NWSL Playoffs Look-Out
Folks, there are lots of reasons to like our National Women’s Soccer League: our players are a homogenous mix of homegrowns and internationals, World Champions and Olympians, athletes and entertainers. Now, roughly 80 of them are up for (arguably) the highest national honor, the NWSL Championship. Below, prepare for a dive into team dynamics, face-offs, and who to watch for this weekend.
Saturday, October 7, 3:30 PM ET, LIFETIME
No. 2 Portland Thorns FC (14-5-5) hosts No. 3 Orlando Pride (11-6-7)
For both teams, this season has been one of growth, depth development, and learning to maneuver around missing links in the field, namely Tobin Heath for the Thorns and Ashlyn Harris and Alex Morgan for the Pride. Looking at the season behind us, we can see two teams who have fought hard for this well-earned matchup. The Pride is coming hot off the regular season from a nine-game undefeated streak, the most recent being an upset against the no. 1 Courage on the road. Meanwhile, the Thorns finished the regular season with a record 10 wins (out of twelve games) at home, the best since the conceptional of the NWSL. They set another record at the hands of goalkeeper Adrianna Franch (newly engaged to her fiancee, btw—check out that *super gay* #blackgirlmagic) with a new NWSL single-season record of 11 shutouts.
The Thorns, a well-established team in the league, has impressive versatility and depth, which is clear from their stats sheet. Goals are dispersed pretty evenly among forwards Christine Sinclair (8), Nadia Nadim (6), and Hayley Raso (6), but there are some surprising names on the sheet as well—namely, defenders. When your centerback scores 3 game-clinching goals (Emily Sonnett) and your outside back has seven assists (Meghan Klingenberg), you know your fans are hooked on that ~entertainment factor~. Portland, you’ve definitely earned your nickname of “Soccer City, USA.”
On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said about having two lethal, world-renowned strikers in your arsenal. Marta (who, yes, only needs one name because she’s a five-time FIFA Women’s Player of the Year) found incredible chemistry with Alex Morgan as the two combined to rack up 22 goals and 10 assists between them. The duo has proven to be an offensive force to be reckoned with.
When you throw defenders Camila (yes, another single-name Brazilian) and Allana Kennedy into the mix, each with four goals themselves, it’s truly a tough match between two teams with a strong offensive presence (it also kind of begs the question “where the fuck is your midfield?” but I digress). Despite the strong offense, though, their defenses both hold up, too. Case in point, when the teams last met on September 23, the game ended in a 0-0 draw.
While both teams are coming off incredible momentum from last week’s games, the Thorns have the edge for 3 reasons: home-field advantage, injury status, and sentimentality. While playing at Providence Park doesn’t guarantee a win, it’s easy for the 17,000+ crowd to keep a player going until the last whistle. Meanwhile, Camila—a Pride game-changer—is out with ACL and MCL injuries, just as Tobin Heath is making her return. Heath’s made two league appearances on the pitch since recovering from a back injury, and her presence was almost immediately noticed both times.
If she’s in full form and match fit by Saturday, the Thorns could be looking at an entirely new game than what they’ve played all season. And if that’s not enough, the fire in the Thorns’ bellies might be redemption for the shock upset they were handed by the then-Western New York Flash (now NC Courage) at home in last year’s semi. A chance to redeem themselves at home and meet with the Courage in Orlando may be just the boost that brings home the win.
Sunday, October 8, 3:30 PM, LIFETIME
No. 1 North Carolina Courage (16-7-1) hosts No. 4 Chicago Red Stars (11-7-6)
It’s been a historic inaugural season for the North Carolina Courage. After winning the 2016 NWSL championship as the Western New York Flash, they adjusted seamlessly to new ownership to end the regular season as victors. They have not only secured the Shield (the annual award to the team with the best regular season record) but as the no. 1 seed in the playoffs, they host the Red Stars on home turf.
The Courage is second in the league with goals scored at 36, trailing the Pride (and their superbabe superstar forwards) by six. They also have a solid back line and have recorded a dozen clean sheets this season, so going up against the star power of Christen Press and Sofia Huerta of the Red Stars will be a challenge the defense can meet head-on. Their team is solid all the way through, with Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, and Lynn Williams leading their respective thirds with strength and composition.
One of the most fun Courage players to watch this season has been Ashley Hatch, a rookie from fucking BYU and second overall pick in the 2017 NWSL College Draft. She’s a safe bet for Rookie of the Year, playing 1200 minutes of soccer in 22 games, resulting in seven goals and one assist for her team.
Despite the Courage’s impressive season, though, the Red Stars are coming into Cary, NC with an undefeated season record against them (3-0-0). I’d venture that the Courage, despite their accolades, ranking, and home-field advantage, are the underdog in this match, especially if the Red Stars come out blazing. The Courage hasn’t been great at coming back from behind, so if the Red Stars can capitalize on dominating the first half with a goal or two, it could help secure a win. And something tells me they’re starting line will be coming out with something to prove.
Last week, the Red Stars took a unique approach to clinching where and who they’d play in the playoffs–coach Rory Dames sat his starters (six of whom have been USWNT regular call-ups this season) in favor of getting his second string some playing time. Whether it was to rest his stars’ legs, secure a playoff game against the (already-beaten three times) Courage, or add some fuel to the fire in his starting line, I hope he succeeded. There’s nothing like an angry bench chomping at the bit to prove themselves and it’s going to make for a fast, aggressive, competitive game.
I’d keep an eye out for the Christen Press/Sofia Huerta connection on Sunday. The chemistry between these two has been off the charts this season (on the field, mind you), and when you throw Casey Short and Julie Ertz into the mix, you get a glimpse of why the Red Stars keep producing National Team regulars.
I predict a Thorns vs. Red Stars Championship match-up, but for sentimentality’s sake, I’d love to see the Pride playing on their home field in Orlando to win the title. Honestly, all four teams are going into their games after a season of developing strong chemistry, creating depth, and improving communication and skill, so the ball is really in anyone’s court. Statistically, the games belong to the Thorns and Courage, but the best thing about the NWSL is that each game is anyone’s game.
That’s it for our sports wrap-up this week, folks. Tune in for both games on LIFETIME at 3:30 ET Saturday and Sunday, pick a team (or total babe of a player) to cheer for and help us grow the game.