Howler’s Guide To The 2018 NWSL Playoffs

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As we noted last month in our summer round-up, the 2018 NWSL season has been a wild ride. Two teams folded in the offseason, with one of them moving to Utah. Blockbuster trades, with one USWNT star refusing to play for the team she was traded to. Injuries. Natural disasters. Whatever’s happening at Sky Blue.

And on the pitch, it’s been one of the most exciting seasons in the league’s (admittedly short) history. The campaign culminated with one team standing high above the rest and breaking regular season records for wins, points, and goals scored.

Matchweek 24 wrapped up last weekend, and with it, the 2018 campaign came to a close. Now the four top teams in the league will battle it out for the biggest prize in American women’s soccer.

Consider this preview your ticket for the NWSL Playoffs Hype Train.

Semifinal 1

Portland Thorns vs Seattle Reign

Saturday, September 15th | Providence Park, Portland OR

3:00pm ET | Lifetime TV

If you follow the men’s game in this country, you know how intense the Portland-Seattle rivalry can get.

One need look no further than last week’s clash between the Thorns and the Reign to close out their respective regular season campaigns. Though these two teams hardly need added motivation when they face each other, hosting rights for their playoff game this weekend definitely added some spice to the evening.

Portland came out on top 3-1, earning the right to host their semifinal clash with Seattle. The defending NWSL Champions head into the weekend looking to cement their place as an elite team in the league. With a mix of USWNT stalwarts like Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan, invaluable glue players like Midge Purce and Ana-Maria Crnogorčević, and an undeniable legend in Christine Sinclair, the Thorns have fashioned themselves into an indomitable force.

But while the Thorns are readying the parade float for a second consecutive championship, the Reign come to town looking to let the air out of the tires. Considering how many people wrote Seattle off this season following some key personnel departures— including head coach Laura Harvey, who left for new challenges in Utah— the Reign are surely counting their playoff berth as a success in its own right. But don’t chalk this up to luck— Seattle got here thanks to an exceptionally talented roster who knew how to grind out results. This team is dangerous, and their opponents have underestimated them this season to their peril.

Players To Watch

For the home side, there’s an embarrassment of riches. Lindsey Horan has proven herself one of the best, and most complete, players in the league right now. Don’t be surprised to see her take home the season MVP award. Tobin Heath is that rare player that can anchor a team while introducing an element of chaos to the game; she’s gives the Thorns an X-factor that teams cannot ignore. And of course, legendary Canada international Christine Sinclair gives Portland muscle and attacking threat when it counts.

The obvious answer for Seattle is Megan Rapinoe. If she’s healthy— and as of this writing late Thursday night, it’s a shaky If— she can be a real difference maker for the Reign. Jodie Taylor led the team in goals this season, and as long as her feet stay hot she’ll be giving Portland problems all night. Finally, Jess Fishlock will be one to watch, if for no other reason than she just relishes the rivalry and her role as a gleeful antagonist to Portland and their fans.

Semifinal 2

North Carolina Courage vs Chicago Red Stars

Tuesday, September 18th | Providence Park, Portland OR

9:00pm ET | ESPNews

For much of this week there were real questions over whether this game was going to happen at all. With Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolinas, and the need to balance safety with scheduling and the Courage’s well-earned home field advantage, the league was stuck in a holding pattern for several days, waiting to see what would happen with the storm. Finally, the league announced yesterday that the game would be played on Tuesday (moved up from Sunday) at a neutral venue— Providence Park, in point of fact. No one’s really thrilled with this decision— and indeed, a quick glance at NC head coach Paul Riley’s Twitter feed suggests he’s absolutely furious— but it’s probably the Least Bad Option to make sure the game goes ahead and that the players and fans aren’t eaten by a megastorm.

With the scheduling and venue complications (hopefully) put to bed, we can focus on what will almost certainly be one of the most interesting match-ups of the year.

North Carolina are coming off a record-breaking season, setting a new bar for wins, points, and goals scored. They won the NWSL Shield with loads of time to spare, the logical end point of a season in which they steamrolled nearly everyone unfortunate enough to get in their way. (They lost just one game all season. One!) Whatever happens in the playoffs, the Courage were far and away the best team in the league this season, and nothing can take them away. Even without linchpin midfielder McCall Zerboni (who was injured while on international duty), this Courage team is absolutely frightening. Frankly, the only thing that can stop North Carolina from winning the championship at this point would be if forces beyond human comprehension step in and intervene; given the lingering curse on Shield winners and the hurricane slamming into the Eastern Seaboard, that doesn’t seem very far-fetched.

Meanwhile, the fact that the Red Stars are here at all is something of a miracle. The team traded their star forward Christen Press in exchange for 2017 MVP Sam Kerr, who couldn’t link up with her new team until a couple months into the season due to her obligations with the Australian national team. Then there was the plague of injuries to some of their key players, including USWNT’ers Julie Ertz and Casey Short. All this combined for a difficult first half of the season, which included a seven-game winless streak in April and May. But they eventually got all their heavy hitters back and started to gel as a team again. They went on a tear in the second half of the season, fighting all the way up from near the bottom of the standings into playoff contention before the rest of the league could catch their breath. Now they’re here and feeling more confident than they have in years. They may be underdogs, but North Carolina know not to underestimate Chicago.

Players To Watch

While North Carolina’s Lynn Williams just barely missed out on the Golden Boot this season, she’s proven herself as one of the most potent attacking threats in the league. The Courage will be looking to her to make the magic happen. Crystal Dunn, back this season after a stint with Chelsea, has been giving opposition defenders headaches all season and will surely be in her element on Tuesday. Finally, Abby Erceg will be crucial in holding North Carolina’s defensive line together, as she has been for much of the season.

Chicago biggest weapon heading into Tuesday is undoubtedly Sam Kerr, winner of the 2018 Golden Boot with 16 goals on the season and almost certainly one of the best players of any gender in the world right now. Julie Ertz has shifted between midfield and the backline all season, but wherever she goes she adds steel and resolve and an indomitable will to win. Finally, Morgan Brian is coming out on the other side of a long road through injury, rounding into form just when she, and he club, needed to.

NWSL Championship Final

Semifinal 1 Winner vs Semifinal 2 Winner

Saturday, September 22nd | Providence Park, Portland OR

4:30pm ET | Lifetime TV

All four teams deserve a trip to the Final. Any one of them would make for deserved champions. All of them played exciting, dominant soccer, and in so doing pushed the league forward. Everyone in the postseason exemplifies the best of what the 2018 campaign had to offer. And if the regular season was any indication, these playoffs will the kind you’ll talk about for years.

The next week or so will showcase the very best of women’s soccer in America. You won’t want to miss it.