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NWSL’s parity shines in exhilarating quarterfinal debut

Trinity Rodman celebrates after Ashley Hatch's game-winning goal for the Spirit. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

The NWSL kicked off the 2021 postseason on Sunday with celebration and tears. The first quarterfinal round in the league’s short history included two wins by the slightest of margins.

The No. 4 Chicago Red Stars ended Carli Lloyd’s professional career in a 1-0 defeat of No. 5 Gotham FC, thanks to a second-half strike from Mallory Pugh. The red-hot Washington Spirit then took down the 2019 NWSL champion North Carolina Courage on an Ashley Hatch game-winner in the second half of extra time.

In past years, only four teams advanced to the playoffs, with two semifinals played the weekend before the championship game. Postseason festivities were short-lived as four teams quickly became two and the NWSL crowned a winner only two weeks after the end of the regular season.

Preparing for league expansion, the NWSL debuted a new primary round of postseason games in 2021 and expanded the playoff pool to six teams. There was some concern that the extra slots would dilute the quality of play or that the process would become pulled in too many directions. But both quarterfinal games Sunday ended up being impressive — if different — showcases of the league’s parity.

Lloyd’s final professional minutes on a soccer pitch added to the historical significance of the first game, but one had to forgive the Red Stars for acting as if their victory were business as usual.

Chicago, whose regular season was as steady as it was occasionally monotonous, prepared itself for exactly the type of match it got against Gotham. The Red Stars successfully maintained their shape, never getting pulled out of position by Gotham’s dynamic frontline, in a display that even surprised former Red Stars assistant and current Gotham head coach Scott Parkinson.

“I thought it would be a little bit more end-to-end than it was,” Parkinson said after the match. “Especially in the first half, I thought they’d come out and give us a goal. But they didn’t.”

A track meet would have likely favored the visitors, so it wasn’t shocking that Chicago instructed its outside backs to stay home and create numerical advantages centrally in the defense. Still, executing a game plan that relies on excellence without the ball isn’t easy to pull off mentally, and the Red Stars showed their growth in maintaining focus for the whole match. The center-back duo of Sarah Gorden and Tierna Davidson held fast, and the team built off of that foundation.

A moment of clarity led to the Red Stars’ lone goal in the 61st minute, when Sarah Woldmoe pounced on a throw from Gotham keeper Kailen Sheridan to midfielder McCall Zerboni, with whom Woldmoe had been in a physical battle for much of the afternoon. She slotted the ball out to Pugh, who connected on a one-touch strike toward the far post. Chicago then defended comfortably, holding off the dynamic duo of Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu to earn the win and a meeting with the top-seeded Thorns in Portland next weekend.

The way the Red Stars suffocated Gotham for the last 30 minutes of play had Lloyd literally watching the clock wind down on her career, which left her emotional after the match.

“I think as the clock was obviously winding down and we were pressing for a goal, I just kept looking at the time because essentially time was … running out,” she said, taking a moment to compose herself. “It’s really sunk in now. And it’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t have went on.”

The winners derived satisfaction from executing their game plan against a talented group up front.

“I love going against Ify, Midge, Carli, all of them,” Gorden said. “Just because they’re attackers who want the ball and they want to take you on. They’re competent, their skills are dynamic, they’re smart, they’re technical, all the things.”

The second game Sunday also featured dynamic, smart and technical attackers, though the final score in regulation didn’t necessarily reflect the quality on the field. The No. 3 Spirit and the No. 6 Courage played to a 0-0 draw through 90 minutes despite the game offering everything on attack that the first match had in defensive organization.

The Courage, true underdogs for the first time since they were known as the Western New York Flash, came in with their veterans ready to take the game to the favorites. Debinha, tenacious on the ball, found space behind Washington’s backline, while Jessica McDonald helped run point on the team’s defensive press from her place in the attack. The Courage created more dangerous chances in front of the Spirit’s goal than many people anticipated. Their center-back duo of Abby Erceg and Kaleigh Kurtz also held strong in transition, but they couldn’t quite break through to put the Spirit on their heels.

On the other side, Andi Sullivan had another excellent game setting up Washington’s offense from her role as the No. 6, and Trinity Rodman continued her reign of terror from the wing. The Spirit did a good job of moving the ball through each sector of the field — especially when they could feel momentum swinging in transition — but just couldn’t get the ball on frame.

The pace of both teams made the match feel wide open, and the only reason the game remained scoreless through regulation was the play of goalkeepers Aubrey Bledsoe and Casey Murphy. Both were exceptional, parrying shots from distance, grabbing crosses out of the air and creating sequences that led to high-quality shot selection.

“I said it before the game, that the keepers were going to be the key piece in this whole thing,” North Carolina interim head coach Sean Nahas said afterward. “And they were. But Casey Murphy — I think you’re potentially looking at the two future goalkeepers of the United States women’s national team.”

The Spirit entered extra time with renewed energy, even after captain Tori Huster left the game with a non-contact injury. The period ultimately ended in heartbreak for Murphy, who coughed up her first rebound of the night on a low shot from Rodman that had some extra pace on it. Hatch, the NWSL’s Golden Boot winner, made the follow-up run and struck the ball home with fewer than ten minutes left in extra time, sending the Spirit on to Tacoma, Wash. to face No. 2 OL Reign next weekend.

“This is playoff soccer, it’s about just taking your chances,” Bledsoe said with a smile after the match. “We needed one moment. It took a while to get there, but we eventually came through.”

The Courage drove away from Audi Field mourning the end of their season. But as a group that has overcome so much off the field this year after the firing of coach Paul Riley amid abuse allegations, they left with renewed hope for the future.

“As we were walking off, all the Spirit fans were thanking us and cheering us on, and that to me summed it up,” Nahas said. “Everyone knows what we’ve gone through, and the fact that people saw us perform the way we did and put a smile on people’s faces, and our players being able to leave with their head high, to have opposition fans thanking us and cheering us, that to me sums it up.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.