5 Burning Questions for National Women's Soccer League Semifinals
There are only three questions that really matter when it comes to the National Women's Soccer League playoffs. Two will be answered in weekend semifinals pitting Portland Thorns FC against FC Kansas City (Saturday, ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET), and the Washington Spirit against Seattle Reign FC (Sunday, ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET). The third answer will come a week later in the final.
But since our crystal ball isn't so good with scores, here are five more questions to ponder about the postseason.
How did we get here?
Not without some effort. The NWSL's second season featured a new team, the expansion Houston Dash, but far from being watered down, the on-field product was ever more concentrated quality.
Not that there was any suspense about an award determined by total goals, but the NWSL award season kicked off Thursday with Reign midfielder Kim Little being honored as the Golden Boot winner after scoring 16 goals for the No. 1 seed. She may well add MVP honors when that award is announced next week. The Scottish star, who played for Arsenal until this season, was the league's best import, but she was far from the only one to make a contribution. Alongside Little, Japan's Nahomi Kawasumi played a key role in Seattle. Portland bolstered its roster with reigning FIFA player of the year Nadine Angerer of Germany, dazzling Spanish midfielder Vero Boquete and Australian rising star Stephanie Catley. Washington benefited from the arrivals of England's Jodie Taylor and Germany's Kerstin Garefrekes. And it wasn't just the playoff teams, as the likes of Danish loanee Nadia Nadim sparked a late Sky Blue FC playoff push.
"The league's much stronger this year than it was last year," Portland coach Paul Riley said. "And that's because of the foreign players, no question."
It was also about players with American passports coming home, be it on loan or on a full-time basis. Whether it was Amber Brooks in Portland, Sarah Hagen in Kansas City, Yael Averbuch in Washington, Bev Goebel in Seattle or Christen Press in Chicago, a host of those who spent the league's first season employed abroad came home and made their presence felt. Though it didn't do a great deal to move the attendance needle, and that should give pause, the talent infusion and time to organize produced better soccer.
"Every game is competitive," Seattle coach Laura Harvey said. "No matter what team you're playing against, whether you're playing against top or bottom, every team can beat everybody else in this league. That's why it's the most competitive league in the world, because it has such a huge array of talent in it that someone like Kim, if she plays well, she stands out as being an exceptional player. But if she didn't play well, then she'd stand out in the other way, too."
All of which made getting to this weekend all the more impressive.
Which team suffers most from the international schedule?
By sheer air miles, it is Seattle, although presumably anyone living in the Pacific Northwest is used to trading additional time in the air for the region's perks.
With a busy week of European World Cup qualifying sandwiched between the end of the NWSL regular season and the semifinals, preparations for the latter were always going to be disrupted to some degree. That U.S. Soccer scheduled a friendly against Switzerland only added to the clutter. All four NWSL semifinalists had multiple players who reported for duty with the United States, meaning no team should get a significant advantage, but Seattle took it on the chin.
Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo all started for the United States against Switzerland, with Rapinoe playing until the 78th minute and Solo spending the full 90 minutes in goal. All three added a couple of cross-country flights to their schedules in the process (as did Portland's Alex Morgan and Allie Long, of course), but at least the Reign's Americans didn't cross any oceans. Seattle will also await the return of Welsh international Jess Fishlock, who missed the team's regular-season finale in preparation for a key qualifier that Wales ultimately lost against England on Thursday.
Still, it's worth repeating that no team escaped unscathed. As it prepared for its own trip to Seattle, Washington served up Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn for the game against Switzerland (the effects of a concussion prevented Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris from claiming the spot she had earned) and had its own interest in the World Cup qualifier in Cardiff, Wales, as it waited for leading goal scorer Taylor to return from duty with newly World Cup-qualified England.
Tired bodies and minds could take a small toll on the level of play, but everyone, for the most part, is in the same boat. Or airplane, as it were.
So just how much of a favorite is Seattle to win it all?
All of that just discussed about busy travel schedules and disrupted practice time for the Reign? Yeah, never mind.
Look, there are legitimate caveats when it comes to discussing the regular-season champions, whether it's the aforementioned logistical issues, a 3-2-3 record to close the season after a 13-0-3 start, or the inability to kill off a rival when the chance presented itself in the regular-season finale. But all of those are just that, caveats to a point that seems to stare us in the face.
Seattle ran away with the league this season in a way rarely before seen.
The Reign finished the regular season with a plus-30 goal differential. Add up all the positive goal differentials in the league, from Kansas City, Portland, Chicago and Western New York, and it's still nine goals short of Seattle's mark.
The Reign finished 13 points clear of the team in second place, which itself had a comfortable cushion on third place.
Purely from the standpoint of numbers, the only other WUSA, WPS or NWSL team in the same conversation is the 2010 edition of FC Gold Pride in WPS. That team accumulated 53 points in a 24-game regular season, finished 17 points clear of second place and scored 27 more goals than it allowed. It also won the title (and then folded, but let's not go there).
Under a European playoffless model, we'd be raining hosannas on a champion for the ages right now. Actually, we would have started some weeks ago. That isn't how it works here, obviously, and anything can happen in the postseason. But the weight of the regular season suggests one thing is far and away the most-likely outcome of the games ahead.
Did Washington stage the most impressive turnaround?
