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The Red Stars and Spirit, teams of destiny, are NWSL finals bound

The Red Stars celebrate Sarah Woldmoe’s second-half goal against the Portland Thorns. (Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The way the NWSL semifinals unfolded on Sunday isn’t really how soccer games are supposed to go. League tables are generally a good indicator of a team’s quality and consistency, but the results of the day don’t always go the way of the technically better team. Sometimes winner-take-all tactics work, and the statistically unlikely outcome becomes reality.

This is why the NWSL playoffs are so exciting every year. The knockout bracket is its own brand of soccer, where teams might start off hesitantly but games often open up once goals are scored. The 90-minute clock begins to take on more urgency, players make uncharacteristic mistakes and, sometimes, the underdog walks out with the win.

On Sunday, the underdog Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars never gave up when faced with climbing adversity. They stuck to their game plans, defeated their higher-seeded opponents and will now meet on Saturday in a championship matchup that nobody saw coming.

On one side, the challenges the Spirit have faced off the field this year are well-documented. The club fired coach Richie Burke in August after multiple players accused him of abusive behavior, a COVID-19 outbreak in September forced them to forfeit two key games and co-owners Steve Baldwin and Y. Michele Kang remain in an open dispute. Some of these wounds were self-inflicted, and some of them were completely outside of the players’ control.

On Sunday, adverse weather conditions affected both the Spirit and hosts OL Reign. Days of rain soaked the field at Cheney Stadium, adding another obstacle to the already narrow and somewhat short converted baseball field.

The Reign’s familiarity with the field would seem to make the conditions work in their favor, but the limited space also meant the other team’s defense could more easily clamp down on their high-flying attack. That didn’t stop the Reign from scoring the earliest goal in NWSL postseason history in the third minute, when Megan Rapinoe sent a beautiful ball in to a racing Eugénie Le Sommer, who shrugged off her mark and tapped it in.

That was the last time the Reign found the back of the net, despite out-shooting Washington 23 to 13. The Spirit adjusted to the moment, putting in shifts of last-ditch defending that held the Reign to just three shots on goal. The old adage that defense wins championships seemed to hold true in Tacoma on Sunday, but more specifically for the Spirit, defense kept them in the game so that the offense could then take its chances.

Washington’s first goal was a classic example of long-ball transition. Sam Staab lofted a ball over the top to a surging Trinity Rodman for the score and the start of another fantastic performance in her rookie campaign. Their second goal was even more audacious, with Ashley Sanchez taking the ball to the end line and finessing it over the head of Reign keeper Sarah Bouhaddi to put the Spirit ahead 2-1.

As they showed Sunday, the Spirit are operating at an intersection of high-level talent and youthful freedom that makes them difficult to defend simply because teams don’t know what they are going to try next.

Based on each team’s attacking data, the Spirit’s likelihood of winning that game was 5 percent. They overcame the in-game odds and pulled off a stunner, only to be one-upped a few hours later.

What the Chicago Red Stars achieved at Providence Park in the second semifinal of the day could be considered the greatest NWSL postseason upset of all time. This was Chicago’s first trip back to Portland since a 5-0 loss to the Thorns at the beginning of the season.

It was also their first game against Portland since a 2-1 victory in September that set the blueprint for the team Chicago became in the latter half of the season. The Red Stars prioritize organization without the ball, allowing their opponents to possess the ball but neutralizing all available attacking options. The resolve the Red Stars showed at the beginning of the match Sunday, starting Danny Colaprico in place of star striker Mallory Pugh (who missed the match due to COVID-19 protocol), was an early sign that the Thorns weren’t going to get the space they did back in May to put Chicago’s defense on its heels.

The Red Stars defended on every line — starting with their attack — and frequently collapsed in to get numbers in front of the ball. That part of the game-plan was clear from the first whistle. More unclear was how they would score without the individual magic of Pugh or Kealia Watt, who had to leave the match around the half-hour mark with an injury.

Chicago has been sneakily good at figuring out when to send numbers forward in transition, but the two goals they actually scored against Portland were highly unlikely conversions. Katie Johnson (who had subbed on for Watt) took a shot near-post on a tight angle in the 37th minute, one that Portland keeper Bella Bixby would usually be able to punch out for a corner kick, at worst. Bixby, however, didn’t have quite the right angle to stop the ball from sneaking into the back of the net, and suddenly the upset campaign was on.

While goals have sometimes felt like minor miracles for Chicago (who once relied on five-straight own goals to carry their offense), the Red Stars are almost impossible to play when they have a lead. Not many teams have the mental fortitude to defend for 60 minutes straight, and it’s frequently a losing tactic for groups with less experience. But the Red Stars live and breathe the defensive formation at this point in the year. And while Sarah Woldmoe scoring an even more improbable goal in the 59th minute added to a feeling of destiny, the Red Stars’ clean sheet was by design, and the Thorns had no answer.

The Red Stars scored two goals with an attack that generated exactly one-eighth of the game’s chances. The Spirit won a game they had a 5-percent chance of winning. And just like that, for the first time in NWSL history, the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds will be playing one another in the final, with each team looking to end their Cinderella stories with the first trophy in their club’s histories.

Their journeys to Louisville might have been improbable, but the Spirit and the Red Stars are exactly where they want to be.

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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