The NWSL Season is flying toward a conclusion, but we've still got three games to go. All of those matches will be broadcast live on FS1 or the FoxSportsGo app. So, no more YouTube this year.
Four teams remain. Portland, Washington, Chicago and Western New York all have reasonably healthy squads coming into the playoffs (not counting the one or two players per side who've been ruled out for the year for various reasons). On form, there is a lot to like about all four teams. But these matchups are a little odd, and anything could happen. Let's take a look.
Chicago Red Stars at Washington Spirit
Friday night at 8:00PM Eastern, FS1
Bold Prediction: Tough call.
These two teams met on September 24th in Chicago. Yes, that was last weekend.
With a win, the Spirit could have locked up the NWSL Shield. Instead, they only pulled one goal back after conceding three to an aggressive Red Stars attack. This came one week after Washington was shut out 2-0 at Seattle. The Spirit fell to 2nd in the standings, but kept their home playoff match. Their last home game featured a lot of well-publicized nonsense around the National Anthem, which did not exactly set the team up for a player and ownership unity rally heading to the playoffs. They defeated Seattle at home that day, but haven't won since. Distraction? I doubt it, but doubt may be creeping in elsewhere after September's softness.
Chicago only found their feet last week at home, after losing away to Seattle, and losing and drawing home and away at the hands of FC Kansas City, a team beat by the Boston Breakers twice this year. Yes, twice. They seem to be putting some pieces together, but don't always look convincing in attack. Naeher has been very solid in goal, however, as one might expect.
Here's the thing- I think the Houston Dash and Seattle Reign are better right now than both of these teams, and I'd rather be watching at least one of those teams in this match. But, that's why you've got to collect points all season.
Last week has to get the Spirit motivated, and I think they come out fighting. That's only going to match what we saw from Chicago, however, and it's probably going to take something special to punch a ticket to the final. I think Washington pulls it out 2-1.
Western New York Flash at Portland Thorns
Sunday at 5:00PM Eastern, FS1
Bold Prediction: A Golden Boot Flashes at Providence Park.
The Portland Thorns should be world beaters. They're essentially an all-star team of FIFA's top teams, with well-known international players at almost every position and a deep, talented bench. They put together a good run in the 2nd half of the season after starting the year without a loss until July (to FCKC, who, you might recall, were defeated by the Breakers twice) and grabbed the NWSL Shield last weekend, along with the top seed in the playoffs. If this team had gone to the Olympics representing the fictional nation of Cascadia, they'd have broken down Sweden's parked bus and stomped all over Brazil. I'm not sure how they'd have fared against Germany, but it would have been fun to watch. They do have a few weaknesses, but they're usually able to put together an answer for whatever gets thrown at them.
However, the Western New York Flash are for real, if only recently finding their best form. Lynn Williams won the Golden Boot with 11 goals, and Jess McDonald just missed tying her, finishing with 10. I watched the Flash up close two of the past three weeks, and saw a disciplined, tough side with an effective direct attack. Williams and McDonald are fast and powerful, and Samantha Mewis and McCall Zerboni anchor a hard-nosed midfield. They'll play hard for Paul Riley, who takes them back to his (and Zerboni's) former beloved Rose City with a chance to do some damage.
Here's where I think the Thorns have a problem: Meghan Klingenberg. I like her, and we're both from the Pittsburgh area originally so I root for her more than for the average bear. But this year, both for club and country, she's been a bit of a liability against just the type of speedy attack Lynn Williams will bring. Even if Kling doesn't range forward (who am I kidding?) she doesn't have the recovery speed to keep the Flash honest. Michelle Betos is a force of nature between the pipes, and frequently gets involved playing balls well outside of her zone because the Thorns haven't tracked back fast enough. But Emily Sonnett isn't yet ready to read all the seams around what will effectively be a 3-person back line at the time of the arrival of the speedy Flash strikers. Emily Menges (who got my vote for Defensive Player of the Year) is tremendous, and together with Betos has kept Portland in every match. But on Sunday, I think they fall just short.
I'm taking the 4th place winning, tiny-outfield-field match hosting, shoulder-chip having Western New York Flash to shock the world and beat the Thorns 3-2 to advance to the NWSL Final in Houston, which, of course, virtually guarantees a Portland rout.
In any case, unless I see something impressive on Friday night, I'm going to take the winner of this match to take home the title in Houston.