NWSL Playoffs: Chicago and Washington head to the semi-finals…

One match was an edgy, slow burner; the other was an end-to-end cracker, but both quarter finals ended with a single goal win for the higher seeded team. Mallory Pugh’s second half strike ensured that the Chicago Red Stars progressed to the last four at the expense of Carli Lloyd’s NJ/NY Gotham FC. In the match that followed Washington Spirit and North Carolina Courage slugged it out for 120 minutes at Audi Field with Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch converting seven minutes before the end, sparing home fans the agony of a penalty shootout. OL Reign await Kris Ward’s Spirit in Sunday’s first semi final. In the second game Rory Dames’ Red Stars will take on newly crowned Shield winners the Portland Thorns at Providence Park…

Chicago Red Stars 1-0 NJ/NY Gotham

Gotham kept her pretty quiet in the first half, but you can’t leave Mallory Pugh wide open in the penalty area and not expect to get punished…

We start our recap at the SeatGeek Stadium. It wasn’t pretty but the Chicago Red Stars were able to ease past NJ/NY Gotham FC courtesy of Mallory Pugh’s clinical strike just after the hour mark.

Former Red Stars Assistant Head Coach Scott Parkinson had taken the helm at Gotham following Freya Coombe’s departure, and he hadn’t lost a single league game. In fact, New Jersey came into the contest on the back of an eight-match unbeaten run.

Chicago had secured victory in their final three regular season games and had only suffered one loss in nine, so a close encounter was expected.

The hosts began brightly in front of a home crowd topping 7,000 fans. Kealia Watt had the first sight of goal in the 5th minute but her effort sailed into keeper Kailen Sheridan’s arms.

Gotham started to get a foothold. Ifeoma Onumonu showed good strength and balance to see off two defenders but couldn’t muster any power on her shot.

Pugh half-volleyed over the bar on the quarter hour for Chicago. Nahomi Kawasumi blazed high and wide of Cassie Miller’s goal frame for Gotham. The match was interesting and highly competitive but needed a moment of quality to spark it into life. Perhaps in the second half…

When Morgan Gautrat nodded Rachel Hill’s 54th minute cross from the right over the bar, that was the closest anyone had come to opening the scoring. But her header wasn’t that close.

The back-and-forth of poor finishing continued as Onumonu shinned well wide from Caprice Dydasco’s right-wing delivery.

Two minutes later the Red Stars forged ahead with a goal that seemed to materialize from thin air – even the broadcast team nearly missed it.

Sheridan and McCall Zerboni got their wires crossed with the keeper trying some ambitious distribution. Sarah Woldmoe intercepted, drew out a defender and gave the ball to Pugh in all kinds of space on the left of the penalty area. The 23-year hit it first time, curling the ball into the far corner.

Not so much “knocking on the door” to be honest, but the Red Stars had steadily become the better side in the match by this point…

That heralded the hosts’ best spell of possession but they still didn’t have much of a cutting edge. Pugh managed to engineer herself a 1v1 in the 79th minute but Sheridan won that battle, blocking the shot for a corner.

Parkinson shuffled his pack, making a raft of substitutions in the final 20 minutes. Paige Monaghan, Elizabeth Eddy and Évelyne Viens were exactly the kind of attacking players capable of getting something going on the counter attack for Gotham. But they just couldn’t raise their performance levels. Carli Lloyd’s 85th minute snapshot was driven directly at Cassie Miller, and it turned out the retiring star was offside anyway.

Maybe it was just a game too far for Gotham after a long season. It was a disappointing way for Lloyd to bow out at 39-years’ old but no one can take anything away from her – a player that has delivered BIG on every stage.

The Red Stars had by no means been at their best but they were marshalled brilliantly by central defenders Sarah Gorden and Tierna Davidson for the entire match. A 1-0 score would be enough and Rory Dames’ squad would have a week to prepare before heading to Tacoma, WA to take on OL Reign for a place in the Championship Final…

Washington Spirit 1-0 North Carolina Courage (After Extra Time)

Goal scorer Ashley Hatch takes the plaudits, but how pumped does midfield general (well, captain) Andi Sullivan (12) look on the left of the image?!! Sullivan gave an incredible performance, by the way…

The second quarter final at Audi Field may have concluded with the same result, but this game was chalk v cheese in terms of excitement as Washington Spirit and North Carolina Courage served up a classic…

Unlike Chicago and Gotham these two teams arrived at the playoff stage from very different places form-wise. The Spirit had been white hot in the closing weeks of the season, while the Courage had coughed and spluttered their way into sixth place on the final weekend of the season, thanks-in-part to Washington beating Houston Dash the previous Sunday.

