NWSL Playoffs Start This Sunday

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By Karen Valenzuela, @VictoriaNoir89

The National Women’s Soccer League kicked off its third season in April 2015, after which soccer fans were gifted with five months of exciting, quality soccer. But now it’s September, soccer nerds. And that means it’s time for the NWSL playoffs to begin.

Before the top four teams in the league face off on Sunday, here are a few things you may need to know:

– Each team played a total of 20 matches in the regular season, 4 less than the previous two seasons because of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. There was also a 2-week league hiatus in the middle of June for the tournament.

– Because the FIFA Women’s World Cup conflicted with this year’s NWSL schedule, all nine NWSL teams were without some of their top stars. Each team brought on amateurs (even if I personally don’t like the term, that’s what they’re called) to replace the players who were allocated to their national teams for the World Cup tournament. Some teams were affected more than others. Portland Thorns were without 8 of their top players for a good chunk of the season, most of them game-changers. On the other hand, Seattle Reign FC only lost Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe who were allocated to the US Women’s National Team for World Cup duty.

– Most of the matches were streamed live on NWSL’s YouTube channel. However, seven regular season matches were showed by Fox Sports, four of them on Fox Sports Go and three on Fox Sports 1. All three playoff matches will also be shown on Fox Sports 1, making that ten NWSL matches in the 2015 season total.

– There have been some great goal celebrations this year, but nothing topped the acrobatic celebrations from Seattle Reign FC’s Kendall Fletcher and Sky Blue FC’s Samantha Kerr.

– Portland Thorns FC keeper Michelle Betos scored a game-saving goal in a mid-season match against 2014 champs FC Kansas City, tying it 1-1 in the last minute of game play. She even made it onto SportsCenter’s Top 10 that week, which is difficult for a female athlete to do, let me tell you.

– This year, both Seattle Reign’s Kim Little and Washington Spirit’s Crystal Dunn scored hat tricks for the first time in their NWSL careers. Little ended the season with 10 goals, and Dunn with 15.

– Washington Spirit’s Crystal Dunn is this season’s Golden Boot winner with 15 goals in the regular season. At 23, she’s the youngest player to win the award in NWSL history. And she’s also the top candidate for this season’s MVP.

– The season ended with Seattle Reign FC, Chicago Red Stars, FC Kansas City, and Washington Spirit as the top 4 teams in the league, sending them into the playoffs, which kick off this Sunday, September 13 on Fox Sports 1.

Here’s a review of each team’s performance this season:

  • Boston Breakers: Ended the season with 15 points and a 4-13-3 (wins, losses, ties) record. At the bottom of the table after some inconsistent performances throughout the season, they have a lot of post-season decisions to make if they want to improve for 2016, especially now that their coach Tom Durkin resigned yesterday.
  • Sky Blue FC: Ended with 22 points and a 5-8-7 record. Sky Blue FC picked up some momentum late in the season (too late, unfortunately) when Kelley O’Hara returned from World Cup duty and the team acquired Australian WNT striker Sam Kerr.
  • Western New York Flash: Ended with 23 points and a 6-9-5 record. Sydney Leroux was less of a factor for WNY than anticipated before the season. Ankle surgery after the World Cup benched her for the rest of the 2015 season. They had some bright spots and acquired Australian WNT’s Michelle Heyman late in the season, who made a big impact.
  • Portland Thorns FC: Ended with 23 points and a 6-9-5 record. Losing 8 allocated players to the World Cup had a hugely negative impact on the Thorns. The team did surprisingly poor this season, even after the World Cup, since this is the first season they didn’t reach playoffs in team history.
  • Houston Dash: Ended with 24 points and a 6-8-6 record. USWNT stars Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian, and Meghan Klingenberg made less of an impact than expected after returning from World Cup, but the team rallied to slot themselves in the 5th spot, just barely missing the playoffs.


The Semifinals:

The Chicago Red Stars have the home field advantage in Sunday’s semifinal match-up against the 2014 champions FC Kansas City. The Red Stars placed 2nd in the regular season with 33 points and an 8-3-9 record. They had arguably one of the most consistently successful teams during the weeks that coincided with the World Cup. However, post-Cup Red Stars seemed to struggle with reintegrating the national team stars into the lineup. The Red Stars dropped quite a few points in the last few weeks of regular season, but we might see their best performance against Kansas City on Sunday. USWNT forward Christen Press had 10 goals in the regular season and will look to score a couple more in post-season.

FC Kansas City slid into the 3rd spot in the regular season table with a 9-6-5 record. FCKC stumbled a bit with USWNT players Heather O’Reilly, Lauren Holiday, and Amy Rodriguez away for the World Cup, but with Erika Tymrak, Shea Groom, Jen Buczkowski, Sarah Hagen, and ex-USWNT stars Yael Averbuch and Nicole Barnhart, FCKC was still stacked with talent. O’Reilly, Holiday, and Rodriguez returning spurred the team into the playoffs. Kansas City has had one of the most consistent performances of any team in league history, having made the playoffs in all three NWSL seasons. They’ll look to the Holiday-Rodriguez Connection and a solid backline led by USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn to get Kansas City into the championship match.

Seattle Reign FC led the league with 43 points and a 13-3-4 record. Reign clinched the NWSL Supporters Shield (given to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season) for the second year in a row. Reign FC have not lost in 23 straight regular season home matches, and finished this season with an 8-0-2 record at Moda Pitch at Memorial Stadium. With the midfield engine of Jess Fishlock, Keelin Winters, and Kim Little (2014’s Golden Boot and MVP winner), and one of the most solid defensive backlines in the league, including Hope Solo the best goalkeeper in the world, the Reign are looking to go all the way. From the back to the front, the team is patient and they are relentless about pressuring the ball.

But Seattle has to get past an equally relentless Washington Spirit. The Spirit ended the season with 30 points and an 8-6-6 record. Not only do they boast USWNT keeper Ashlyn Harris, but a backline that is one of the strongest in the league. They also have midfielder Christine Nairn, Canadian WNT star Diana Matheson, and of course, the Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn, who consistently makes something out of nothing on the pitch. She will be looking to add to her 15 regular season goals in the post-season. This match-up is an exact replica of 2014’s semifinal, all the way down to the venue. Last year, the Reign battled their way past the incredibly strong and dynamic Spirit in a 2-1 win in Seattle. On Sunday, it could go either way. Many are predicting this will be the most exciting match of the post-season.

Catch the NWSL Semifinal matches this Sunday, September 13 on Fox Sports 1! Chicago Red Stars vs. FC Kansas City starts 1:30 pm ET and Seattle Reign FC vs. Washington Spirit starts 9:30 pm ET. The championship match will air on October 1, 2015 at 9:30 pm ET on Fox Sports 1!

And if you followed the league this season, don’t forget to vote for your favorite coaches and players. This is the first year fans get a say in the winners. Voting ends September 11 at 5 pm ET!
 


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