Orlando Pride's season may be over, but the NWSL is just now reaching its climax with the playoffs rapidly approaching. Why not take an in-depth look at the final four teams standing?
Currently, four teams are gearing up to enter this weekend's semifinal stage. The Portland Thorns, Washington Spirit, Chicago Red Stars and Western New York Flash have all punched their tickets to the biggest women's professional soccer event in America.
The top two teams, Portland and Washington, will each be hosting their respective games against Chicago and Western New York.
The Portland Thorns have been out to make statement after failing to make the finals of the NWSL since their championship back in 2013. Their 12-3-5 record speaks loudly enough to show that they mean business. After not even qualifying for the playoffs last season, new head coach Mark Parsons came in and reshaped the team, bringing in players like Nadia Nadim, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett, Amandine Henry, Hayley Raso, and Meghan Klingenberg, making the Thorns the largest international program in the League. These players, while on their own are powerful, combined to create an offensively scary team. Led by Tobin Heath, Allie Long, and Christine Sinclair, they were not lacking in talent. Perhaps the largest reason for their success falls on veteran and captain Heath, the likely recipient of the upcoming 2016 NWSL MVP award. Parsons said it best in an interview following one of the early season wins,
"We’ve got f**king Tobin Heath. When we get her the ball, special things happen." said Parsons
Heath leads the league in assists and captained the team for the majority of the season while Sinclair was out with an injury. Expect to see Parsons rely heavily on Heath and Long in the upcoming game against Western New York.
Western New York Flash
The Flash are the big surprise this season, after placing last and failing to qualify for the playoffs the past two seasons. The past two years they have lost major big-name players, such as Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux, including having to replace their goalkeeper. Currently they are fourth in the league, clinching their playoff spot by only two points over Seattle Reign. Their season record is 9-5-6, thanks largely in part to their 40 goals scored, the highest in the league. Their midfield is led by former Pride midfielder Lianne Sanderson and United States Women's National team player Samantha Mewis. While their team is not as recognizable as the Thorns, the depth of the Flash will pose a threat this weekend.
The Spirit, led by national team players Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn, have the most to prove this playoff. They recently lost the NWSL Shield and their first-place seed to the Thorns, losing their final two games to Seattle Reign and Chicago Red Stars. Now on the heels of a loss to to Chicago, they will have to play them again in the semifinal match. For the past two seasons the Spirit have qualified for the semifinal round, but have lost both matches. This game will prove to be a statement game for them, looking to finally make the championship game. Their goalkeeper, Stephanie Labbe from Canada, has been the talk of the season, virtually coming out of nowhere after being the number 3 and 4 goalie for Canada. Behind Labbe and Krieger, the team will look to capitalize on their strangths and minimize their weaknesses together as a team.
Chicago Red Stars
The Red Stars seemed unbeatable in their first eight games of the season, until a three-game losing streak gave the team a rude awakening, dropping them to the middle of the table, never to return to the top again. Following those three games, the Red Stars finished 9-5-6, successfully clinching a playoff berth. Led by captain Christen Press and her national teammates, Alyssa Naeher and Julie Johnston, the majority of the team ranges in age from 23-26, the youngest in the league. Nine players on the roster played their very first NWSL season and three were in only their sophomore season. With over half of the team still considered newbies, the Red Stars were able to rely on veteran players such as Press to score goals and make plays. While they may be a young team, the Red Stars should be considered a threat and may very well make the final.
This playoff round in my opinion is tighter than it has ever been. The teams seemed to be evenly matched and have all played each other and have equally lost and won. Despite this sense of equality, I predict that the Thorns will defeat the Flash, 3-1, and that the Red Stars will defeat the Spirit, 3-2, resulting in a Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars Championship game, with the Thorns winning it all.
Let me know your thoughts, heading into this weekend,