The National Women's Hockey League continues its offseason with numerous player signings, its first international draft and several front office moves. In case you've missed anything over the last few weeks, let's take a look at what's happened in the league.
North Carolina Courage 4-1 Seattle Reign FC
Casey Murphy vs. Crystal Dunn is the matchup we didn't know we needed, and oh, it was good. The Courage opened things up by doing what the Courage do – come in fast and furious with the attack, feed everything to Jess McDonald, Lynn Williams, or Crystal Dunn, and know that eventually something will break through.
But nothing broke through for the bulk of regulation, thanks primarily to Casey Murphy going full Gandalf. Then in the 88th minute, a ball in the box bounced off the hand of Lauren Barnes. After the subsequent well-struck penalty from Heather O'Reilly, it looked like it was all over, until Ifeoma Onumonu, who has been a top-tier super-sub for the Reign especially at the tail end of the season, managed to beat Abby Erceg and fire an equalizer in the final seconds of play. At last, sweet lady chaos had come, as it does for us all, for the North Carolina Courage.
But for all the fight the Reign put up for the first 93 minutes, it was not to be. In the 99th minute, the Courage earned an optimally-placed free kick that Debinha sent sailing into the top of the goal, the one place Murphy could not reach. And they weren't done. A few minutes later, Kristen Hamilton, who returned to the lineup in extra time, set up a shot that bounced off Lauren Barnes for a Reign own goal, and in the first two minutes of the second half of extra time, Dunn finally broke through to deliver the final blow, ending the Reign's valiant run and securing a third straight appearance in the NWSL Final.
- CASEY. MURPHY. The scoreline betrays how freaking good Casey Murphy was in this match. The best midseason replacement since Parks and Recreation, Murphy signed for the Reign in May after injuries and international duty (and then, later, injuries again) sidelined Michelle Betos and Lydia Williams. And in the biggest match of this season, and perhaps of her career so far, Murphy stepped up, making 11 saves against arguably the best and most prolific attack in the NWSL, managing to keep a clean sheet through 88 brutal minutes and keep going through extra time.
- Crystal Dunn: You know Crystal Dunn is great. I know Crystal Dunn is great. The Premier League avi reply guy telling you how he thinks women's soccer is just an inferior product still knows that Crystal Dunn is great. As usual with the Up-10-11 Courage attack, Dunn worked to put together attempt after attempt, absolutely embarrassing Steph Catley with a steal that the Grinch would envy and valiantly going 1v1 with an unstoppable Casey Murphy. It wasn't until the end of extra time that she finally got on the scoresheet, but even if she hadn't, it still would have been a good show.
- Debinha: Look, I was a journalism major. I didn’t make it past chemistry in high school science. So I'll just call Debinha's perfectly-struck, perfectly-arched free kick to restore the Courage's lead pure sorcery.
- Has Ifeoma Onumonu been the best impact sub in the last stretch of the season? I'm gonna say yes.
- The Courage didn't actually use any of their subs before extra time started, and then the first two subs you bring on are Kristen Hamilton, who has been a force this season, and McCall Zerboni. There's depth and then there’s the Mariana Trench.
- Toward the end, the Courage supporters were chanting "We want five!" Nothing like three goals in extra time to make you your most extra self.
The Reign fail to advance to the final, but not without making a huge impression. After a rough start to the season marred by injuries, Coach Vlatko Andonovski and his squad made some big, necessary adjustments that didn't just get results – the Reign made the playoffs. Murphy stepped in and worked wonders. Bethany Balcer made a strong case for Rookie of the Year. This is a team with a lot to be proud of and a lot to build on. But with all signs pointing to Andonovski taking over as Jill Ellis' successor for the USWNT, the Reign will have a significant task in finding a good replacement.
The ever-swaggering Courage head to their third consecutive NWSL final and a shot at their second consecutive championship, where they will have home pitch advantage against the Chicago Red Stars. The Courage come into this match as the favorite, and the most dominant team in the NWSL this season, but Chicago comes in with a draw and two wins against them on the season. The Red Stars are one of the few sides they've really looked fallible against. In addition to the title challenge, this match will also be the curtain call for American WoSo icon Heather O'Reilly, who has already put together some spectacular goals for her club this season. Let's see if she can make some magic one more time before hanging up her boots for good.
