quality ascended, they still had to clinch a finals spot under miraculous circumstances. OL Reign — the #2 seed and the overwhelming favorites to progress — absolutely crushed their opponents on xG in the semi-finals but the scoreline refused to budge after Ashley Sanchez made it 2-1.
The Chicago Red Stars looked even less likely to get anywhere near glory at the start of the year. They flopped in the Challenge Cup and didn’t record their first win until the third NWSL matchday, not to mention that they’ve endured multiple absences and injuries to key players, such as Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher.
Mallory Pugh, an MVP finalist and the player that dragged the Red Stars’ attack through the regular season, wasn’t even available in the semis vs. Portland due to COVID protocol. To make matters worse, starting forward Kealia Watt had to bow out injured in the 29th minute of that encounter.
Chicago’s offense predictably took a huge hit, but their defense did a much sturdier job than Washington at keeping the favorites at bay.
Although the Thorns would no doubt argue that the result was unfortunate, 1.16 xG off of 21 shots is nothing special and reflects how effective the Red Stars were at shutting off access to the center and forcing low-percentage attempts.
All of this is to say: we’d had our fill of surprises leading up to the final. If you didn’t expected the unexpected — now you did. What was left to shock us in a matchup between two underdogs that had overcome the most improbable of odds? Everyone knew that anything could happen at that point, right?
Oh, my precious sweet summer child.
Look, Aubrey Bledsoe is quite clearly a top class player. Besides being named Goalkeeper of the Year, she’s rated quite highly by advanced metrics like American Soccer Analysis’ G+:
Without her, the Spirit probably wouldn’t have come this far. Heck, they might not have even won the final.
Bledsoe pulled off a massive 1v1 save at the death to deny Makenzy Doniak and keep Washington in the lead. It was a decisive moment that undeniably stuck in the minds of the award presenters as the clock wound down.
However, at the end of the day, Aubrey Bledsoe only faced 3 shots on target — the Red Stars simply didn’t offer much of a threat going forward. The real challenge was breaking down the defense that had stifled the best offense in the league (based on underlying numbers) the prior week.
And it was a challenge that Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman cracked, although it took awhile.
Chicago’s defensive setup was textbook: a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 mid-block that cramped the center and looked to usher the opposition out wide. The second line was compact and staggered to prevent attacking midfielder Ashley Sanchez from finding easy pockets of space, while one of the front two shadowed defensive midfielder Andi Sullivan.
In the event that Sullivan lost her marker, CM’s Morgan Gautrat and Sarah Woldmoe stepped up to continue denying close passing options and to buy recovery time for those ahead of them.
Gautrat and Woldmoe were similarly important whenever the Spirit managed to find an avenue on the touchline, shuttling over to prevent a pass back into the center and daring their rivals to make the difficult play from tighter areas.
When combined with the brutal physicality and numerous stoppages of play, the first half was mostly a wash.
Both sides split possession nearly equally and were close in shot count and shot quality, with very few attempts managing to trouble the keepers. It was exactly the type of final that Chicago wanted — scrappy and ugly — and their approach did a decent job of restraining Rodman (initially).
If we take a gander at the rookie’s most relevant actions before halftime, you can see how the vast majority arrived as a result of some kind of transition situation.
The Spirit struggled mightily to find their star on their own terms and put up a big dud in settled possession.
Rodman still managed to produce threat here and there but it was all stuff Chicago were willing to live with. “If Rodman is going to beat us from a random counter, so be it,” they must’ve thought.
Rather problematically for Washington, those transitions dried up in the second half after left back Arin Wright dropped Kelley O’Hara and whipped in a ball at the far post. Rachel Hill dispatched the delivery (nice deceptive in-out movement to create separation by the way), putting the Red Stars up by one going into the tunnel.
Considering that Pugh had just picked up an injury that would rule her out for the rest of the game, the stage was set for the scoreline leaders to concede the ball and park the bus.
Indeed, the Spirit saw nearly 60% possession in the second period, but they made much more of what they had in comparison to before.
