The semifinals are over. The championship is nigh. There's one last game, for all the marbles. Let's get into it:
Portland Thorns vs Seattle Reign (2-1 Portland)
A rematch of the final regular-season game in Portland a week and a half ago, this game was remarkably similar to that match in some respects and completely different in others.
The key difference going into the game was a personnel question: Seattle had Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long available after they both sat out the previous week. Their availability changed the tone of the game from the whistle. Thanks to Long's presence deep in midfield, Portland had more trouble controlling the center of the pitch. Rumi Utsugi and Jess Fishlock were able to push higher, and Fishlock and Jasmyne Spencer's harassing pressure against Lindsey Horan gave the midfielder some trouble. Meanwhile, Rapinoe, together with Steph Catley, consistently found plenty of space on Seattle's left side. With Midge Purce often failing to track Catley's runs from deep, Ellie Carpenter was often left in two-against-one situations.
Still, Carpenter matched up well against Rapinoe, and the Thorns defense as a whole looked sharper and more focused than they had the previous week. They held up until the 29th minute, when Fishlock, seeing the available space on the left, began to drift out wide, finally drawing a foul by Emily Sonnett just outside the 18. Rapinoe sent her free kick across the face of goal—AD Franch seemed to just tip the ball into the crossbar, which it bounced off at a shallow angle—where Spencer made a run toward the far post and one-timed it home.
The next fifteen minutes were chaos for the Thorns, and the only thing that kept them in the game was a series of jaw-dropping saves by Franch (who, despite Jill Ellis's presence at the game, has yet again been passed over by the national team). Jodie Taylor had to feel snakebit when neither a perfectly-struck volley nor an effort from eight yards out, struck after spinning Emily Sonnett were enough to get past Franch.
Gradually, Portland found their way back in. Celeste Boureille, reading Long like a book, played a huge role in wresting back control of the midfield. In the 43rd minute, Tobin Heath equalized. With Seattle's whole defense and midfield drawn towards Lindsey Horan in the center of the field, Heath had acres of space on the left; Horan sent a well-weighted ball to her, and Heath took one touch before sending an angled shot inside the far post.
To no one's surprise, the second half got chippy, with Rapinoe, Long, and Emily Menges, of all people, receiving cautions to go with the ones handed out to Sonnett and Fishlock in the first half. The go-ahead goal by Horan in the 76th minute—where she put away a beautiful lofted service by Christine Sinclair after a sequence involving at least two fouls against Thorns players—felt like an inevitability, especially after a second Heath goal was wrongly waved offside. If there's one defining characteristic of this Thorns team, mentally, it's their ability to respond to adversity with equal parts grit and brilliance. The win put the Thorns through to the final, marking the first time a team has played for a championship at home since 2013.
North Carolina Courage vs Chicago Red Stars (2-0 North Carolina)
Lots of weird things happened adjacent to this game, which had been moved to Portland and rescheduled for the Tuesday before the championship due to Hurricane Florence. The surreal vibe of an echoey, mostly-empty Providence Park was one of them; Merritt Paulson getting in a fight on Twitter about whether the stadium was out of hot dogs was another. Perhaps none of those things was quite as weird as the sight of North Carolina, the famously high-pressing team of super-athletes, dropping into a compact shape in the second half.
After Jess McDonald put the Courage on the board in the fifth minute, running onto a perfectly-weighted pass by Crystal Dunn and absolutely torching Julie Ertz to get in on goal, the first half was Chicago's game. The Red Stars played what was probably their best half of soccer all year. Morgan Brian played out of her mind, effortlessly shrugging off North Carolina's pressure and looking incapable of misplaying a pass. Yuki Nagasato, so crucial to setting up Sam Kerr, took on packs of defenders, again and again, and came out on top—and Kerr, herself, looked as good as she has all year.
Except Chicago couldn't score.
The missed chances for the Red Stars came early and often; in the third minute, Nagasato hit the crossbar. In the ninth, Kerr spun Abby Dahlkemper at the top of the 18 to hit the post. When they headed to the locker room down a single goal, they had to feel hopeful: they'd been breaking North Carolina's pressure and getting past their defense for 45 minutes.
Even early in the second half, a Chicago goal looked to be in store. Casey Short hit a couple from long range, and if the service to Kerr was growing sparser, she was still threatening. But North Carolina was doing something they haven't done all season. They were dropping their pressure, staying compact, daring Chicago to pull them out of shape—and Chicago couldn't figure out how. The game turned into an end-to-end affair, one team booting it across the field, the other team responding with a boot of their own. Time was running out for the Red Stars.
Finally, in the 86th minute, Sam m********king Mewis picked up a simple pass from Dunn and scored one of the most incredible goals of 2018, sending a rocket to the far post from 30 yards out.
For North Carolina, the championship rematch against Portland was set; for Chicago, this was a more brutal loss than their last three semifinal losses, precisely because of how close they came. In previous years, this team had been on a downward trend heading into the playoffs, and didn't really show up in the semis. This time, they did almost everything right, and still couldn't get through.
I shouldn't have to tell you what's coming up this weekend, but if you're new around here, we're headed for what's probably going to be a bad game to watch!
Last year's final was a grudge match for the Thorns, for whom the memory of their upset 2016 semifinal loss against the Western New York Flash clearly still stung. That factor, combined with the fact that these were two physical, high-pressing teams, combined with a center ref who lost control of the game in the second minute, made for an ugly, choppy mess of a game. Both sides are probably going into this one smelling blood, but the revenge factor has probably swung toward North Carolina, who will vividly remember how the slugfest started—namely, with an early foul by Tobin Heath that wound up dislocating Taylor Smith's shoulder.
Hopefully, this year is different. The Thorns are a much different and better team than they were, with an offense that relies much less on constant pressing than last year's did. North Carolina is also a better team, but their style hasn't changed substantially. The tone of the match probably rests heavily with center ref Guido Gonzalez, who, according to Soccerway, has several MLS matches under his belt—as a fourth official (can't win them all, folks!). It's going to be very important for him to remember he has cards in his pocket.
It gives me no joy to write all this; these are the two best teams in the league, and North Carolina is the best team in the history of women's professional soccer in the US. It should be a good game. I hope it's a good game. But I'm not optimistic.
The NWSL Final will take place at Providence Park at 4:30 PM Eastern/1:30 PM Pacific and will air on the Lifetime network.
Photo credit: Kris Lattimore