WASHINGTON, D.C. — If there’s anything the public has learned from this year’s NWSL playoffs, it’s that you have to keep playing right up until the final whistle. Three of the last four postseason games have featured game-winners in either stoppage or extra time, with substitutes making an outsized impact. In a high-transition league, legs begin to tire around the 60th minute, and the decision to insert the right player for an infusion of energy can bend a match in a team’s favor.
On Saturday, the NWSL Championship could come down to the final half-hour of the game. The Kansas City Current and Portland Thorns have both done the work over the last eight months to be prepared for that moment.
“It’s hard to establish yourself as a coach and earn trust, and all you can do is try your best to be as consistent as possible,” said Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson. “And I think in that way from the beginning of the year, I’ve tried to use our depth.”
Throughout the season, the Thorns had to rely heavily on squad rotation while Christine Sinclair and others were away competing in international tournaments. Recent midfield starter Yazmeen Ryan thinks that experience not only helped them finish second in the league, but carried them into the championship.
“There’s not anything like it. I mean, I feel like this is just Portland, like this is who we are,” she said.
Those best-laid plans could be a difference-maker on Saturday evening, with the matchup between Portland and Kansas City culminating one of the most competitive seasons in NWSL history. Behind the strength of strong rookie classes joining cores of young and veteran talent, both the Thorns and the Current have players who can come in with fresh legs and new ideas.
“I’ve tried to use our players not just to rest other players or perceived starters, but to make sure that no matter who’s called upon and when, they have had game experience,” Wilkinson said.
The Current were dealt a tough hand to their starting XI early in 2022, losing both Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis to injury after making some of the splashiest signings of the offseason. While Mewis and Williams were missed, other members of the roster stepped up to take the club from the league basement in 2021 all the way to the last game of the year.
Kansas City head coach Matt Potter instills his team with the confidence that any player can contribute when called upon, like Elyse Bennett did against OL Reign last Sunday when Cece Kizer left the match as a concussion substitute.
“I feel like everyone on our team is worthy and deserving of minutes, and I feel like everyone’s gonna be ready when their name is called on,” Bennett said on Thursday.
Potter agrees: “It basically gives you many positive problems because so many players are ready to play. It’s hard to leave a player out — that’s one of the hardest things of the job. But we fully trust it, when they come into the game, they will change the game.” He mentioned subs like Chardonnay Curran, Izzy Rodriguez and Taylor Leach coming into the match in Seattle and putting the finishing touches on a late-game, 2-0 shutout victory to advance to the final.
“When we’re on the bench, we see things, we say things, and then when we go on, we actually do it,” Curran said, while Rodriguez cited the ability to exploit gaps she’s noticed while on the bench.
While the Current get the fresh legs and perspectives of younger players eager to make their mark on a big game, Portland has to manage the work of a number of established stars. In their semifinal against San Diego, the names on the bench came with years of top-level international and club experience. Asking Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair and Janine Beckie to come in to close out a match isn’t an easy task to manage, but the Thorns have made the balance work.
“There’s a lot of ego and a lot of outside attention on starts, but I’m a big believer in who’s going to finish,” said Wilkinson, acknowledging that the trust required to ask a high-caliber player to be patient until their number is called comes with time. Dunn’s insertion into the match against San Diego resulted in the game-winner, and Wilkinson specifically called out a defensive action by Sinclair that helped close out the game after she was subbed in late.
Working her way back into full-90 fitness after giving birth to son Marcel in May, Dunn takes her job in stride. “I think you have to be adaptable. When people reach this level, you can’t only handle one role,” she said Friday. “When players see us adapt to fulfill new roles, I think it just helps younger players to step outside of their own self and say, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t the role that I love, but I’m gonna do what I need to to help the team.’”
While Portland’s high-profile game-changers might give them an edge on paper, Kansas City’s ability to overcome deficits and fight to the finish has a lot to do with the tenacity of their substitutes.
“Those players have come into games that we’ve been losing 2-0 a few times throughout the season, and have come back to get results that we might not have been able to get without them,” Current forward Kristen Hamilton said.
No matter what, Bennett says, you can’t count anyone out until the last minute.
“Our bench is going to be just as ready as Portland’s bench,” she said, “and it’s going to be an accumulation of all the players on the team and the roster that ultimately deserves to win.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.