By Rusty Gorelick
Boston University News Service
Anna Heilferty felt her legs shaking as she prepared to enter the National Women’s Soccer League Championship as a substitute.
The Boston University alumna took her spot on the wing for the Washington Spirit against the Chicago Red Stars in front of 10,360 fans and plenty more watching on CBS. She entered in the 74th minute with the teams tied 1-1 and extra time looming.
Heilferty made two passes leading to shots and pressed the opposition in her 46 minutes of play. The Spirit scored in the sixth minute of extra time and held on to win the game, and the NWSL Championship, by a 2-1 scoreline.
This match culminated the rookie season of the 19th-overall pick in the 2021 NWSL draft, who appeared in 19 matches while playing multiple positions. Now, the NWSL Champion is back with the Spirit and looking to build on the team’s — and her own — successes.
“Being a part of [a championship team] in my first year, I realized how much it took to get there and how many sacrifices we had to make,” Heilferty said. “And then, our personal journey as a team was one full of adversity. So, I would say it was a great season, learned a lot, and I think it was a master class on the league.”
Long before the Spirit took the field in Louisville, Kentucky, for the championship game, a report from The Washington Post alleged that then-head coach Richie Burke and his coaching staff created a toxic environment within the club. An independent investigation reported on by The Athletic uncovered further details: Burke made racist comments during practices, the club traded star players out of spite, and the top men at the club — owner Stephen Baldwin, director of sporting operations Larry Best, Burke, and assistant coach Tom Torres — created a negative atmosphere for the rest of the franchise due to their close relationships and extreme loyalty to each other. Best, Burke and Torres left the club, and Baldwin resigned from his position as managing partner and sold his stake in the team to new managing partner Michele Kang.
The first wave of allegations surfaced on August 7, 2021. Aside from two matches, the Spirit forfeited due to a breach of COVID protocols, the team did not lose from that date through the championship game. Through two games in 2022, the team still hasn’t lost.
“There was so much happening off the field, and it was kind of like, ‘now’s the time to put that behind us and just focus on the talent that we have and playing soccer,’” Heilferty said. “I feel like, for a lot of the season, that wasn’t able to be our focus because there was so much happening around us.”
Heilferty held down her spot on the championship-winning team, which consists of six United States Women’s National Team players. She saw the talent before the season began: “Pretty early on, even before the season started, it was clear the talent was there to win [the championship]. It was like, ‘we have things to figure out, as every team does,’ but talent-wise, our team was stacked in every position.”
She didn’t know she could play at that level until the fall of 2020: COVID-19 canceled BU’s soccer season, so the Falls Church, Virginia, native took advantage of remote learning in her senior season and trained with the DMV’s biggest club. Those sessions resulted in Heilferty becoming a second-round draft pick.
The 22-year-old’s biggest adjustment to professional life happened off the field. She went from being a student-athlete at BU to a full-time soccer player in the NWSL.
“The biggest part [of playing professionally] is how you reset every day and how you prepare for each day to come in, contribute, and play your role,” Heilferty said.
As a versatile player who saw time on both wings, at left-back, and in midfield, Heilferty played many roles for the Spirit in her rookie season. BU women’s soccer head coach Nancy Feldman, entering her 28th season in the job, said her former player looked like she belongs in the pros.
“She’s confident, which is a hard thing to be when you’re not one of the most heralded draftees and you’re trying to stick on a roster,” Feldman said. “You have to know that by daily consistent actions, you can make a name for yourself. She used her first year to establish herself as a professional and stayed on the roster this year.”
Feldman said Heilferty’s strengths as a player lie in her field vision, ability to use both feet, and flair — the ability to do the unexpected. The longtime coach said her former player took a leap forward before her junior year when she moved to left-back, became a stronger defender, and followed BU’s strength and conditioning program.
Heilferty was BU’s top scorer and assister in her sophomore year, but a lack of depth in defense plus Feldman’s desire to make Heilferty a more well-rounded player caused the positional change. Playing in a role further from the goal, Heilferty was tasked with initiating possessions rather than finishing them.
Feldman said the fact the Spirit brought her back is a testament to her quality on and off the pitch, saying Heilferty led by example at BU as a talented player who was also the hardest worker.
“I’m so thankful that I had that move,” Heilferty said. “I think in the moment, I was probably like, ‘aw, they’re taking me away from the goal and I want to be closer to the attacking positions,’ but now, going into my second [professional] season, I play left-back predominantly. … Nancy knew that I could play there probably more than I knew I could play there.”
Even after winning a championship in her rookie season and sticking around for a second year, Heilferty remains humble and recognizes her value as a utility player. That said, she looks forward to helping her teammates defend the title.
“It’s going to be an exciting year to build off the foundation from last year,” Heilferty said. “I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think it’ll be a good one.”