Winning Team (2023) Movie Ending, Explained: Known for its conventional heterosexual (primarily white) romantic films, the American channel Hallmark has created a niche of family-friendly entertainment. These rom-com flicks, which mostly take the post-feminist ideology of the genre and frame it within a ‘back to Americana roots,’ have enjoyed massive success amongst conservative connoisseurs of the genre. In 2019, an outcry ensued after the channel pulled an ad featuring a lesbian couple.
Following this controversy, Hallmark underwent significant changes and steered towards an increased representation in its films. Their latest outing Winning Team (2023), is a product of this shift featuring an Asian-American female lead played by Nadia Hatta. Despite this, Winning Team employs the standard cuddly romantic formula for which Hallmark is known.
In this article, we examine the film’s ending and answer some of the questions from the narrative. As always, a SPOILER ALERT!
Winning Team (2023) Movie Synopsis & Plot Summary
The film begins with Emily (Nadia Hatta)—a soccer player in the woman’s team known to be one of the top-scoring performers in the league. However, following a personal tragedy, Emily has had trouble in the field, leading to several confrontations with the referee. During one particular match, Emily gets a red card when she argues with the referee causing her to be sent off from the team. As a result of her absence, Emily’s team loses the match. Their Coach, Avila (Marci T. House), is tired of Emily’s boisterous behavior and indefinitely suspends her from the team. Emily is furious at this suspension, but Coach Avila is adamant.
Emily’s suspension makes headlines. Seeing the news about her suspension, her brother Brandon (Raugi Yu) and niece Ava (Niki Garcia) give her a video call and ask Emily to visit their small town to help clear her mind. Emily is reluctant initially, but when Ava presses on, she agrees. It is later revealed that Ava’s mother, Caroline, has recently passed away following a cancer diagnosis. The loss has been especially hard on Emily as Caroline was not only a fellow team player but also her best friend.
Emily arrives at Southern Pines, where her brother resides. Ava, who also plays soccer for her school team Purple Thunder, is excited by Emily’s return and wants her to meet their coach. During an early morning run, Emily sees many guys playing soccer on the field. Ian (Kristoffer Polaha), one of the players, offers Emily to play the friendly match. She gladly joins the game, but in a bid to be competitive, Emily pushes Ian onto the ground while scoring a goal. Ian sprains his ankles and is taken to the hospital. As he leaves, Ian mentions that the game is meant for fun, not winning.
Later in the afternoon, Brandon receives a call mentioning that Ava’s coach has been injured and the school is looking for a temporary replacement. Brandon offers Emily the position. Initially, she is reluctant, but on Ava’s insistence, she agrees. When Emily arrives at the field to train the girls the next day, she is shocked to see an injured Ian (walking on crutches). Ian reveals that he was the team’s coach but cannot get back on the field after this temporary injury.
Emily begins training the girls as an Assistant Coach to Ian. During her training, she shuffles the entire team and teaches different tactics to them. This earns her the irk of Ian, and the two often have a battle of wits on the field. While Emily wants the girls to be fiercely competitive and win the game at all costs, Ian wants them to have fun while playing.
How Do Emily and Ian Settle Their Differences?
One night, Emily goes to a bar to relax. There she again accidentally spills a beer on Ian, who is frustrated by Emily’s clumsiness. Before Emily can leave the bar, Ian’s friend Noor (Morgana Wyllie) offers her to play a game of trivia as a team. Emily joins Ian, Noor, and their friend Dion. Their team gets several questions right but loses by a few points to another group. Emily, who hates to lose, turns sour by this defeat and does not stay to enjoy the consolation prize of chicken wings.
The next day on the field, Emily and Ian again get into an argument. Ava suggests that the two settle their differences so that their fight does not affect the entire team. Emily and Ian meet at the local diner to resolve their differences and discuss distinct coaching strategies. During their conversation, Emily finds out that Ian works as a consultant to strengthen small businesses in the town. When Emily drops the word’ relationship’ in her talk, Ian is slightly offended, but Emily does not probe further into his past.
Why Does Ava Feel An Inhibition In Doing Theatre?