The obvious answer is that Seattle climbing from seventh to first in the manner it did represented the most-impressive turnaround of the league's second season. It might be the right answer, too, but the Washington team coming to town for Sunday's semifinal is at least closer to challenging for this imaginary title than any team was to challenging the Reign in the standings.
It wasn't worst to first, but worst to fourth was still a remarkable recovery for the Spirit.
As much as Seattle statistically dominated the league this season, that's how much Washington was statistically dominated a season ago. Someone had to finish last in the inaugural season, and the Spirit had it covered. They scored just 16 goals in 22 games, six fewer than any other team, and allowed a league-worst 39 goals. They finished four points behind the next-to-last Reign, and that only after taking seven points from their final three games after taking seven points from their first 19.
"I know a lot of the girls had never really experienced a season quite like that one before, myself included," Spirit midfielder Diana Matheson said. "So it was definitely a new experience in dealing with that."
The team leader in assists this season and second to Taylor in goals, Matheson is one of a relatively small group of holdovers who experienced both ends of the spectrum last season and this season. In came No. 1 overall draft pick Dunn, as well as veterans Averbuch, Garefrekes, Taylor, Christine Nairn and others. Lisa De Vanna then followed via midseason trade, but the change in culture resounded even before the team took the field this past spring.
"I don't know if it was any name specifically," Matheson said. "I think it was more just that the moves kept coming, and it seemed like every week we signed someone new or we'd made another move. It just seemed consistently we were adding to the team and adding another piece and adding another quality player. It was more that every time I checked my email or looked on the Internet, Washington Spirit had made another move, and that was pretty exciting."
It also made for a lot of introductions, and the team looked the part of strangers in a 3-1 season-opening loss against Western New York. Yet the final goal of a 3-2 win against Houston on May 26 gave the Spirit 17 goals on the season, one more than in the entirety of their first season, and four wins, surpassing that total from their debut campaign, too.
It seemed the improvement might still fall short of a postseason appearance when the Spirit dropped points against Houston and Sky Blue in the middle of July, two teams behind Washington in the playoff race. But in the four-game stretch that followed against Portland, Kansas City, Chicago and Seattle, Washington took eight points.
"We knew we had to get points," Matheson said of a stretch that was almost a playoff-type survival test in its own right. "I think that's when our quality came out and we showed what we can do."
It is still an uphill climb. Without Taylor because of international duty and Harris because of concussion, the Spirit lost their regular-season finale, a result that ultimately meant a trip to Seattle as the No. 4 seed instead of to Kansas City as No. 3. They are the only team in action this weekend that conceded more goals than it allowed this season.
But if they aren't yet at the top, they still covered more ground on the ascent than just about any team.
Will Portland's second life trump Kansas City's do-over?
Do people learn nothing from horror movies?
Given the enjoyment that comes with watching a team that can put Angerer, Boquete, Morgan and Christine Sinclair on the field together, Portland rescuing its season on the final day of the regular season is a good outcome, not just for the team's passionate fans but for neutrals, too. Even if it is once again unlikely that the team with the league's best home atmosphere will play host to a game, the postseason is more interesting for the participation of the Thorns.
But if you're one of the other playoff teams, first and foremost Kansas City, watching Portland hand Seattle just its second loss of the season when only that result could save the Thorns from elimination had to feel like the scene in seemingly every horror movie where a supposedly silenced monster's eyes open or an arm rises out of the grave.
Somebody forgot to make sure the defending champions were well and truly deceased.
Watching the Thorns play with resolve under pressure against Seattle suggests they may (again) be flipping a switch at the right time, as they did in winning two road games in the playoffs a season ago. Perhaps more tangibly suggestive of the same was a comprehensively strong defensive effort in the finale, an area of concern at times this season. The Thorns, who scored at least six goals on three occasions this season, are capable of brilliance. They also proved capable over the course of the season of, well, something less.
But with most of their key pieces finally on the field together and a second life, another horror movie trope could be in the works: the sequel.
On the other hand, Kansas City waited and worked for a year to get its mulligan.
It was a year ago, after all, that the same two teams met in a semifinal hosted by Kansas City. And it was a year ago that the Blues took a 2-0 lead and appeared headed for the championship match until Portland rallied for a 3-2 overtime win.
Four starters and all three substitutes from that game are no longer with the team. A good draft produced 38 combined starts from Kassey Kallman and Jenna Richmond. Smart personnel moves further solidified the defense with Nikki Phillips and Amy LePeilbet, neither of whom played a game in the league a season ago. But nowhere is it more evident how much change was required just to hold the same ground as a season ago than at the other end of the field. In folding Amy Rodriguez and midseason arrival Hagen into the mix, Kansas City didn't let philosophy or memories of what worked a season ago get in the way of pragmatism.
"Sarah Hagen coming to our team just gave our team a little different dynamic and allows us to switch a couple of things and allow us to give us a little more options, in terms of system, formation, tactics," Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said of the big forward from Wisconsin by way of Bayern Munich, who added an element of hold-up play next alongside Rodriguez. "Her presence on the field is huge for our team. Just the fact that she can do some of the things that not many forwards can do was huge for us."
As was the case a season ago, momentum slipped away from the Blues at the end of the regular season, but that isn't the history they spent a year trying not to repeat.