NWSL playoffs 2021: Previewing the semifinal matchups

(Craig Mitchelldyer / ISI Photos / Getty Images)

The NWSL is one step closer to crowning a 2021 champion.

After last week’s quarterfinal round sent two teams home, the 10-team league is down to four that will compete in a pair of semifinal matchups on Sunday afternoon. Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign earned byes to the semifinals after finishing the regular season in first and second place, respectively.

OL Reign will host the Washington Spirit, winners of a 1-0 extra-time quarterfinal against the North Carolina Courage, in the first game Sunday. The Thorns will then meet the Chicago Red Stars, who ousted NJ/NY Gotham FC 1-0 last weekend, in the finale.

Let’s take a closer look at each semifinal matchup.

No. 2 OL Reign vs No. 3 Washington Spirit

Oh hey, OL Reign. Long time, no see.

The Reign are coming into this game having not played since their 3-0 win over Kansas City on Oct. 30. They placed second in the regular-season standings — just two points behind the Portland Thorns — with a record of 13-8-3. A dominant team at every position on the field, OL Reign will be a tough matchup for the Spirit.

But “tough” is a word that hardly phases Washington these days. After battling the Courage to extra time last Sunday and advancing on Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch’s late goal, the Spirit have increased their unbeaten streak to seven games. The Spirit finished the regular season third in the standings with an 11-7-6 record, fueled by the energy of their young squad.

In the teams’ three meetings this season, Washington has two wins and Reign has one. Their most recent matchup on Oct. 16 resulted in a 2-0 Spirit victory.

Each team has a top scorer in Hatch and Bethany Balcer, whose nine goals for OL Reign during the regular season trailed Hatch’s by one. Defensively, the Reign were fourth in the league with 24 goals against during the regular season. The Spirit were just behind them at 26, with Aubrey Bledsoe nominated for Goalkeeper of the Year after recording nine shutouts. NWSL MVP nominee Jess Fishlock and 2020 Olympic gold medalist Quinn have held down a strong midfield for the Reign this year, while U.S. women’s national team members Ashley Sanchez and Andi Sullivan have done the same for Washington.

Sunday’s game will feature four players on each squad who were called up to the USWNT for international friendlies against Australia later this month. For OL Reign, NWSL assists leader Sofia Huerta and Defender of the Year nominee Alana Cook will slot into the national team’s backline, while Balcer and midfielder Rose Lavelle will play on the attack. Representing the Spirit will be Hatch, Sanchez, Sullivan and defender Emily Sonnett.

The Reign may have the slight edge Sunday, but if the Spirit bring the same hunger that’s gotten them this far, they can’t be counted out. Washington and OL Reign kick off at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday on CBS Sports Network.

No. 1 Portland Thorns vs No. 4 Chicago Red Stars

The Portland Thorns are getting used to raising trophies. Already this year, they’ve won the Challenge Cup, the International Champions Cup and the NWSL Shield. In 2020, they claimed the Fall Series title. They’re also two-time NWSL champions, having won in 2013 and 2017.

The Chicago Red Stars? They’re still looking to get over the hump, with Sunday’s’ game marking their sixth consecutive semifinal appearance.

MVP candidate Mallory Pugh will lead the Red Stars’ upset campaign. The 23-year-old has continued to build on a standout season, scoring the game-winning goal in her NWSL playoff debut last weekend to lift her team to the semifinals.

While most teams had the opportunity to play each team three times this season, the Thorns and Red Stars faced each other just twice, winning one apiece. Portland claimed the first match, 5-0, back in May. Their second meeting at the end of September was much closer, with Red Stars forward Rachel Hill scoring the game-winner in the 65th minute after first-half goals from Portland’s Christine Sinclair and Chicago’s Kaelia Watt.

Chicago, after winning in front of 7,027 fans at home last Sunday, now heads into enemy territory at Providence Park.

“Portland is a tough place in the history of the Red Stars for us to play at, but I’m excited about it,” Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden said. “It’s going to be an incredible challenge … It’s been a year filled with adversity, and so I feel like this is the perfect like next challenge, of course, to go to Portland and to really make a statement after we last went there.”

The Thorns’ defense has been the best in the NWSL this season, conceding just 17 goals and helping Goalkeeper of the Year nominee Bella Bixby record 14 clean sheets for a league shutout record. Portland’s Emily Menges and Chicago’s Gorden are both up for NWSL Defender of the Year.

The Thorns and Red Stars kick off Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.

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.

The 2021 NWSL Championship is heading to Louisville on Saturday, Nov. 20. Check out the greatest women’s soccer players in the world live at Lynn Family Stadium in the championship final. Go to seatgeek.com/NWSL and buy your tickets today.