Seven months ago, as we geared up for the NWSL’s fifth season, made our predictions and drew up our calendars, the playoffs seemed very far away. No one knew Megan Rapinoe would emerge into some of the best and most consistent form of her career. No one knew Orlando would prove to be quite good. No one knew Jess McDonald would find herself occasionally benched in favor of Ashley Hatch. But all that happened, and so much more. The season is just about over, and all that remains are a few spots on the table and a possible goal-scoring record. Pay close attention, because for six of these teams, the last chance you’ll get to watch them until spring 2018 is here as we take on Week 22.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Sky Blue FC at Boston Breakers
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Jordan Field
All-time series: Sky Blue lead, 7-3-3
In Boston: Breakers lead, 3-2-1
Last meeting: August 26, 2017; 1-0 Sky Blue
Unless Marta goes on a four-goal tear, Sam Kerr has the NWSL Golden Boot award all wrapped up. What could await her in this game is the record for most goals scored in a season, as she’s currently tied with Kim Little on 16 (set in 2014, also a 24-game season). Kerr scored the tying goal the last time these two teams played but has been kept off the board so far in September. Kerr is the focal point of Sky Blue’s offense on any given day as it is. Their game took an immediate uptick when Raquel Rodriquez came on at halftime last weekend, and she eventually scored the equalizer to delay the Courage’s Shield celebration, so Sky Blue would do well to have her for an entire game.
Matt Beard is returning to Boston next year regardless, but no one can deny it’s been a disappointing year for the Breakers, especially after their promising start in April. For many of these players, this game is likely an audition for next year. One thing they have struggled to do all season is control the tempo of a game. The Breakers tend to play to the tune of the opposing team, and as such often end up chasing it. Control possession, keep it in their attacking half, and force Sky Blue to be the ones to chase the ball. Avoiding midfield turnovers is also key, as a poor giveaway can easily turn into a long ball to Kerr, who will be off to the races. Better decision making from Abby Smith is also needed, especially if she wants to return to the USWNT fold.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Although struggling to hold Boston’s backline together at times, Oyster has matured quite a bit this season, growing into her boots as a leader. Oyster will face no truer test this season than Kerr, and if she’s ever to make her way back into Jill Ellis’ favor, this may be her last shot this year.
There really is no other choice here. With all due respect to the playoff teams, Kerr’s race to the record books is the one storyline to watch this weekend. She’s already set more than one record, and it would almost be unfair to see her lose out on this one. However, she’s scoreless in the last three games.
Keep an eye on:
• Morgan Andrews, who has stepped up tremendously in Rose Lavelle’s absence
• If Kailen Sheridan gets to close out the season in net
Chicago Red Stars at Portland Thorns FC
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 6-1-6
In Portland: Thorns lead, 3-1-2
Last meeting: August 12, 2017; 3-2 Thorns
In the first of two possible playoff previews this weekend, Chicago travels to Portland. For the Thorns, everything is wrapped up, and that likely means squad rotation. One of those should probably be Christine Sinclair, who has been one of Portland’s best players in a new role at attacking mid but has still shown occasional signs of slowing down. She was largely ineffective in Orlando and could probably use a rest. My estimate is a full half for Tobin Heath, who showed in last week that her good instincts are intact even if her touch is still off. Expect that to return gradually, and the more time she sees on a pitch with the ball at her feet, the better. Savannah Jordan could also use more time to get acclimated to the league if she’s going to be an effective sub.
A win or a draw here ensures a repeat trip next week for Chicago, although it’s a tall task, as they haven’t beaten the Thorns since June 1, 2013 – the Red Stars’ first ever NWSL win. Last week in Houston, they looked like a side that got a bit more of their mojo back, although it took some great final minutes from Alyssa Naeher to keep the win intact. The fact that Naeher did have a solid game, if caught out on Rachel Daly’s goal, is as good of a sign as any for the team’s playoff chances. Given that they’re traveling to one coast or the other for the playoffs, they don’t to want run their legs off by allowing Portland to control the ball for 90 minutes. Both teams are stronger in the center of the park, so expect this game to play out there.
