And now for the dramatic conclusion to the 2017 NWSL regular season.
In an odd twist of scheduling luck (probably of the bad luck variety), our four playoff teams have already been decided and will be facing off against each other a week before the playoffs even begin. Unless the Red Stars lose in Portland and the Pride win in North Carolina, we're going to have these same teams, on these same fields, in one week's time (well, almost—Portland v the 3rd seed is at 3:30 on Saturday and North Carolina v the 4th seed is at 3:30 on Sunday).
As the teams sit, a rematch of these two games looks likely. But what if the Red Stars want to go to North Carolina? They've already defeated the Courage three times this year, so is it worth tanking during a relatively meaningless game to "rest" on their way to attempting to avoid a team that has had their number in both prior meetings this season? They'd need to lose and have North Carolina lose to Orlando at home in order to get a shot at the former WNY Flash next weekend.
That's probably not going to happen. And ultimately, the Pride would have the ability to foil the plan by losing to the Courage themselves on Saturday night, well after the Red Stars and Thorns have concluded their Lifetime TV match in the afternoon. But it will be interesting to watch.
This weekend is the last time we'll see six of these sides, and undoubtedly the final time we'll get to see certain players on NWSL rosters. Soak it up and enjoy, because the teams not heading to the playoffs will disperse into the ether after the weekend. Some players will be heading to the W-League in Australia, while others will join teams in Europe (including a few big names who won't be coming back). Several will be released and pass through waivers. A few will quietly retire. The only constant in sports (and life) is that everything will continue to change. Take some time to appreciate what we've got in the 2017 NWSL, because it will never look the same again.
Oh, you didn't think I'd forget about #PassTheBall, did you?
How do we feel about this? The internets have all sorts of opinions.
I feel like the spot misses an opportunity to discuss that the ball in question is related to an actual real sport, with actual athletes who actually play the sport despite not being shown doing so. It also inexplicably fails to mention that those inspirational athletes might just be an inspiration to boys or men as well as to girls. They certainly are an inspiration to me, and I'm in the top 1% of largest men you'll find worldwide. Can't men and boys find women inspirational? Maybe we should remind people it's possible once in a while.
Still, the big thing that actually earns viewers is an exciting on-field product (or a wish to join a fanbase), and whatever paths lead people to the field, it's up to the teams to hook new fans. Anything that points someone's internet to NWSL.com (or, *cringe* Go90) is helping in some small way. Granted, showing a sliver of in-game action seems like an easy way to introduce the idea, but let's get with the new millennium and consult the data.
Apparently, the spot is having the desired effect.
So go ahead and #PassTheBall, people. The stronger an audience this league has, the sooner the women playing in it will have the support, facilities and pay they deserve. Spread. The. Word.
If I were an executive planning a big end-of-year bash to celebrate the amazing women of the NWSL, I'd make sure to sandwich it in between empowering stories of powerful women. But, I am not, and unless you consider baby kidnappers or girlfriends of men who've recently murdered their wives to be powerful women, Lifetime has gone in another direction. Just before our playoff preview, it's "Abducted: The Carlina White Story." Then, as a nice way to relax after the excitement of the game, it's "The Murder of Laci Peterson: Media Frenzy." Hard pass. Both "movies" are dramatizations of real events, but I'll stick to the real events at Providence Park.
Chicago Red Stars at Portland Thorns
Saturday at 3:30PM on Lifetime TV
It's playoff time. Here's a preview.
Chicago has a few kinks to work out, but when they're on, they're increasingly able to do whatever they want. They're just not always on. Their 3-2 win over the Dash last weekend wasn't their most compelling performance of the year, despite the scoreline. But, earlier in the season they might have let the Dash sneak back to level. The Red Stars are coming together at just the right time and though they'll be without Morgan Brian, they have a good chance to quiet Providence Park.
The Thorns, on the other hand, haven't had a good performance in a month. No, it's not a good performance to beat Washington 4-0, as the Breakers just got a 3-0 win from the Spirit last weekend. Those same Breakers, who can't do better than 9th place this year, were dominant in a September 10th match hosting the Thorns that the visitors won 1-0. Then last weekend, Portland kept a clean sheet, but also was kept off the scoresheet at Orlando. Not exactly the way you want to run into the playoffs. But we're not there yet.
Chicago is a test, and the Thorns should approach the game knowing that their fans will be ready to roar next weekend no matter who comes to town. With a very deep bench and world class players at every position (including in those stands), I think the Thorns prevail at home.
Portland Thorns 3-1 Chicago Red Stars
Washington Spirit at Seattle Reign
Saturday at 7:00PM on Go90 App & NWSL Website
The Spirit have been abysmal when not playing against Sky Blue during the second half of the season. Sky Blue have been bad unless facing the Reign. So, will Washington match up well with Seattle?
