Technically, our two games this weekend are semi-finals. But since the final is called the NWSL Championship, and there aren't any other games to play between these two and the Championship, I'm going to go ahead and just call this Playoffs Weekend.
Let's take a look back to the start of the season and see just how bad my predictions really are.
So, that's not the world's best list, but all of the teams that I had higher than the teams that did eventually make the playoffs were very hard hit with injuries. Imagine, for example, how a Houston dash side with a fit Kealia Ohai, Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd might have looked across a full season. Boston certainly had their own injury woes, most critically the loss of Rose Lavelle for months. Seattle had to endure stretches without both Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe. The depth of these three teams wasn't enough to stay competitive with the others, who were much better at finding ways to fill holes caused by injury.
Washington always looked a reclamation project after an offseason of upheaval, and the task of rebuilding was made much more difficult by a bleak stretch of injuries, including several ACL tears. No team had worse injury luck this year than the Spirit. But, they will have the first overall pick in the NWSL draft, so it's not all bad at the bottom. Lorton, VA native Andi Sullivan will likely get to work with Tori Huster and Mallory Pugh next season. If it works, they won't be last again.
Orlando Pride at Portland Thorns
Saturday at 3:30PM on Lifetime TV
A week ago, it seemed pretty unlikely that Orlando would have to travel to Portland for this matchup, but a combination of their own win at North Carolina and Chicago's loss at the Thorns helped the pieces fall into place. They'll have to contend with the raucous crowd at Providence Park, and, if Tom Sermanni is right, they'll have to account for referees who are sometimes intimidated by the atmosphere.
Still, this will be a clash of two teams who've been playing very well lately. The Thorns have only one draw to accompany four wins in their last five matches; the Pride have two draws and three wins. Both sides were victorious last weekend, and both come into the game fairly healthy, with one new major exception. Camila suffered ACL and MCL injuries during the Courage match last weekend.
The first match of the season, back on April 15th, featured the Pride playing away at the Thorns. That didn't go well for the visitors, as they fell 2-0, partially due to an Alannah Kennedy hand ball in the box that resulted in a successfully converted Nadia Nadim PK. The two teams met again on September 23rd in Orlando, with neither side able to break through and score.
That second matchup is more instructive. Both teams can play good defense when they want to, and both offenses are able to be slowed down when facing resolute defending. Portland has so many different ways to attack, and before the home crowd, they're surely the favorites. Orlando will be hurt by the loss of Camila, and will need to control their excitement at the chance to play a Championship on their home field if they're to stand a chance.
I think the Thorns hold strong at home, with Hayley Raso ultimately proving too much for her Aussie compatriots in the Orlando defense.
Portland Thorns 3-2 Orlando Pride
Chicago Red Stars at North Carolina Courage
Sunday at 3:30 on Lifetime TV
Three of Chicago's 11 wins have come at North Carolina's expense this season, which perhaps provides a hint as to the strategy behind the player selection last week in Portland. The combined scoreline from those three matches was 8-4. For the Red Stars to move on, it seemed a good bet that they'd have a better shot at beating the Courage than the Thorns. Fair enough.
Here's the thing: choosing a playoff opponent based on past results has a very bad way of not working out for the teams that attempt the tactic. First off, the opponent is bound to have no difficulty getting motivated to defeat at team that considered them a weaker matchup. Secondly, it's hard to win two head-to-heads in a year, let alone three. Four feels plain old unlikely.
But, now that many of the Red Stars are fresh on two week's rest, they might just be able to pull it off. They've had North Carolina's number all year, and will feel very good about their chances to progress to the Championship on Sunday afternoon.
The Courage, however, aren't going to go quietly into the offseason. They only picked up four losses and one draw against teams not called the Red Stars this year, which was good enough for a regular-season wins record and the NWSL Shield. They play a composed style predicated on speed and exceptional passing, and it's worked against every other team. They'll surely want it to work on the Red Stars at least once this year.
I think this is a tight match, with Press and Huerta both finding the goal before the half. They'll think the Courage are down for the count. But much like the 2016 WNY Flash, the 2017 NC Courage have the ability to adjust and strike quickly. They'll save the fireworks for the end, but I like a Sam Mewis header on a spot-perfect set piece delivery by Abby Dahlkemper to send NC through to face Portland in Orlando next weekend.
North Carolina Courage 3-2 Chicago Red Stars