Rarely do finals turn out to be great games. When it all comes down to one game, teams tend to prioritize no mistakes over getting truly brave, and wait for their chance. Obviously, nerves play their own part, too, as the stakes become impossible to ignore.
Before the NWSL final started, the feeling was that it might be the same. Given their injury list and their path and style of getting to the final, the Chicago Red Stars were always going to try and gum things up and the hope Mallory Pugh and Rachel Hill could create something on the counter, needing only one to work out to win. The Washington Spirit were keenly aware of that, and while they did carry most of the game, they were also wary of being countered in the first half.
Even more rarely than a great game do we get a signature performance from a player who just grabs the game by the ankles, hangs it upside down, and shakes it until the necessary lunch money falls out. And Haley’s-comet-rare is when that player is a rookie. Magic Johnson is the only name to come to mind, right? You can add Trinity Rodman to that list now.
The Red Stars main plan for the past few weeks has been to stuff the middle defensively through Morgan Gautrat and Sarah Woldmoe in front of their defense, force teams to attack out wide, and provide those wide players no options. It’s how they muzzled the league’s best team, the Portland Thorns. So in some ways, Rodman was given the platform by the Red Stars tactics, but that makes it no less impressive. Chicago’s plan was to let her have the ball and then construct walls around her. Rodman consistently took a wrecking ball to those.
From both flanks, Rodman was a dervish. Dribbling through two or three players at a time, terrorizing either fullback with the threat of her speed just going past them, and when the Spirit were trailing, shooting from everywhere and setting up teammates. Maybe it got a touch hero-ball at points, but that’s just about all the Spirit were allowed by the Red Stars. And if you have someone capable of making hero-ball work...
Rodman dragged the Spirit back from a goal down against a fully bunkered-in opponent in the second half. She set up the penalty that equalized, chasing down the ball after losing the initial header and threading the ball into the box to Tara McKeown, who was then fouled.
This was after Rodman nearly equalized herself when she turned Tatumn Milazzo so impolitely that it left tire marks and then unleashed this ICBM that will have the near post waking up in cold sweats for years:
Rodman then assisted the winner for Kelley O’Hara in extra-time, with a cross so surgical that it should be viewed by med students from an operating theater.
To reduce Rodman’s performance to merely her goal contributions wouldn’t be fair. Especially in the second half, every time Rodman touched the ball everyone in Louisville held their breath, especially the Red Stars. This was legend-making stuff, and almost certainly will be referenced as the starting point whatever Rodman goes on to accomplish. And that feels like it’ll be MVPs and Ballon D’ors in the not too distant future.
Rodman ended the game with eight shots, three on target, five chances created, five dribbles succeeded (which seems short), and four key passes, all of which led the game. She’s also just 19, which is yet another impolite act, to simply dominate the league’s biggest game while still a teenager.
Rodman is clearly the future of the USWNT, and it’s a shame we won’t get to see her in the upcoming friendlies in Australia as Vlatko Andonovski begins the process of turning the team over to the next generation. It’s more disappointing that it’s reportedly due to Rodman’s unvaccinated status. But they’re only friendlies, and there may yet still come a day when COVID isn’t with us, or still a major part of our lives. What matters, in soccer terms, is the summer of 2023. Rodman has the audacity on the ball of Tobin Heath, just at a higher speed. Though it’s probably on the opposite wing of Heath that Rodman’s immediate future lies, should Megan Rapinoe start to exit from the scene or retire altogether.
Those debates can wait. Maybe being 19 is just young enough to not know you’re not supposed to win a championship game all on your own, or to be brave enough to know you can. If this is where Rodman starts, no destination is out of reach.