Preview and Predictions for the 2021 NWSL Playoffs
After the weirdest, most tumultuous year of the NWSL's nine-year existence, the playoffs are upon us. This postseason has a new format, with six teams competing in three rounds, in contrast with the four-team, two-week affair of previous seasons. The playoff race was close until late in the year, with the fourth- through sixth-place slots in the table undecided until the final day of the season.
With the North Carolina Courage, who snuck in as the sixth seed after entering each of the past three playoffs as the top seed, no longer the dominant force they once were, the postseason is as wide-open as we've seen in a while.
The Portland Thorns won the Shield for securing the best regular-season record and probably are the best team in the abstract. However, they started to hit some potholes late in the summer—one of which was the horrifying allegations of verbal abuse and sexual coercion against former head coach Paul Riley that came to light just over a month ago—and their ascent to the regular-season throne wasn't as convincing as they may have hoped after they only notched one win in their final six matches.
The second-seeded OL Reign, meanwhile, cruised up the standings after manager Farid Benstiti resigned over allegations of abusive comments. In his stead, the Tacoma, Washington, side brought back old friend Laura Harvey and has since looked like a bona fide superteam.
So who wins the whole thing? I don't know, but I'm about to pretend like I do. Read on for my predictions in all three rounds.
Quarterfinal: No. 4 Chicago Red Stars vs. No. 5 NY/NJ Gotham FC
Match info: Sunday, Nov. 7, at 3 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
This is a perfect matchup in the sense that it's hard to say how good either team is.
Gotham drew the most games in the league, recording 11 ties. Chicago has more wins, but it often gets them with a shrug. Until its 1-0 win against the Orlando Pride last weekend, it was the only playoff team with a negative goal differential, which—apologies to the Red Stars fans—is amusing. The Red Stars are nothing if not a team that always makes the playoffs but always makes it more difficult than it has to be.
Nonetheless, Chicago heads to the playoffs on a three-game win streak and four victories in its last six matches.
However, it rarely wins resoundingly. Last weekend's win against a limp Orlando felt representative: The Red Stars are a competent team that defends well and has no trouble finding space by combining through the midfield. Then they get to their opponent's 18-yard-box and lose the plot.
Mallory Pugh has been excellent and fun to watch as she puts the moves on hapless defenders. Kealia Watt scored a banger in that Orlando game. But too often, they both end up isolated and resort to low-percentage shots from distance.
Gotham, meanwhile, has drawn 1-1 three times in a row against the two worst teams in the league—two against Louisville and one against Kansas City. Those games haven't flattered Gotham's defense, which may represent the most glaring weakness belonging to any of the playoff teams.
Their central defenders—primarily Gina Lewandowski and Mandy Freeman—are prone to poor decisions, and their back line gets bent out of shape far too easily by offenses with abysmal records. On the other hand, they have legitimate scoring threats in Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu, and you never want to bet against Carli Lloyd when the chips are down.
With Chicago's lackadaisical offense meeting Gotham's sloppy defense, this one could go either way.
A 0-0 draw is a real possibility. Ultimately, though, I'm just not convinced by Gotham. It's a team with a promising future if it can build around its bright spots and shore up its weaknesses. However, the Red Stars' organization and experience win out on the day.
Prediction: Chicago Red Stars
Quarterfinal: No. 3 Washington Spirit vs. No. 6 North Carolina Courage
Match info: Sunday, Nov. 7, at 5:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+
This should be as straightforward a matchup as we'll get in these playoffs. The Spirit enter the playoffs on a hot streak, with their last loss coming in early September against the formidable OL Reign.
Their undefeated streak coincides with the firing of their former head coach Richie Burke over allegations of harassment and abuse in late September. They also put together an impressive win against the Reign a few weeks ago. That game saw them hold Tacoma scoreless at home, and Ashley Hatch—the Golden Boot winner with 10 goals—notched one of the goals of the season with a cannon from outside the 18. Hatch, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez make up a formidable attacking trio that should have little trouble with the Courage defense.
The Courage, on the other hand, scrape in after a draw in their final game left their fate up to Houston, which dutifully face-planted in their must-win match against the Spirit.
North Carolina has looked disjointed and frustrated—understandable, given recent events. Against Portland in its season finale, what attacks it generated tended to come either off defensive errors by the Thorns or via players like Debinha or Amy Rodriguez showing off a bit of individual bravado.
On the other side of the ball, the Courage were often vulnerable to counterattacks, with their dual attacking fullbacks leaving loads of space in behind and a back line as stretchy as a rubber band. That defense handed the Spirit two goals the last time these teams met, in October, and there's no reason to think much has changed.
Prediction: Washington Spirit
Semifinal: No. 2 OL Reign vs. No. 3 Washington Spirit
Match info: Sunday, Nov. 14, at 3 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
This is the kind of game I was referring to when I said the playoffs were wide-open. The Reign are an intimidating team. They've won four of their last six, scoring three goals in all of those wins. On paper—between Rose Lavelle, Dzsenifer Marozsan and Eugenie Le Sommer, just for starters—this is a wildly talented attack, and they pass the eye test, too.
