Two months ago, sitting in a sports bar in Denton, Texas, I watched the US Women’s National Team wash out in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics, exiting a major tournament without a medal for the first time ever.
A week ago, sitting in a chair on the side of the field at BBVA Compass Stadium, I watched the Washington Spirit come within thirty seconds of their first ever NWSL championship only to let it slip away to the Western New York Flash.
The parallels are easily drawn. Missed chances. Poorly taken penalty kicks. The loss of the higher-ranked, arguably better team. Then why did the loss to Sweden—as baffling and disheartening as it was—sting so much less than Washington’s loss to the Flash? After all, I’ve followed the USWNT avidly for more than half my life, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m Dash to the core, not Spirit.
(In the interests of full disclosure, if I had to pick a team in 2013, it would have been the Spirit, and although Texan loyalty demanded I switch to the Dash upon their arrival in Houston in 2014, which I did promptly, wholeheartedly, and without regret, there remains a lingering hint of that first love for the Spirit.)
I’m not the only person to express this sentiment—far from it, in fact. What’s unusual is the sentiment itself. With women’s professional soccer in the US on its third league and with heavy player movement, it’s been hard for fans to develop attachment to teams over players. Add to that the fact that the USWNT is often treated like a club team and you end up with a fanbase where club over country is a foreign concept.
So, what made this game (or this team) special?
Maybe it’s the fact that they were just that: a team. From having 11 different goalscorers to utilizing their bench more thoroughly than any other team (only two rostered players played fewer than 11 games, and one of those was a midseason signing), they played, first and foremost, as a team. This was exemplified in their 2-1 win at Orlando on August 26, when Christine Nairn scored after a series of 15 uninterrupted Washington passes that involved every field player. And it’s why, despite consistently staying at or near the top of the table all year long, only two Washington players received any 2016 NWSL awards, with Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn making the Second XI. This wasn’t a group led by a star or two; this was a team. Maybe that made them easier to love.
Maybe it’s that they did so much right during the final. After Jim Gabarra surprised everyone by coming out with a three-back system, freeing Megan Oyster from the bench while moving fullbacks Krieger and Caprice Dydasco (subbed for Alyssa Kleiner after injuring her knee) up to wingers, the Spirit weathered an early Flash storm and proceeded to more or less control the game. Even Paul Riley and his players admitted in their post-match press conference that Washington had been the better team and the Flash hadn’t played their best game.
Ultimately, though, soccer is a sport where just a few seconds can change the course of an entire 90 minutes. Washington failed to seal the deal, and two defensive missteps allowed the Flash to equalize twice. But it’s hard not to cheer for a team that steadily proved themselves throughout the season and came so very, very close to winning it all.
Maybe it’s because the atmosphere in Houston was so very pro-Washington. Combine the shorter travel time with the presence of popular USWNT player Krieger, add in the superb performance by the Spirit Squadron, and you have all the makings of what felt like a home game for Washington. The Spirit Squadron brought the drums and the chants all game long, and the crowd roared at every Washington opportunity. Sitting amongst that for two hours, it was hard not to get caught up in it all.
Maybe it’s because the Olympic loss was not so baffling after all. There was always going to come a point when the US didn’t medal at a tournament. We’ve been saying that other teams are catching up for the last 20 years, so this loss was in some ways inevitable. Not to mention, the US play in that game was nothing new; the shaky defense, lack of chemistry, and wasteful attack have been cause for complaint for much of 2016. No, once the shock subsided, that loss made sense in some ways, even if the knowledge didn’t make it any easier.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that we (fans in the collective sense) have turned a page. Maybe we’ve realized that it’s possible to support a club team and a National Team with equal fervor. Maybe—and most importantly—we accept that the NWSL is here to stay. We’ve let go of the fear that comes after being burned by two previous leagues. We know that it’s okay to love a club team with everything we have because although the players may move around, the team will still be here next year and the year after that.
And if it took an exciting yet heartbreaking championship game to do so, that’s a price easily paid.