Keep an eye on:
• Adrianna Franch, whose shutout record should have her in the running for Goalkeeper of the Year
• Casey Short, a candidate for Defender of the Year
Seattle Reign FC at Washington Spirit
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Maryland SoccerPlex
All-time series: Reign lead, 7-4-1 (plus 2-0-0 playoffs)
In Washington: Spirit led, 3-2-0
Last meeting: May 13, 2017; 6-2 Reign
In a complete reversal of last season, this game is Washington’s last chance to avoid the bottom of the table, which would be the second time in their NWSL history as they were also the last place team in 2013. With all the injuries the Spirit have suffered, season’s end may come as a relief to some. For the players who remain, they want to play smart and defensively, looking for goals on the counter. Washington’s downfall this year has been their weakened defense, giving up the second-most goals in the league. The Reign are plenty capable of pummeling the Spirit as they demonstrated in their last meeting, so look for Shelina Zadorsky and Whitney Church to keep busy.
For some teams, finishing 5th would mean a solid if not entirely successful season. For the Reign, it’s the second year in a row they’ve just missed out on the playoffs, and for a team whom we quickly became accustomed to thinking of as very good, they probably aren’t satisfied. Both Sky Blue and FC Kansas City can pass Seattle to take that 5th place spot, so the Reign could be looking to go out with a bang. However, they will be missing Megan Rapinoe, who is out on yellow card accumulation and with her goes a big portion of the Reign’s scoring threat. This also means she is not returning as a player to the scene of last year’s anthem debacle. Rapinoe, along with several players from both teams, did not leave the locker room for the anthem at last week’s game against Kansas City.
Keep an eye on:
• Meggie Dougherty-Howard, a likely if unexpected candidate for Rookie of the Year
• Lydia Williams, who has found a home even if her arrival was too late to save the Reign’s playoff hopes
Orlando Pride at North Carolina Courage
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: tied, 2-2-0
In North Carolina: Courage lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: May 14, 2017; 3-1 Pride
In the second possible playoff preview, the Pride travel to North Carolina to face the newly minted Shield winners. The Pride have to win AND the Red Stars have to lose in order for Orlando to travel to Portland for the semifinal instead. As with the other game involving playoff contenders, rest is likely on the table for many players, particularly the Brazilian and Australian players who looked exhausted last week after their long travels. A loss here would mean ending the regular season on a three-game winless streak, which isn’t the best momentum with which to send a team into the postseason. Look for Rachel Hill to return to the pitch and bring an aggressiveness into the box that was lacking against Portland last week.
Paul Riley already rested some players in the midweek win against Houston, so he could go either return with a full squad to ensure they are all tuned up for the playoffs, or he could continue with rotation and give starts to some of his Wednesday subs. Either way, as one of if not the deepest team in the league, they’ll be a handful. The Dash didn’t put up much of a fight, but the Courage never looked less than in control of the game, winning the Shield in as fine a fashion as one could imagine. Ashley Hatch and Debinha were two of the strongest players out there, while Lynn Williams fooled about half of Houston’s defense with one move. Look for both teams to force turnovers in midfield. A win here means the Courage will beat the Reign’s record for most wins in a season, 16 in 2014, the only other season to have 24 games.
Keep an eye on:
• Marta, who hasn’t looked her best recently but is still in the running for MVP
• Hatch, the likely frontrunner for Rookie of the Year
Houston Dash at FC Kansas City
Sunday, 6:00 p.m. EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 5-3-2
In Kansas City: Dash lead, 2-0-2
Last meeting: August 13, 2017; 1-0 Kansas City
This is, quite frankly, a very odd matchup. Both sides tend to do better on the road against the other, which goes against the grain as far as soccer lore goes. This is also the first time a regular season NWSL game has been played in October, a month normally reserved for playoffs (and a date that was not originally scheduled). History benefits the Dash here, in their last chance to avoid ending the season on a six-game losing streak. In a season where they fired their coach, swapped their starting goalkeeper, lost their captain to an ACL tear, traded their first-ever draft pick, were briefly evacuated due to a hurricane, and essentially lost two homes games (annoying their fanbase in the process), it seemed like nothing could go right for the Dash. To end on a high note, they have to leave the unmotivated play they offered against the Courage in Texas, although they are already locked into 8th place.
While it was too little too late for FC Kansas City, they did get to deny Seattle a chance at the playoffs, just one of several daggers they’ve delivered to that club over the years. Becky Sauerbrunn had a fantastic game in particular, while the late-blooming partnership between Shea Groom and Sydney Leroux proved fruitful once again. The pieces are there for FCKC to return to contention next year, although growing concern of off the pitch matters could become an issue. They like to build out of the back more than the Dash prefer, although both teams will look to pounce on errant passes and score on counterattacks. FCKC is likely to have more success in that area as the Dash play a higher line.
Keep an eye on:
• Nicole Barnhart, as reliable as ever
• Kristie Mewis, one of the Dash’s best players in recent games