NWSL Playoff Preview
1: Portland Thorns 41 points
2: Washington Spirit 39 points
3: Chicago Red Stars 33 points
4: Western New York Flash 32 points
The Thorns had the most talented roster during the season with six total players getting called up for the USWNT as well as 4 other international players on their roster. Portland was by far the best team early and late in the season with a mid season slump likely due to exhaustion. Tobin Heath might be the best player in the NWSL currently and her playing style, when combined with natural scorers like Christine Sinclair, Allie Long, Nadia Nadim, and Lindsey Horan helps make Portland the most dangerous team with the ball. Defensively Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett provide two bonafide stars while both Michelle Betos and Arianna Franch are starting quality goalkeepers. Portland is, by far, the most talented team in the NWSL and should be the favorite to win the Championship as long as Heath continues to stay on form.
Most surprising about the Spirit’s season was how they manage to improve on last season while completely changing their attack. Jim Gabarra never quite found his groove in Portland and Washington was one of the better teams last year behind the prowess of Crystal Dunn. This season Washington had 11 players score goals and 9 players scored multiple goals. Dunn is still the focal point of the team’s offense but the Spirit are now playing with much more balance and are going to be a more difficult team to handle moving forward under Gabarra’s leadership. The Spirit went 2-2-2 against playoff teams but were unbeaten at home, where they will play their first game.
Chicago Red Stars
The Chicago Red Stars are making their second straight appearance in the NWSL playoffs as one of the most well balanced teams in the league. Led by the scoring tandem of Christen Press and Sophia Huerta the Red Stars actually rely on great team defense. Alyssa Naeher and Julie Johnston provide the star power and leadership that allowed Chicago to tie with Seattle for fewest goals against over the last two seasons. The Red Stars are 2-3-1 against playoff opponents this season, splitting their series with Washington and Western New York while losing and drawing against Portland. The future is bright for the team with Stephanie McCaffrey set to come back from a season ending injury next season. In the playoffs this season, Chicago will be a heavy underdog to Washington, but as long as their defense stays on form Christen Press provides an equalizer that few NWSL teams can counter.
Western New York Flash
The best story this season in the NWSL was the emergence of Western New York as a playoff contender. While the NWSL does not follow the relegation model that is so popular in other professional soccer leagues the Flash of 2016 feel a lot like Leicester City from last year’s English Premier League. The Flash boast two of the top scorers in the league with Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald as well as Samantha Mewis, a player that should be a lock for one of the two league top 11 teams at season’s end. The Flash outscored every team in the league behind Williams and McDonald, scoring 40 goals along the way (5 more than the second highest scoring team.) Still the old adage that defense wins championships holds true and the Flash were 1-4-1 against playoff teams this season. It was a great season in Rochester but it’s hard to see this team winning against a Portland team that outscored them 5-2 in their two games this season.
Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars
The Spirit are the smart choice but the Red Stars match up well with them. The game being in Maryland might not be much of a factor unless the home team crowd comes out in support of the Spirit. I like the Red Stars in a slight upset 2-1.
Portland Thorns vs Western New York Flash
Providence Park should be rocking for this game and, so far, the Flash’s offensive focus hasn’t done much to disturb Portland. Also, like half the Portland team came up short in the Olympics, and I feel like they’ll want to send Sinclair out with at least 1 championship from her long and storied career. Thorns win 2-0.