The NWSL playoffs are here, and with them comes a whole new season. The slate has been wiped clean, and the championship is there for the taking.
While some clubs — namely the top two seeds, OL Reign and the Portland Thorns — surged into the postseason, other clubs have reason to worry. Take the San Diego Wave, who are closely monitoring Golden Boot winner Alex Morgan’s knee injury ahead of their first-round match.
Morgan is just one of many players to watch as the road to the title begins, and Just Women’s Sports highlights one from each team, listed in order of playoff seeding.
The goalkeeper enters the playoffs having recorded a clean sheet in each of her team’s past three matches, including against the Houston Dash on Sept. 24.
Her first year as the starting goalkeeper for OL Reign has been nothing short of outstanding, with Tullis-Joyce playing all 1,980 minutes of the season as one of just two goalkeepers to play every minute for their team.
She has recorded nine clean sheets through 22 games and made 65 saves, allowing a league-low 19 goals all season long (Wave keeper Kailen Sheridan allowed just 17 goals but played in just 18 games). Tullis-Joyce also ranks first in save percentage (81 percent) and goals against average for every 90 minutes (0.86).
It’s hard to pick just one player to watch at Portland. But Smith stands out amongst the rest, having notched four braces this season (including one in the regular-season finale against Gotham FC) to bring her goal total to 14 on the season. Not only is that the most of Smith’s career in a single season, it also set the Portland franchise record.
With her 14 goals, Smith now has 21 in her career through just two seasons and is fourth all-time on the Thorns’ list behind Christine Sinclair (55 goals), Allie Long (30) and Lindsey Horan (25).
Morgan might be the most important player to take the field for the Wave in the playoffs — if she makes it there. She described her knee injury Friday as “day-to-day,” and her availability remains up in the air heading into the Wave’s postseason opener Sunday against the Red Stars.
“I’m trying my best to be available for Sunday but it really is day-to-day at this moment,” Morgan said Friday. “As much as I’m hopeful, I can’t really set expectations because my body really needs to tell myself and this club whether I’ll be ready to go.”
The Wave will be without defender Abby Dahlkemper, and midfielder Taylor Kornieck is also “questionable” for Sunday, according to coach Casey Stoney, so Morgan’s status holds even greater importance for San Diego. Not only did she score 15 goals this season, she also has veteran experience that the first-year expansion team will need heading into their first-ever playoffs.
San Diego has defied expectations all season long, as has Morgan. If her knee can hold up, look for Morgan to factor heavily into these playoffs.
Since arriving in Houston from Louisville, Salmon has made her mark. She scored a hat trick in just her third game with the club and went on to record nine goals on the season through 12 games. That number left her just two shy of Kealia Ohai Watt’s team record of 11.
Houston will be without longtime captain and veteran Rachel Daly, who departed for Aston Villa following the Euros this summer. But the Dash have been able to find ways to win, and they’ll look to get their first playoff win Sunday in their first playoff appearance.
LaBonta’s career-best season put an exclamation point on Kansas City’s second season, which included a 13-game unbeaten streak. LaBonta tied with Cece Kizer for a team-leading seven goals, which showcases just how balanced this Current team is. The midfielder also added four assists, the most of any player on the team.
Head coach Matt Potter calls her the team’s “engine,” and with her they might have a shot at securing the NWSL title.
While Mallory Pugh is certainly another player to watch, Milazzo has been an instrumental part of the team’s backline. Not only does she lead the league in interceptions (50), she also is tied for fourth with teammate Vanessa DiBernardo for the most tackles won (41).