No. Sadly, they will not.
The Reign officially fell out of playoff contention last week, but injuries to Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock sealed their fate mid-season. There were a few losses they'd never have endured had they been at full strength. It's a shame, because Seattle's brand of football is beautiful to watch when the team is fit. They'll have to console themselves by throttling the league's worst team in front of their home fans for the last time until next spring.
Washington's injury morass might have ended their season before it ever got started, but the offseason departures of so many of the key elements of their oh-so-close-to-a-championship 2016 squad was the real killer. The reconstituted side rarely has more than the absolute minimum number of players dressed for a match due to all the injuries, and though they've got some very good talent, they've never been able to coalesce (again, except against Sky Blue) into anything sustainably dangerous.
A loss by the Spirit would lock up 10th place and the (likely) 1st overall draft pick for Washington. Stanford's Andi Sullivan (of Lorton, VA, near D.C.) might not have much packing to do unless the Spirit win and the Breakers fail to defeat Sky Blue. On Saturday night, we should have a pretty good idea if it will be Pugh & Sullivan or Lavelle & Sullivan pulling the midfield strings for their clubs in the coming seasons.
Seattle Reign 4-1 Washington Spirit
Sky Blue FC at Boston Breakers
Saturday at 7:00PM on Go90 App & NWSL Website
Boston's Head Coach Matt Beard will be back next year, hoping to reward the team's faith in his approach with a major move up the rankings. Their roster on Saturday will be typical for the season: no Rose Lavelle or Christen Westphal. They'll be without Julie King again, and Rosie White will be sidelined for the second time this season due to yellow card accumulation. Ouch.
As it stands, the Breakers will finish 9th or 10th after finishing 10th last season. But they've looked very good over the past two matches, and have survived an injury-plagued season still hungry for wins. As Tiffany Weimer put it in her column:
Sky Blue is a different story. For a few weeks, they looked unbeatable. Samantha Kerr lit the world on fire and scored where, when and against whomever she desired. There was playoff buzz. Seriously. But then Christy Holly departed. And Christie Pearce. And Natasha Kai.
The team is a bit disjointed, and it's hard to understand how the same squad can lose badly to the Spirit one week and then hold a team with 16 wins to their only draw of the season the following week. They managed to keep the Breakers off the scoresheet when they last met, but needed a Sam Kerr miracle (coming at the same time as a rare Abby Smith error) to score.
It's going to be a chilly night in Boston, and I think the Breakers will offer a cold reception to their visitors as they close out the season with a win.
Boston Breakers 3-1 Sky Blue FC
Orlando Pride at North Carolina Courage
Saturday at 7:30PM on Go90 App & NWSL Website
Both of these teams are for real. Even though the Courage have been a bit hot/cold over the past month, they were most recently very hot, torching the Dash 4-0 on Wednesday night to make up for the match postponed due to Hurricane Harvey. They could easily have scored 6 or more.
But upon closer inspection, the Pride have also been a bit hot/cold. They've had dominant wins against teams at the bottom of the table, but could only manage draws against both Portland and Seattle playing in Orlando with a playoff berth on the line. They've exchanged 3-1 scorelines with the Courage this season, but the two teams last met in May, so that's not a lot to go on.
In any case, we're unlikely to see the same lineups we'll see next weekend when these two sides return for their Sunday playoff match. Unless, of course, the Pride can get a win and a bit of help from the Thorns. If the Thorns defeat the Red Stars and the Pride wins in NC, the Thorns will host the Pride in Portland next Saturday, and the Red Stars will head south.
That's too much of a mess for my taste. These two sides aren't going to risk anything before the playoffs, so it's a cagey sub-fest on Saturday night that the Courage want to win slightly more than do the Pride. With a win, they'll hold the NWSL regular season wins record, and have Orlando right where they want them next Sunday: feeling defeated.
North Carolina Courage 3-2 Orlando Pride
Houston Dash at FC Kansas City
Sunday at 6:00PM on Go90 App & NWSL Website
The blues, left for dead mid-season, can climb into 5th place with a win against the Dash (and a little help from the Washington Spirit—OK nevermind—it's probably going to be 6th) marking a very impressive recovery from a very rough start to the year. Like the Reign, they've been fun to watch, playing a quick, attractive style that—though it took some time to come together—is capable of beating any team on any night.
Houston has its moments, but haven't had a result since mid-August. They've split their meetings with FCKC this season, but look likely losers of this one. They'll be on short rest and tired from travel. They just dropped a 4-0 decision, whereas their hosts stole 3 road points and all remaining hopes for the playoffs from the Reign a week ago.
It all adds up to a good night to root for FCKC.
FC Kansas City 3-1 Houston Dash