By MIKE McCALL
After a regular season marked by shifting tides atop the standings and a wild finish, the National Women’s Soccer League heads to its inaugural postseason on Saturday, with four teams looking to book a spot in next weekend’s final.
The Western New York Flash earned home field advantage and the easiest opponent by virtue of a first-place finish, and they’ll enter the playoffs as the favorites to take home the crown.
But two very talented adversaries await on the other side as the Portland Thorns and FC Kansas City are both hoping to overcome recent stalls to realize their full potential on the league’s biggest stage.
Forget points and goal differential — for the last four standing, it all comes down to 90 minutes on the field this weekend. For more on the matchups, here’s our breakdown of the NWSL semifinals (all times local):
FC KANSAS CITY vs. PORTLAND THORNS (Saturday, 1pm)
A few weeks ago, it would have been hard to pick anyone but FC Kansas City to win it all. Riding a 10-game win streak and with Golden Boot winner Lauren Holiday tearing opponents apart, FCKC seemed to have it all figured out.
Then came the collapse. Losses to two non-playoff teams to end the year dropped the club from clear leader to a three-way tie for first, meaning the championship went to Western New York via tiebreaker. FCKC gave up the title-deciding goal in the final minutes of the season, and now, the team must pick itself up to face the club that’s likely still the most talented in the league.
With the likes of Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath, Portland was expected to march straight through the schedule, leaving nothing but torn nets and burning stadiums in its path. Things didn’t go quite so smoothly, but the Thorns did wind up tied for first, which is hardly something to sneeze at.
But the biggest issue for the Thorns is Morgan’s health. After an MCL sprain, she’ll be a game-time decision, and having her at anything less than 100 percent is a big blow for a side that never really found its full stride even when healthy.
Morgan’s knee is the big question mark in this one, but there’s no question that Portland has the talent to win a title. Still, playing at home and not far removed from a dominant streak, FCKC should be a slight favorite.
WESTERN NY FLASH vs. SKY BLUE FC (Saturday, 8pm)
After the other three alternated the league lead all regular season, the Flash snuck in at the last minute — quite literally — to take the title. But this was no fluke, as Western NY posted the NWSL’s top offense and defense.
Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd are used to playing on the biggest stages, and the club itself is used to winning trophies, with three titles in three different leagues before joining the NWSL.
On the other side, Sky Blue FC is wishing the playoffs had taken place in the middle of the season, back when they were the surprising league leaders and showing no signs of slipping.
Since then, they’ve battled a slew of injuries and come into the postseason a step behind the rest. That’s not to say SBFC can’t pull out a win in Rochester, but there’s no question that it would be an upset if they do.
Who are your picks? Does Morgan play? Can Portland win without her, or will FCKC return to form? Are the Flash a lock to advance?
Share your thoughts below.