We rely on this weekend’s NWSL Final to be the torch that guides us through the darkness of the International Break. The game [5 p.m. Sunday ET on FS1] at BBVA Stadium in Houston sees the Washington Spirit take on the Western New York Flash with both teams in search of their first NWSL title.
Lead by World Cup Champion, D.C. hometown hero and GFOP Ali Krieger, the Spirit have come a long way since finishing the 2013 inaugural NWSL season dead last, winning just three of 22 games. From Marcy to Madison Square, as Jay Z says. Krieger and the Spirit defense will be tasked with stopping 23-year-old 2016 NWSL MVP and Golden Boot Winner Lynn Williams. The Fresno, Calif.-native notched a brace in the Flash’s 4 - 3 semifinal extra time win in front of 20,000 screaming fans in Portland.
We spoke with both Ali and Lynn about Sunday’s match. We start with Lynn, with whom we spoke via phone Tuesday. At the time, she had yet to receive her first USWNT call up. We asked about her goals with the national team and her answer was simply remarkable. Unfortunately, Jill Ellis did not take the distribution of the Men in Blazers newsletter into account when she named Williams to her first USWNT roster Thursday ahead of a pair of games against Switzerland later this month. While it's now dated, we decided to leave Williams answer about the USWNT in the below interview because it aptly illustrates her amazing approach to football.
MiB: That semifinal, though. A 4 - 3, holy crap, end-to-end affair against the NWSL Shield winners at a packed Providence Park. You score not once, but twice in EXTRA TIME to fell a Thorns side loaded with established internationals. When the final whistle blew, what was going through your head?
Lynn: It was definitely the game of all games. I keep joking, saying it was a spectator's dream and a player's nightmare. But, truthfully, as a player, you live for those games. You go to Portland and they have 20,000 fans. They're not rooting for us, but seeing how much support the NWSL has, and being given the opportunity to play before a crowd like that, you go in, give it your all, and hope for the best.
It was a hard-fought battle. We put everything on the line. It was physical. Bodies were worn down. When that final whistle blew, I almost dropped to my knees and put my hands in the air, but I thought that was a bit too dramatic. In that final moment, I thought, ‘Thank goodness.’ It's so amazing see all of our hard work and grit come together. Knowing that I went to battle with some of my best friends and teammates out there, it was just such a surreal feeling.
MiB: You are a direct, in your face, offensive team. ESPN’s Graham Hays quoted your coach Paul Riley as saying, “Even if I told them to park the bus, they wouldn’t park the bus. They’d just ignore me.” How do you describe your team’s style of play?
Lynn: Since day one, Paul has instilled a belief in the team that, “Yes, we are young, but we're talented.” And I think the youth on our side makes us a little crazy, but also a little unpredictable. I don't think we have it in us to sit and back and just park the bus. We want to go and go and go. We're just a fast-paced team. We like the speed of the game. We don't really have an off speed. I think that started at the beginning of the season when Paul said, "We're going to pressure, and we're going to pressure hard as a team." Now, when you ask us to sit back, we're like, “We don't know how to do that.” It's not wired in our brain anymore.
MiB: You scored 11 goals this season to earn the Golden Boot. Regardless of what happens Sunday, you’ve left an indelible mark on the season and the playoffs. You are an established USA U-23 star. Have you heard from Jill Ellis yet about your amazing season?
Lynn: I haven't talked to Jill Ellis yet. One of my dreams is to be on the national team, and play for my country. Last year, I injured my knee and had to watch as, not just the people I idolize, but some of my close friends got called up. And, I think if you focus on that, you start to eat yourself alive. But when I was hurt, I tried to regroup and think about what I love doing. I love playing soccer. I really hope to play for the national team someday. It’s my dream. But it’s not the end-all be-all. I have to focus on Sunday and winning a NWSL championship and go from there.
Ahhh (Rog Pod sigh)... now to Washington Spirit captain Ali Krieger, one of three players (we see you Tori Huster and Diana Matheson) who has been a member of the Spirit for each of its four NWSL seasons.
MiB: You’ve been on the Spirit since the inaugural season. Talk about how far the team has come, what’s allowed for that change, and what it all means to you as someone who’s been there from the jump.
Ali: It’s been a wild ride. The three of us [Ali, Tori, and Diana] who have been here during that time joked before we played the semifinal, “Do you remember that first year?” I thought I wanted to quit soccer because it was so bad. The struggle was real. So it’s amazing to see the reward now, sitting in the final, preparing for the championship. I'm extremely happy. I'm so proud of the team. And it’s such a deserving group of women who have dug really deep this year and come out on top. I feel like we're sitting in first class and we’re motivated not to go back.
MiB: You are proper Washington, DC, hailing from nearby Woodbridge, Va. The region’s football culture is embedded in your soul. What would it mean to you to bring a championship to the region?
Ali: It would be one of the best moments of my career, right behind winning a World Cup and a Champion’s League Final. I've always wanted to win a championship in the professional league in the U.S., especially for my hometown team. These are the moments why we play professional football, and why I love to play in DC. I dreamt about bringing a championship to the city when I was growing up and watching the Freedom play in the WUSA. I remember watching Steffi Jones, Abby Wambach, and Mia Hamm, these powerful inspiring women, bring the trophy home in 2003. And that was such a great moment for the city and for young girls growing up in this area. It’s what I've always wanted for this club.
MiB: Your team is a collective in every sense of the word. Every player who started the season on the team’s roster has started at least seven of the 20 regular season games this year. You’ve had 11 goal scorers. What kind of advantage does this give you in a final?
Ali: We share the ball. We trust each other. We really understand what it is to be a team. We try and go out there and make each other look good and put each other in great situations to be successful. We're not anywhere near individualistic. We are a team. We fight for each other and support each other. If we make a mistake, we make that mistake together. And we all take responsibility for that. If we succeed, we succeed together. We’ve always said that if we take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.
If you’re in the Houston area, or fancy a last minute road trip, a few tickets to the NWSL Final still remain. They are available HERE. The game airs on television Sunday at 5 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.