Here we are. The regular season is over, and although it took an almost absurdly long time for it to happen, the four teams we're left with—North Carolina, Portland, Seattle, and Chicago—have emerged as the clear best teams in the league.
With the playoff teams mostly already decided, the week saw several meaningless games to compliment the one that ended up actually mattering, between Seattle and Portland—and what a game that one was! One of the bright spots of this season has been that the Cascadia rivalry has been on TV for the first time; both of those games, the one back on May 5 and the one this weekend, have been among the most exciting NWSL games in memory. If you missed it, you must do yourself a favor and watch the replay.
The rest of the week wasn't a waste of time, though; North Carolina ended their season with a bang, Sam Kerr won the golden boot, and after posting a historically bad season, Sky Blue finally got their first win. Here we go:
Chicago Red Stars vs Sky Blue FC (5-0 Chicago)
This was as much an emphatic win for Chicago as it was an inevitable but still depressing beatdown for Sky Blue, which had played a game against the Washington Spirit just two days before, after lightning delays forced a postponement to Sunday morning. This game was, itself, rescheduled from earlier in the season, when the New Jersey side had their flight to Chicago canceled and couldn't find a replacement.
There's no need to belabor this one, really, in a week with many other, better games. The goalscorers, for Chicago: Alyssa Mautz (twice), Sam Kerr, Rosie White, and finally, cruelly, in stoppage time, Michele Vasconcelos.
With the win, Chicago officially clinched the playoff slot everyone has known they were going to earn for the last three weeks, at least.
Portland Thorns vs Seattle Reign (3-1 Portland)
Although Jess Fishlock scored an early stunner from the top of the box—something she is wont to do at Providence Park—the Reign spent most of this game looking totally outmatched by the home team.
Going in missing Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long was always going to change things, but even so, it was a surprise how dominant the Thorns were. After Fishlock's fourth-minute goal, the Thorns started to take hold of the game, and the momentum was fully on their side by the 15th minute or so. Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, and Caitlin Foord stretched the Reign defense out of shape at will, and the home side outperformed the visitors in just about every statistical category. After spending most of the half knocking, Horan broke through in the 30th minute, charging onto a deflected ball (courtesy of a beautiful low cross by Midge Purce) at the edge of the 18 and sending a bullet into the back of the net.
Heath almost singlehandedly put together the go-ahead goal in the 49th minute, though a diagonal run by Foord drew Lauren Barnes's attention and gave Heath the space to send in her shot, another beautiful long-range effort. Horan closed out the scoring off a corner kick by Heath.
With the win, Portland clinched second place in the standings and will host a semifinal against Seattle. Their performance also served as a statement to the rest of the playoff teams: with the promise of their star-studded roster finally starting to show, this is a team to watch out for.
Sky Blue FC vs Orlando Pride (1-0 Sky Blue)
Although neither team had anything material to gain from this game, it was clear from the whistle which one wanted it more. Even as Orlando had multiple quality chances in on goal, a lack of finishing punch, combined with some gritty last-ditch defending by the likes of Erica Skroski and Kailen Sheridan, kept them off the board.
Neither side looked particularly good in the first half, with both prone to poor giveaways throughout the field, but nonetheless, it was a tense 0-0 half. Skroski made a huge sliding block to deny Alex Morgan early in the half, and Sky Blue had a number of chances of their own, including one in the 20th minute where Shea Groom dribbled several defenders and sent a beautiful through ball to Imani Dorsey, who shot wide. The home team was knocking.
The second half started out much the same way, with most of the possession on Orlando's side, but the emotional momentum of the game swinging in Sky Blue's favor; finally, in the 74th minute, Carli Lloyd broke through, one-timing a simple sideways pass from Groom from the top of the box. Orlando mostly looked lifeless as the clock ticked down.
When the cards were down, it was beleaguered, winless Sky Blue who had something to prove. Orlando, meanwhile, ends this season looking disjointed and listless. This is a team that needs to take a hard look in the mirror and make some changes in the offseason.
Utah Royals vs Chicago Red Stars (2-1 Utah)
If a loss to one of the poorer offensive sides in the league looks like a bad result for the Red Stars, consider that this was a game in which Rory Dames couldn't field an 18, and that some of the players who sat—Casey Short, Julie Ertz, Vanessa DiBernardo—are key pieces for Chicago.
The Red Stars went on the board first, with Sam Kerr on the end of a cross by Arin Gilliland in the 39th minute and heading it in from close range. The Royals answered in the 55th, a nice finish to the far post by Amy Rodriguez off a Katie Bowen service. Katie Stengel closed out the scoring in the 64th minute with a close-range header.
The main significance of this game was an individual benchmark: Sam Kerr notched her 16th goal of the season, in just 19 games, to win the Golden Boot race for the second year in a row.
North Carolina Courage vs Houston Dash (5-0 North Carolina)
They clinched the top playoff seed weeks ago, but the Courage still put on a show for their home fans, with a brace from Lynn Williams contributing to their biggest win of the season.
Houston were in the game for the first ten minutes, and managed to set up a good scoring opportunity for Sofia Huerta in the ninth minute—but Abby Erceg came up big with a perfectly-timed slide tackle to keep the Dash off the board. Just four minutes later, Jessica McDonald made a clever move to beat Amber Brooks, sprinted a few paces, and almost casually flicked the ball past Jane Campbell with the outside of her right foot.
From there, it was North Carolina's game all the way. Crystal Dunn put one away after Debinha hit the post and Houston failed to clear the ball; Williams scored two, both set up by McDonald; and Kristen Hamilton wrapped up the scoring late with an emphatic close-range strike past Campbell.
With their season in the bag, all the superlatives around the Courage become official. By every measure—number of wins (17), goals scored (53), goals conceded (17), and points (57)—this is the best team in NWSL history. Anybody who wants to get through them to win a championship will have their work cut out.
For Houston, you couldn't have written a much more demoralizing end to the season. With some distance, though, this Dash side has to be proud of how they performed throughout the year—in what was projected to be an abysmal 2018, they instead put together their best season since joining as an expansion side in 2014.
Nothing left on the slate except the playoffs. Seattle returns to Portland on Saturday, and Chicago faces North Carolina, hopefully in North Carolina, though Hurricane Florence is poised to make landfall this week and the league has no stated contingency plan.
Saturday, September 15
- Portland Thorns vs Seattle Reign (12 pm PT/3 ET, Lifetime)
Sunday, September 16
- North Carolina Courage vs Chicago Red Stars (12 pm PT/3 ET, ESPN2)
Photo: Kris Lattimore