There's still a little NWSL regular season play left, but we now know who our Final Four will be. Here's an at-a-glance look at your four playoff teams, their respective Narratives going into the final stretch, and who to watch for those key performances.
North Carolina Courage
Last Five: WWWWL
Word of the Day: Dominance. A big upset over the weekend courtesy of Rose Lavelle and the Washington Spirit notwithstanding, the Courage have looked most of this season like The Team to Beat (or The Team You Love to Hate, depending). September drove that point home, with back-to-back jaw-dropping 6-0 and 6-1 wins against Portland and Orlando, respectively, and bringing home the Shield for a third straight year. Lynn Williams and Debinha have been making opposing goalkeepers break out in night sweats with banger after banger. So many Courage players are having excellent seasons, including NWSL veterans like Kristen Hamilton, Abby Erceg, and Jessica McDonald. That Spirit match broke a six-game winning streak.
And with a comfortable 3-0 against Utah in the match before the Spirit shocker, the Courage proved they could breeze to a win without Williams, Crystal Dunn, or Merritt Matthias, who is out for the rest of the season with an ACL injury. We know chaos comes for everyone in the NWSL, and no one should ever sleep on their opponents, but it's hard to imagine a scenario where this side, which is so complete and so generative on the attack, isn't the heavy favorite going into the playoffs.
But Also: It feels a bit like this fast-and-furious season is finally catching up with the Courage. Although both sides played well over the weekend and the Spirit were exceptional, shutting down chance after chance, the Courage conceded a pair of late goals. The match against Houston earlier this month, which drew criticism for poor officiating, ended in the Courage's favor but featured fatigue and frustrations all around. Injuries will likely be a factor, too — in addition to Matthias, Kristen Hamilton, one of the breakout stars of this season, is still on the NWSL injury report at time of writing.
- Debinha: On a team with Kristen Hamilton, Crystal Dunn, and a prolific Lynn Williams, the Brazilian No. 10 brings speed and creativity to an already lethal attack, a wonderful example of an international player making an impact in this league. She netted a goal and three assists in that 6-0 routing at Providence Park alone. Debinha was instrumental in the Courage's last playoff run and we don’t expect this year to be any different.
- Crystal Dunn: Versatile! Successful! Exclamatory! Crystal Dunn came out of the gate this season scoring belters for the Courage and proved her defensive mettle against world-class strikers like Kadidiatou Diani during the World Cup. She's gotten much more love for her USWNT performances (including some Twitter indignation that she didn't crack the FIFPRO World XI), but she's an asset to her home side too.
Chicago Red Stars
Last Five: WWWWW
Word of the Day: Momentum. After some downturns this season, the Red Stars enter their fifth consecutive playoff run riding high. They've won five in a row, left teams in the dust in the month of September, got their home pitch advantage, and with their regular season over, they get one extra weekend to rest up compared to the rest of their competitors. It almost feels like checking boxes at this point. This Red Stars squad feels complete at its best, front to back. And Alyssa Naeher is there too, making all kinds of saves that defy timing and physics. Vanessa DiBernardo is back, and scoring rockets!
But there’s another Word of the Day for the Red Stars here too and that’s urgency. The Sam Kerr Speculation Wheel continues to turn, and it's hard to not see this as the Last Best Chance for this squad, at their peak, to lift an NWSL trophy. This team is hungry for resolution, and so are the fans, and everything feels like it's aligning just so.
But Also: The Red Stars may have all the factors working in their favor, but there are some major bugbears nagging at them. The Stars are 0 for 4 in playoff appearances in the NWSL era, and there's been a recurring sense that this squad hasn't quite reached its full potential at times. Even a much-improved side has made mistakes, losing matches against Sky Blue and Orlando they have no business losing. It doesn’t help that they're most likely playing for a Championship spot against Portland, their white whale this season, from whom they've only managed to wrest one point in three outings.
- Yuki Nagasato: Making a mark in attack alongside a prolific Sam Kerr and an increasingly comfortable Savannah McCaskill is difficult, but if there's anyone up to the task, it's Yuki Nagasato. This season has truly been, as the fans like to sing, Yuki Nagasato Time – she's netted seven goals (including the last-minute winner against the Royals in the Red Stars' last regular-season outing) and eight assists, and has been a key factor in the Red Stars' dominance throughout September.