This is where the physicality and ugliness of it all came back to bite Chicago. There’s nothing inherently wrong about playing to defend a lead, but it is absolutely necessary to have outlets up front to periodically relieve pressure and pin would-be attackers back. With Pugh lost to the bloody affair of the first forty-five minutes and Vanessa DiBernardo forced to come off in the 13th minute, the Red Stars had few real offensive options left and O’Hara no longer had to fear the repercussions of bombing forward.
Of course, Washington still had to make this advantage account, and they exited the dressing room with a tweaked plan.
Certain commentators and analysts might point out that the Spirit did a better job of playing at tempo and rotating the ball from side-to-side. This was true to an extent, but the most significant change was far less sexy. To put it simply: Kris Ward’s side went long.
In the first half, Washington executed the home run pass 7.6% of the time. That upped to 12.8% after the break.
Why try to ram through an impenetrable wall when you can simply vault over it? Especially when the force barricading the gates doesn’t have the firepower to counter-attack, as mentioned before.
There’s a logic to disorganizing the defense by manufacturing second balls when the risk of getting hurt by a turnover is minimized in the absence of Pugh (and Watt). It’s not a traditionally high-percentage tactic but neither is circulating at the back without being able to access Rodman.
And Rodman was the key. Despite the tactical shift, the Spirit didn’t kick into gear until the 19-year-old went Super Saiyan over a dazzling five-minute stretch. It’s telling that two of the four moments in this interval were derived from all her own work.
You know what that shot crashing off the post reminds me of? A LeFuck You Three. You know, one of those triples that LeBron James sinks from the logo when he’s really feeling it.
Its value isn’t so much in its efficiency — it’s not an efficient shot at all, in fact, just as an attempt from 25-30 yards out from an acute angle isn’t — but in the way its sheer audacity can serve as a galvanizing force.
In LeBron’s case, it’s the ultimate tool of demoralization. When defenses see the net ripple, they know they’re in trouble.
In Rodman’s, it was the ultimate tool of inspiration. It served as a potent reminder of what she’s capable of — for herself and her teammates; the latter of which prompted the likes of O’Hara and Emily Sonnet to fire those long passes into Rodman with increasing urgency.
Across five minutes of breathtaking showmanship, the devilish winger alternated solo efforts — the sideline dribble and nutmeg is sicko shit — with diagonal off-ball runs, eventually resulting in the play in the 66th minute. Rodman won the second ball, looked up, and clipped a deft pass into the area, resulting in a frantic Tierna Davidson challenge and a penalty.
Andi Sullivan duly converted.
Finally, the Spirit had found a way to force the ball to the most dangerous player on the pitch more or less at will.
This had the knock-on effect of involving others who had been ghosting up until that point. Increased final third entries allowed Tara McKeown to fly onto a cross and nod it beyond the post before the invisible Ashley Sanchez reappeared and started to make something of Rodman’s service.
Sanchez was also helped by Trinity’s renewed sense of purpose off the dribble:
With the teenager spurring a 17-shot explosion, the Spirit could’ve easily closed things out in the second half.
As fate would have it, we went into extra time and the toll of the previous forty-five minutes materialized. Lines began to loosen, compactness started to erode, and Washington were able to find the winner through the manner in which they originally intended to attack:
And then, after all of that, Aubrey Bledsoe got to make her save.
I might be reading too much into it, but the lack of official recognition in the final might be a sign that we don’t fully realize what we’re seeing with Rodman. If she wasn’t a rookie how might we rate this performance, where she completely altered a game in 300 seconds before fashioning the winning assist in extra time?
How might we assess her entire NWSL campaign if she wasn’t a rookie, where she popped in every advanced metric and created 12 goals+assists in the regular season?
We seem to have a very good understanding that she’s in rarified air for her age (i.e. the ROTY award), but do we seem to realize that she’s in rarified air for any age group, period?
If you do, congratulations. You’re smart. If you don’t, not to worry. There’s still plenty of time to jump on the hype train.
She’s only 19, after all.