One particular night, Emily overhears Ava rehearsing lines to audition for a stage adaptation of Twelfth Night. Later Ava confides in Emily that she is indecisive about the fact whether she should audition for the play. If she gets the part, she would have to dedicate the time to rehearsing for the play, which would mean losing on soccer practice. Ava fears that she will lose her college scholarship in the process and not get to play professionally like her mother and Emily. Emily affirms that Ava should do what her heart desires and not worry much about the future. Ava is comforted by the fact and auditions for the play—and manages to get the lead role.
What Does Emily Learn About Ian’s Past?
As Emily and Ian spend time with each other, they begin to learn more about one another. Emily realizes that Ian is divorced. He had intended to open a sports training center in Southern Pines, but his divorce made him despondent and prevented him from fulfilling his dream. When Ian takes Emily for rope-climbing, the receptionist there mistakes them for a couple. During the process, Emily is scared to cross the bridge due to her acrophobia, but Ian supports her throughout the process.
Following Emily’s training, the school team ends up winning the quarterfinals. At the team party, Emily and Ian participate in a three-legged race and win. Slowly, Emily begins to feel at home at Southern Pines, and her bonds with Ava also strengthen. Once after a training session, Ian takes Emily home for a cooking lesson.
There he ends up recounting his tragic past. We learn that Ian supported his wife through medical school, but when she completed her training, she did not want to return to Southern Pines, which was too small for her big dreams. She could either be a great doctor or wife—and she chose the former. Ian chose to stay in Southern Pines to help his community. Following the divorce, Ian began avoiding himself as he felt like a failure in his relationship.
As the two watch a starry night sky, Emily also reveals that she has avoided the town since Caroline died. She also mentions that she missed out on several things in life due to her dedication to sports. Following this, Ian takes Emily to paint pinewood carts—which she couldn’t do during childhood. This gesture flatters Emily. However, when Ian tries to kiss her, Emily hesitates to reciprocate.
The school team further wins the semi-finals thanks to Emily’s training.
Why Does Emily Leave Southern Pines?
Over time, Emily develops a friendly camaraderie with Ian and other town folks. Thanks to Emily’s fierce spirit, Ian also learns to be more competitive. On the contrary, Emily realizes that sport isn’t just about winning but about fun and teamwork. After the semi-final win, Ian asks Emily out on a date, and she agrees.
During the date, Emily receives a call from Coach Avila, who tells her that she has been reinstated into the team. A joyful Emily instantly accepts the offer and decides to head back to Chicago. Ian is heartbroken to learn this, but Emily tells him that she cannot sacrifice her career to stay in Southern Pines. After an argument, Ian leaves.
As Emily prepares to leave, she goes to bid Ian a final goodbye, but a curt Ian does not pay much heed to her. Following a tearful moment with Ava and Brandon, Emily heads back to Chicago. She is welcomed by her team, but Emily seems disinterested in playing. After pondering about her prospects, Emily decides to talk to the Coach.
Winning Team (2023) Ending Explained
Why Does Emily Return To Southern Pines In The End?
Emily’s departure saddens Ava. But to her surprise, Emily turns up on the day of her Twelfth Night performance. Ian is surprised to see Emily back and enquires after her. Emily reveals that she realized that soccer isn’t everything—and that she can be both a great soccer player as well as a good person. Before Emily and Ian can talk about their relationship, Ava interrupts them.
The next day in the final championship game, Emily and Ian coach the girls for one last time. Emily also brings special jackets for each team player as well as one for Ian and herself. Ian looks at Emily’s jacket, which reads, “Assistant Coach.” He crosses out ‘Assistant’ from Emily’s jacket, telling her that she has been the real coach for girls all along. Emily reveals that thanks to Ian, she finally realized to value her relationships. She further states that she has joined a soccer team in Seattle which is just an hour’s drive from Southern Pines. Ian is elated to learn this and mentions that he has signed the lease to develop the sports training center in town.
Before the match, Emily tells the girls to have fun and not just win—finally learning the lesson that winning isn’t always important. Nevertheless, Ava’s team manages to win the championship as well. Emily and Ian tell each other that ‘they both won’ and share a passionate kiss as the triumphant team surrounds them. The film ends with a promise of a fresh beginning for both our protagonists.