The 2016 NWSL playoffs started in fine fashion on a slightly rainy night in Maryland as the Washington Spirit faced off against the Chicago Red Stars. With two yellow cards, a late equalizer, a heartbreaking near miss and a game winner in extra time (not to mention a riveting matchup between Crystal Dunn and Julie Johnston), the match set the bar for what an NWSL playoff game should be.
Then the Western New York Flash traveled to Oregon two days later to play the Portland Thorns, and the bar was smashed to pieces.
The Flash entered the match as the underdog in the eyes of perhaps everyone but themselves. They’d spent the last half of the season on a skid, going on a seven-game winless streak before redeeming themselves against Boston in the last game of the season and creeping into the fourth playoff spot only two points ahead of Seattle. They lost both of their regular season games to Portland, who came into the game boasting not only the Shield but the best goal differential in the league as well. Not to mention, the game took place at the Thorns’ stronghold of Providence Park, filled to the brim with a loud, energetic crowd.
However, it was the visitors who drew first blood – twice. Samantha Mewis started off the scoring in the 16th minute, followed by Makenzy Doniak in the 38th, both goals indirect results of Jess McDonald’s long throw-ins.
Christine Sinclair, at her best, wasted no time in getting her team back in the game, scoring just a minute later when she beat Alanna Kennedy to a long ball from Katherine Reynolds and one-touched it past a diving Sabrina D’Angelo.
That is where things got really interesting.
Flash head coach Paul Riley, alleging that Sinclair had fouled Kennedy to get to the ball, was ejected from the game for making contact with the fourth official, leaving assistant coach Scott Vallow to finish out the match for the third time that season.
The game had seen three goals, a yellow card and an ejected coach, and it was only the first half.
Both goalkeepers were called into action numerous times during the second half, earning their keep with jaw-dropping saves. A pair of yellow cards was issued before anyone would beat the shot stoppers. In the 78th minute, defender Emily Sonnett collected the rebound on a Tobin Heath free kick and sent it home, opening her score card for the season in memorable style. Her ecstatic celebration afterward whipped the crowd into almost as much of a fervor as the equalizer itself did.
The total at the end of regulation was four goals, three yellow cards and one ejected coach.
The Flash spent little time before regaining the upper hand when yet another Jess McDonald throw-in bounced around the box before Lynn Williams slotted it home in the 98th minute. The forward would add another six minutes later, but it was Mewis who did the work, intercepting a throw-in from Meghan Klingenberg, beating the fullback down the stretch and threading the ball through two defenders for Williams to find the back of the net with a single touch. The goal would prove to be the nail in the coffin, but the Thorns were far from out of the game. For the second time in the match, they responded immediately to going down by two goals. Lindsey Horan got on the end of a cross after it ping-ponged around the box and brought the Thorns back to within one.
The most dramatic moment of the game was the last. D’Angelo charged off her line to clear a ball but missed the punch, and Horan’s header looked to be a sure thing to send the game to penalty kicks. But centerback Abby Dalhkemper, retreating with a Thorns player on her heels, headed the ball off the line, saving the day for the Flash.
Seven goals, six yellow cards, and one ejected coach, all within the span of two hours plus some pocket change. This semifinal had just about everything a soccer game could have, and it kept us on the edge of our seats until the very last minute.
In a season full of “furt,” when goals were at times nowhere to be found, the Rio loss still stung and fans (and players) viewed the league in a cynical light after events like the Frontier Field fiasco, we needed a game that reminded us of why we love soccer, and the Flash and the Thorns delivered with a mind-blowing match that was, as so many noted, wild from start to finish.