They look like the easy pick, except, as discussed already, their one recent loss was against Washington—at home, no less.
The Spirit, for the most part, were the dominant team in that game.
The Reign often found themselves exposed in the first half, as Washington thwarted their high press and unlocked acres of space between lines. Tacoma's actual defensive line was rather shocking at times. It ignored Taylor Aylmer completely as she crashed the far post in transition and scored Washington's first goal, and half of the defenders were AWOL when Hatch dribbled toward goal. Washington's defensive block, meanwhile, generally looked well organized, with the Reign forced into several low-percentage frustration shots and only putting three on frame.
Look closer, though, and there was a gaping hole in Tacoma's formation in that first half. A team that presses so aggressively needs a No. 6 who can reliably sweep up attacks that slip through, and the Reign have one of those in Quinn—who didn't enter the game until after halftime.
Behind all of OL's offensive firepower, it's the recent Olympic gold-medal winner with Canada who has been pivotal this season. Quinn's positioning alone often eliminates space the Reign would otherwise leave open, and their timing when tackling is impeccable. While Washington's second goal did come after the half, it notched just five shots once Quinn entered the game, compared with 12 in the first half.
With their full roster available in a do-or-die game, I wouldn't bet against the Reign here.
Prediction: OL Reign
Semifinal: No. 1 Portland Thorns vs. No. 4 Chicago Red Stars
Match info: Sunday, Nov. 14, at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
For years, the Thorns were the Red Stars' Achilles heel, a team they couldn't beat even in seasons when they otherwise looked like genuine contenders. But the curse seems to have lifted: The last meeting between these two in late September was the Red Stars' most convincing win in recent memory, with the Thorns looking flat and tired.
The Thorns have been hard to pin down recently. They were excellent midseason, with a squad of scrappy youngsters and bench players once again demonstrating during the Olympic period that Portland's success isn't down mostly—or even primarily—to its star-studded roster.
Ironically, the return of Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair and Becky Sauerbrunn seemed to throw the team off-kilter; the publishing of the allegations against Paul Riley last month threw an additional wrench in whatever momentum they had been starting to build.
Still, Portland didn't win the Shield by accident. This defense, which employs a suffocating press, set a league record for single-season shutouts with 13, and when their attack clicks, it really clicks. They have too many world-class creative midfielders to fit on the field, while forward Sophia Smith is a future superstar who's just coming into her own.
When I say Smith is just coming into her own, I mean that in two senses. She's a whiz on the ball and a genius at finding space both for herself and to set up teammates, but she also sometimes looks at an open goal and chokes. There's a commonality there with Chicago, although the Thorns' problem is specifically one with finishing, while the Red Stars tend to stumble one step earlier.
What's tricky about this one is that it's hard to guess which Thorns team will show up. They are the better team here, but I also expected them to win against the Courage last weekend and was wrong. But I also think they want to give head coach Mark Parsons a nice send-off, and when a trip to the championship is on the line, they'll get it together.
Prediction: Portland Thorns
Final: No. 1 Portland Thorns vs. No. 2 OL Reign
Match info: Saturday, Nov. 20, at noon ET on CBS
Of all the games that could go either way, this one could really go either way.
There are plenty of reasons to favor either team, many of which I've mentioned already. The head-to-head favors the Reign, who have won two and drawn one against the Thorns. However, it's worth noting that OL's equalizer in that draw came from an incorrectly awarded penalty call against Angela Salem.
That game, played on Oct. 13, saw the Thorns dominate the first half.
This is where it's worth discussing something Portland does that we don't see much in the NWSL: Where other teams that press in defense press the ball, swarming the player on it and attempting to win it back directly, the Thorns press space.
They're very effective at nudging opponents to the wings, where they focus on clogging up passing lanes and constricting the available real estate further and further until they can force a turnover. From there, they aim to make a quick connection with Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver or a net-crashing midfielder and score before the defense can get organized.
When the team clicks, their defense is suffocating, and it stumped the Reign for 45 minutes, limiting them to just three shots. But in the second half, the Reign played their way back into the game for reasons that are not completely clear to me.
All I can say is that we've hit on Portland's biggest weakness: Without warning, they tend to just...stop. Things will be humming along, they're not giving the opponent an inch, they're generating lots of chances, and then at some point, they switch off. They allow passes into areas they shouldn't, the back line gets caught out, and good players make glaringly poor passes.
If the Thorns want to win the whole thing, they can't afford to let their foot off the pedal. They might get there by Nov. 20, but they haven't demonstrated the consistency that would inspire confidence in that respect. I also know that this game, if it happens, will be a banger—the best final we've seen in a while. It could truly go either way. But right now, looking back at the past month, the team with the swagger is the Reign.
Prediction: OL Reign