A lot has been made about how absurdly tight the playoff race has been this season, with North Carolina spending most of the year as the only team that looked really, definitively Good, and second through seventh places looking more or less like a crapshoot.
These last few weeks, though, even with the scramble for points still tight, what's become clear is that the four teams that look almost certain to take part in the postseason are good. After a slow start, Sam Kerr's Chicago has emerged as an incredibly exciting attacking side; Vlatko Andonovski has built the league's strongest defense after blowing up Seattle's roster in the offseason; Portland's stars are playing absolutely out of their minds; and North Carolina is, of course, North Carolina, the most fascinatingly dominant team in the history of the NWSL, if not American women's professional soccer, period.
Lots of games this week means more short recaps so you can get on with your day. Let's dive in:
Seattle Reign vs Houston Dash (2-0 Seattle)
The week kicked off with a game on Tuesday, of all nights, with the Reign hosting the Dash and clinching the playoffs with a 2-0 win. Seattle dominated the first half, notching seven shots to Houston's one, but couldn't quite find the back of the net. The Reign finally broke through in the 58th minute when Kealia Ohai didn't track Theresa Nielsen's overlapping run up the right closely enough, and the fullback sent in a cross for Jodie Taylor.
Taylor made it 2-0 a few minutes later with a beautiful bit of individual skill, turning Janine Van Wyk at the top of the box to send a lovely curving effort past Jane Campbell — who'd been having quite a night, otherwise. Houston made a comeback push but came up short.
Washington Spirit vs Utah Royals (1-0 Utah)
The least fun game this week, between a dismal Washington side, fresh off the firing of head coach Jim Gabarra — which happened literally the day before — and a Utah team that's consistently struggled to find the back of the net. If Christen Press found more of an attacking groove than she has in previous games, at least some of the credit has to go to Washington's defense, which looks content to roll over and give up more often than not these days. Amy Rodriguez had the goal, put away after Caprice Dydasco gave Press a good ten feet of space to cross from, the Spirit center backs didn't seem to notice Rodriguez crashing the box, and Aubrey Bledsoe blocked but didn't hold onto an initial effort.
Portland Thorns vs Sky Blue FC (2-1 Portland)
Despite a late stunner by Sarah Killion, Portland's home win against Sky Blue was as dominant a performance by any we've seen by the Thorns this season. If Caitlin Foord looked almost overeager to score (she was caught offside three times and at one point rather ridiculously attempted a bicycle kick), she also looked extremely dangerous, dragging Sky Blue defenders all over the place with her intimidating speed and chaotic movement off the ball.
A Christine Sinclair penalty and a direct free kick by Tobin Heath that skimmed past Lindsey Horan and Caitlin Foord's heads were the difference for the Thorns. Sky Blue made a push late in regulation time after Killion's goal, a gorgeous curling effort she one-timed to the far post from a sharp angle, but Portland's defense held strong.
Seattle Reign vs North Carolina Courage (1-1)
The Reign came within seconds of becoming just the second team to beat North Carolina, but a weird scramble in the box late in stoppage time ended with a Lynn Williams equalizer.
The four hydration breaks, implemented in a likely vain attempt to help players cope with wildfire smoke, probably didn't help the Courage, who seemed to lose a bit of momentum with every pause in play. Vlatko Andonovski, meanwhile, has noted that he kind of likes the extra breaks, which remind him of his time coaching indoor soccer and give him a chance to make mid-game adjustments. Seattle went ahead in the 67th minute when Jess Fishlock sent a corner kick to Theresa Nielsen lurking at the far end of the penalty arc and she sent in a header whose trajectory Katelyn Rowland misjudged. The Courage pushed back throughout the rest of the half, but Seattle's defense — plus some good work by Lydia Williams — kept them off the board. Williams's 95th minute equalizer came when Seattle failed to clear a corner kick and let the ball bounce around in the six-yard box and fall to the striker.
Orlando Pride vs Chicago Red Stars (3-1 Chicago)
Orlando has played an unenviable role in recent weeks, serving as a foil for the teams passing by them in the playoff race. They served that function a few weeks ago in getting shut out at home by the Thorns, and this week, it was Chicago's turn to earn a win that was equal parts quality on their part and lack of quality by Orlando.
After 44 minutes in which the Red Stars knocked again and again, repeatedly finding themselves in acres of space between Orlando's midfield and back line, Sam Kerr finally broke through, getting on the end of a sneaky one-touch through ball from Yuki Nagasato and easily beating Ashlyn Harris. Just two minutes later, Kerr assisted Vanessa DiBernardo to widen the lead to 2-0. A second for the Australian in the 59th minute put the game to bed, notwithstanding Alex Morgan's answer in the 65th, set up by Marta.
Washington Spirit vs Portland Thorns (1-0 Portland)
For the Spirit, the biggest takeaway from this game may not be the result, but the fact that they drew almost 8,000 fans in their first-ever game at Audi Field, DC United's fancy new stadium located in DC.
The game itself was a rather sluggish, predictable affair: Portland went up in the 15th minute on an attractive Tobin Heath goal assisted as much by a Washington defense that hardly looked to be trying as by Hayley Raso, who beat Whitney Church to send a nice cross from the right. Raso would later have to be stretchered off the field, apparently in a great deal of pain, after Aubrey Bledsoe kneed her in the back when they both went up for an aerial ball. As of Monday morning, she was still in the hospital.
Houston Dash vs Sky Blue FC (6-1 Houston)
With Chicago's win over Orlando, Houston was eliminated from the playoffs, but the people's team put on a show for their home fans anyway. Linda Motlhalo scored her first NWSL goal in the 22nd minute, crashing the box and sending home the rebound after Kailen Sheridan blocked but didn't smother Rachel Daly's initial effort. After another Dash goal early in the second half, followed by an answer from Sky Blue's Imani Dorsey, the floodgates opened for Houston. Huerta got one from a crazy angle; Daly put away a penalty kick; a loosely-marked Haley Hanson put away a corner kick by Kyah Simon; and Thembi Kgatlana scored on another of her signature late-game breakaway runs.
Just one game this weekend, due to the FIFA break. Internationally, the USWNT will play two friendlies against Chile August 31 and September 4. Canada plays Brazil September 2. UEFA World Cup qualifiers will also resume.
Saturday, September 1
- Washington Spirit vs Sky Blue FC (4:00 PT/7:00 ET, NWSLsoccer.com)
Photo credit: Anya Button