NWSL playoffs 2021: Previewing the quarterfinal matchups

Gotham FC takes on the Chicago Red Stars in the first NWSL quarterfinal game on Sunday. (Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

After a season of turmoil, the NWSL playoffs have finally arrived.

Taking the pitch in Sunday’s quarterfinal games are the Chicago Red Stars against NJ/NY Gotham and the North Carolina Courage against the Washington Spirit. The Portland Thorns and OL Reign have earned byes to the semifinals on Nov. 14.

That the NWSL season has been a long and challenging road to this point is an understatement. The regular season has been overshadowed by off-field issues including allegations of abusive coaches, staff firings, COVID-19 outbreaks and ownership concerns. In addition to training and competing, players across the NWSL have spent endless amounts of energy fighting for change within the league.

At some point, for the sake of players’ well-being, things must return to normalcy, enough for the athletes to enjoy the game of soccer again. The playoffs seem like a good place to start.

“There’s so much that’s been up in the air off the field, and it’s tough to put any more energy towards that now at this time of the year,” said Washington defender Sam Staab. “I think we’ve all just kind of taken a step back from there and just been like, ‘Let’s focus on us, let’s focus on us as players’ … We’ve had a pretty tough year, so we’re just going for it.”

On that note, bring on the quarterfinals.

No. 4 Chicago Red Stars vs. No. 5 NJ/NY Gotham FC

First and foremost, Gotham coach Scott Parkinson is going to hit the restaurants when Gotham’s plane lands in Chicago. Priorities.

“I know all the food places around there, so that would be good to get some food,” Parkinson said when asked about returning to Chicago, where he was assistant coach for the Red Stars until Gotham hired him in August.

“I am obviously comfortable with that environment,” he said of the Red Stars. “I know the team. The Red Stars are always in the playoffs, so if you want to win this thing, you probably have to find a way of going through them or a team that already has.”

Chicago is making its sixth straight playoff appearance, coming off of an 11-8-5 record in the regular season, while Gotham has been ruler of the draws at 8-5-11. The teams’ three meetings this year resulted in two ties and a Gotham victory.

What makes this matchup intriguing is that both teams are on a serious roll. The Red Stars have lost only one game in their past nine matches, and Gotham went unbeaten in their last eight games. They also have two players each on the NWSL October Team of the Month: forward Midge Purce (NJ/NY), midfielder Morgan Gautrat (CHI), and defenders Caprice Dydasco (NJ/NY) and Sarah Gorden (CHI).

Gotham’s backline will be tested against Mallory Pugh and Kealia Watt, who are each in the NWSL’s top five for shots and shots on goal. They should present the biggest challenge to NJ/NY goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, who is third in the league with 76 saves and was named to the Goalkeeper of the Year shortlist on Friday.

Then there’s Gotham forward Carli Lloyd, who could be playing in her final game as a professional, though she’s not looking at it that way.

“I think you’ve just seen in every NWSL game, anything happens,” Lloyd said. “So we’re going to have to go there, we’re going to play really well, and we’re going to have to fight to the end.”

The teams will kick off on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.

No. 3 Washington Spirit vs. No. 6 North Carolina Courage

Just last Sunday, the Courage were pulling for the Spirit in their game against the Houston Dash, knowing that a Spirit win would send them to the playoffs. Washington delivered, and now the teams will go head-to-head Sunday as opponents once more.

Unlike Gotham and the Red Stars, the Spirit and the Courage are coming into the quarterfinals on two very different pages.

Washington soared through the final months of the regular season. North Carolina … did not. Five of the Courage’s nine losses came in their last seven matches. They don’t have any players on NWSL’s October Team of the Month, while Washington has four: goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, defender Sam Staab, and forwards Trinity Rodman and Ashley Hatch, who won the 2021 Golden Boot for the first time in her career with 10 goals.

Washington also has the upper hand from their regular-season matchups, having defeated the Courage twice and tied once. Their most recent meeting on Oct. 13 resulted in a 2-1 win for the Spirit.

“Performance-wise, everyone battled, everyone competed,” North Carolina defender Kaleigh Kurtz said of the game. “There were a lot of really good takeaways. The two goals were really unfortunate; a poor mis-clearance by me on the first one, and then Casey was screened on the second one, so that’s really unfortunate.”

Kurtz is part of a strong Courage backline. In fact, the whole team has been efficient on defense. Despite being the last-place playoff team, they conceded fewer goals during the regular season (23) than the Spirit (26), who are the top team playing this weekend.

But even defense might not be an advantage for North Carolina. The Spirit have been working on their team shape over the past couple of months, and by the sounds of it, they’ve made progress.

“We’ve all gotten on the same page now of how we’re going to press, how we’re going to defend, and if we get beat, what positioning we want to get back into,” said Staab.

Given the way the teams have been trending, Washington appears to be in a better position to advance to semifinals. But, like Lloyd said, anything can happen in the NWSL.

Find out Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on Twitch and Paramount+.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.