- Casey Short: This could be the whole backline of Short, Julie Ertz, Sarah Gorden, and Tierna Davidson, which has, like a Midwestern church potluck dish, deliciously gelled. Jill Ellis, like the Drag Race judges of yore, wanted to see more versatility from Casey Short, and Casey Short gave it to you with a banger of a goal to spoil Orlando's good time and an assist on the month, and finally netted a place on the USWNT roster. She's one of the best outside backs in the league, can press high and help generate attacks, and will continue to be an anchor for Chicago in the playoffs.
Last Five: WLLWL
Word of the Day: Regroup. After such a strong first half, the question lately has almost been who is Portland this time? This is the Thorns squad that can put up a masterful win over Chicago and then, just a couple of outings later, fall spectacularly against the Courage, only to recover and beat Houston, and then fall again to the Reign to lose out on home pitch advantage.
The Thorns have proved more than once this season that they're perfectly capable of brilliance. They've been at the top of the table multiple times. Their Swiss Army knife of attacking options – Midge Purce, Hayley Raso, Tobin Heath – have the power to connect and create impressive results. Christine Sinclair is still the kind of captain that makes you want to stand on your prep school desk and recite poetry for her. But whether it's injuries (such as the loss of another strong defensive option in an injured Gabby Seiler), tactics, or something just not quite coming together right, it hasn't been the ideal run-up for Portland, and something needs to adjust ahead of the playoffs. (Also, get well soon, Lindsey Horan!)
But Also: One of the Thorns' advantages in the playoffs may actually be their competition. Some of Portland's most comfortable, dominant victories this season have been against their most likely playoff opponents, the Chicago Red Stars. The Red Stars have yet to win a playoff match in the NWSL era, and Portland has their number on the season, with Midge Purce and Christine Sinclair each scoring four goals on them alone. Even their chaotic, windy 4-4 draw at SeatGeek at the beginning of the season was a wild, fun ride, the sort of high drama you look for in a really good soccer match.
- Midge Purce: In thinking about players who really excelled during the Thorns' best performances on the season – 5-0 over Houston, 3-0 over Chicago – Midge Purce's name comes to mind easily. During the World Cup hiatus, while the likes of Sinclair and Heath were doing World Cup things, Purce was someone who stepped up and contributed to the Thorns continuing to get results and stay near the top of the table.
- Emily Menges: The other defensive Emily is cool too, but Menges is cool, capable, consistent, and alliteration is fun. She's near the top of the league in clearances and is good in the air, and oh yeah, did this at the beginning of the season.
Last Five: WDLWW
Word of the Day: Persistence. The Reign have been on the playoff bubble – occasionally below the line – all season, struggling with consistency, tournaments and injuries sidelining their marquee players. But in the final stretch of the season, with a roster including squad newcomers, midseason replacements, and slept-on newcomers, the Reign have done exactly what they needed to do, taking out a hungry Utah Royals squad and neutralizing the threat of Christen Press to jump ahead of them in the standings, and then finishing out the week with a resounding win over regional rivals Portland to clinch the last playoff spot.
Oh, and after months away between the World Cup and injuries, Megan Rapinoe is back in the starting XI. A returning Rapinoe will join an in-form Jodie Taylor, Bethany Balcer, Darian Jenkins, and Ifeoma Onumonu to give Vlatko Andonovski a proper tailgate buffet of attacking options.
Watching this team come together, put together decisive wins and make the playoffs after such a battering season is a feat in itself; a playoff win almost feels like the icing. But the Reign have proved themselves this season against tough opponents before, and this is a squad that just rolled past two tough opponents and shouldn't be counted as "just happy to be here" quite yet.
But Also: After back-to-back wins and no pressure as they face the last-place team in the league for their final outing, the Reign come into the playoffs with momentum. But they do have to face the most complete team in the league at home and have yet to beat their likely playoff opponents, the Courage, at home ever.
- Vlatko Andonovski: We talked about this a bit last week, but Andonovski's coaching and ability to adapt an ever-changing roster have been a major factor in keeping the Reign in the playoff hunt. Newcomers like Casey Murphy, Onumonu, and Jenkins are turning in better and better performances; and Rebecca Quinn turned in a great match at centerback out of her usual position against Utah. Dude knows how to put together a team and use the assets available to the best of their ability, and regardless of playoff results, would still be our pick for NWSL Coach of the Year if we had a say in those sorts of things.
- Bethany Balcer: She's putting Spring Arbor University on the map! Darian Jenkins and Merseyside icon Jodie Taylor (your most recent NWSL Player of the Week) could also be in this spot, but Balcer's ascent from slept-on NAIA draftee to Rookie of the Year contender has been a delight to watch. This particular month, with so many critical matches for the Reign, has been a test for her, and she's risen to the occasion with three goals and an assist.