We have finally arrived at the NWSL final, where two somewhat unlikely finalists will meet to crown a new league champion. The Chicago Red Stars and the Washington Spirit face off Saturday at Louisville’s Lynn Family Stadium in a game that isn’t quite easy to preview, let alone predict.
Before you place your bets on the championship game, let’s look at the keys to the matchup and how they could play into the final result.
The Red Stars and the Spirit play very different styles of soccer, with unique sets of tools at their disposal. Chicago had a lackluster start to the season that included heavy defeats and doubts about their performances, both in the attack and on defense. But even after losing Alyssa Naeher and Julie Ertz to season-ending injuries, they figured out their team identity and started to string together more wins.
Chicago defends narrowly with a compact core. Gotham FC and the Portland Thorns, the two teams they’ve beaten so far in playoffs, were forced to play the ball wide and deliver crosses into the box from outside. The Red Stars took them out of their comfort zones and capitalized on it, upsetting both teams to advance to the final.
Washington has faced different kinds of problems throughout the season, most notably off the field with their coaching staff and front office. On the pitch, they stuck to a system of play that stemmed from organized defense. Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett held down the backline, Aubrey Bledsoe won NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year for her play in net, Andi Sullivan guided the midfield and Ashley Hatch, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez spearheaded a fast and crafty attack.
Washington has also had a knack for winning games late. Of all six teams that qualified for the NWSL playoffs, the Spirit scored the most goals in the final 15 minutes of games and scored the most on counter-attacks, recording seven in each category.
It might sound simple, but whichever group of midfielders has more possession of the ball and disrupts the flow of play will have the upper hand in this match. If Morgan Gautrat, Sarah Woldmoe and the rest of the Red Stars’ midfielders can press effectively in the middle of the park and deliver clean passes to Mallory Pugh (cleared to play Friday after missing the semifinal due to COVID-19 protocol), Chicago can wear Washington down.
Chicago’s defense has to be rock solid, since Washington’s speedy strikers will jump on any mistake. Washington’s front three resemble Portland’s with their pace and willingness to go 1v1. After shutting out the top-ranked Thorns last weekend, the Red Stars should look to play a similar style of defense on Saturday.
On the other side, if Washington’s midfield can do the same with Sullivan and Dorian Bailey, by exploiting gaps and lapses of concentration by the Chicago defense, Washington has a better chance of controlling the game. Look for the midfielders to set the tempo and pace of the game from the opening whistle.
It’s also worth noting that the Spirit have played more minutes than the Red Stars in the past two weeks after going into overtime with the North Carolina Courage in the quarterfinals. How well interim head coach Kris Ward sets up the rotation and times his substitutions will be a difference-maker for Washington.
Set pieces can also make or break this game. Chicago has scored six times on set pieces, more than any other team in the league. Washington has conceded four, making up almost a quarter of the goals they’ve given up all season.
The slight favorites for the sportsbooks are the Washington Spirit, as the higher seed in the playoffs and the team with more players who received national recognition this year, from Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch to Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman to Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe. If you think the Spirit will win by the end of regulation time, DraftKings has the best line for you at +170. If your faith and money are with the Red Stars, who return Pugh and Kayla Sharples from COVID-19 protocol on Saturday, DraftKings offers the best line at +185.
As you can see, there’s not a lot separating these teams, but what caught my attention is the line for the draw. Given the possibility of the game going into extra time, it might be tempting to place your money on it. DraftKings has a good line at +210, but PointsBet has a slightly better one at +215. I think it’s worth considering for bettors.
Unibet, BetRivers, SugarHouse and Caesars also offer the opportunity to bet on the championship game. The lines are not as advantageous as the ones mentioned above, but maybe one not tied to the result will catch your eye.
Antonio Maza is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering NWSL betting. He also contributes to Bet Her. Follow him on Twitter @NwslAnalitica.