Chicago Red Stars 1-0 Portland Thorns
The second semifinal lacked some of the chaos and drama of the first, but nonetheless produced some truly magic moments. After a frenetic first few minutes in which the Thorns looked to hold the bulk of the possession, an elegant pass from Yuki Nagasato found Sam Kerr, who did what Sam Kerr has been doing all season. The International Connection put the Red Stars ahead, the only breakthrough in this match in just the 7th minute.
What do you do when you're down a goal at the half in an NWSL semifinal? If you're Mark Parsons, you switch to an attacking emphasis and bring on all the forwards. Hayley Raso came on for Elizabeth Ball at the start of the second half, and managed to get past Casey Short to produce the Thorns' most dangerous chance of the day. She was followed by Midge Purce for Andressinha in the 67th and Caitlin Foord for Meghan Klingenberg in the 81st. Rory Dames made the call to go defensive with his lone substitution, bringing on Katie Naughton for forward Savannah McCaskill.
After a tense home stretch, it was Yuki Nagasato again who worked to maintain possession of the ball just outside the Thorns box, and feed the ball to Kerr for one more so-close, knocked away by a waiting Adrianna Franch. And in front of an electric home crowd that exploded with energy in the last five minutes, the Red Stars earned their first playoff victory ever in the NWSL era.
- Yuki Nagasato: Once again, Yuki proved that her place in the League MVP conversation is well deserved. She provided that gorgeous pass to set Sam Kerr up for the Red Stars' early goal, a joyous remix of the dance they've done this entire season. But where she really shone was in the last three minutes, staking a firm place in the corner and doing everything she could to maintain possession, get past Adrianna Franch (no dice), and help Kerr get another.
- Sarah Gorden: There's been a lot of talk about the Red Stars' final – and best – back line formation of the season, from the powerful duo of Julie Ertz and Tierna Davidson, who have only conceded twice in six games, to Defensive MVP candidate Casey Short, who is having a banner season. But let's talk about the fourth member of that formidable lineup, Sarah Gorden. Gorden was able to neutralize the threat of Lindsey Horan in midfield, and it was her positioning and keen eye that first set up the Red Stars' lone goal.
- Sam Kerr grinning and doing the "money" gesture for the camera right before kickoff was everything.
- Thorns supporters or otherwise, we can all still take a moment to take comfort in and appreciate the inevitability of at least one (1) good Tobin Heath nutmeg per game.
- Credit to Portland and the Riveters for bringing a nice-sized away crew, who at one point launched into an "Equal pay!" chant. No matter whose colors you wear, it's a message we can all get behind.
- Whatever camera person insisted on showing Lindsey Horan on the verge of tears after the final whistle – how dare you? How dare you?
The Thorns exit the playoffs in the first round for the first time since 2016 and return home to do some soul-searching. It's difficult and problematic to speculate about the mental state of a team – so much is internal and, frankly, we don't know their lives. But there was a notable difference in confidence between these two teams in the semifinal. The difference is just as noticeable when you compare the early-season Thorns in May and the dominant summer Thorns to the Thorns in October, who looked tired and out of sorts. Mark Parsons and co. will have the offseason to make some major adjustments and reset.
The Red Stars break their playoff curse and head to Cary for Sunday's final against incumbent titleholders the North Carolina Courage. They lack home field advantage and still come in as the underdogs against the Courage, but with six straight wins, fully fit starters and a continued shift in energy, it truly could go either way. There will be big questions for the Red Stars to answer after the final whistle on Sunday: how an impending expansion draft will impact this roster; where the next chapter of the Sam Kerr Story will take place. But for now, Chicago wants a title, and they want it now. The Red Stars and the Courage will undoubtedly give us a very fun final.
The NWSL Final will be played Sunday, October 27 at Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina at 3:30 PM Eastern time. The match will air on ESPN.
Filed under: soccer; nwsl; 2019 nwsl playoffs; north carolina courage; seattle reign FC; casey murphy; crystal dunn; debinha; ifeoma onumonu; kristen hamilton; heather o'reilly; vlatko andonovski; yuki nagasato; sarah gorden; sam kerr; portland thorns; mark parsons; AD franch; chicago red stars
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