But there was one thing that many of Sean Nahas’s Courage players possessed in spades, and that was playoff experience. Here was a clean slate, winner takes all, and they were going to give it everything.

The home side, conversely, hadn’t seen a post-season match since 2016. In addition, they were choc-full of young players – fabulously talented and exciting to watch – but would the pressure of the occasion get to them?

One of these young players Ashley Sanchez laid down an early marker, fizzing a 25-yard drive towards goal that keeper Casey Murphy saw all the way. Murphy’s opposite number, Aubrey Bledsoe, was soon into the action, hauling back post header in at full stretch from Debinha’s corner.

A quarter of an hour in the game was already moving quickly from end to end. North Carolina, in particular, were moving the ball well. Jess McDonald cleverly dummied Amy Rodriguez’s pass into the penalty area and that engineered a snapshot opportunity for Lynn Williams. Bledsoe was equal to it.

In the 22nd minute Williams found Merritt Mathias on the right wing. The full-back cut inside and drove the ball to the far post where Debinha was arriving. The Brazilian’s header may have been drifting wide but Bledsoe took no chances.

After a good passage of play from the Spirit, Sanchez whipped in a decent cross from the left, but Trinity Rodman couldn’t keep her header down.

Rodriguez fired over from just outside the ‘D’ on 31 minutes, but moments later forced Bledsoe’s into her most acrobatic save of the night when she raced on to Debinha’s through ball and caught it beautifully, the ball heading across the keeper for the far corner. Everybody in the stadium must have been expecting the net to bulge but the Spirit keeper found springs in her feet and brilliantly pawed it away at full stretch.

Spirit boss Kris Ward replaced Taylor Aylmer with Tori Huster at half time in what was presumably a double-bid to win more ball in the middle and then keep it better – particularly in the attacking half.

Two minutes into the second period Ashley Hatch and Rodman combined on the left to fashion a shooting opportunity for Andi Sullivan which deflected wide. From the subsequently corner Kelley O’Hara recycled the initial delivery, cut inside her tracking defender and unleashed a fierce left-footed drive that Murphy did well to tip over.

Washington had made a positive start to the half but the Courage started to wrest control again. Williams hit a long-ranger in the 53rd minute but it arrowed into Bledsoe’s midriff. Less than sixty seconds later Bledsoe was in action again, making an altogether more difficult stop low to her right from McDonald’s close range half volley.

North Carolina racked up a series of in-swinging Carson Pickett corners over the next few minutes. Bledsoe saved at McDonald’s feet, then denied Abby Erceg who’d timed her far post run and header beautifully.

In the 62nd minute Mathias crossed from the right and Debinha crashed her effort against the cross bar. Rodriguez tried to get on to the loose ball but again Bledsoe shut the door.

Ward made a double substitution in the 70th minute bringing Tara McKeown and Julia Roddar on for Sanchez and Tegan McGrady. It was a meticulously calculated risk and both players brought a different kind of hustle to proceedings, allowing Washington to shift the pattern of the match.

On 74 minutes Sullivan tried her luck from 25-yards but Murphy was perfectly positioned to reel it in.

O’Hara swung in a cross from the right a minute later that was flicked into McKeown’ path. The substitute looked to place her cushioned volley inside the left-hand post but Murphy scrambled across her six-yard box to bat it away.

Sensing that the tide was turning Washington continued to apply pressure. Sullivan’s 20-yard drive on 78 minutes was clawed away by the Courage stopper.

Back came the visitors with more Pickett corners. One delivery whisked through everybody in the 18-yard box before Williams blazed over the bar. Then the forward directed another one back across goal but no one could apply a finish. In the final minute of regulation, Debinha uncharacteristically scuffed an effort off frame.

Both Aubrey Bledsoe (Spirit) and Casey Murphy (Courage) were in sparkling form between the sticks…

An additional 30 minutes beckoned. Washington had steadily improved as the match unfolded, now they came into their own dominating possession during both periods of extra time.

In the 92nd minute Dorian Bailey came up with a fine distance strike that Murphy needed to help over the cross bar.

Hatch had been relatively quiet but as fatigue started to set in the game stretched, creating more space for her to work in. In the last minute of the first period she made good run down the left and hit a low shot that needed Murphy’s careful attention. The Courage keeper then dealt with another 20-yard attempt, this time from Roddar. And again she was in action, turning Rodman’s effort around the post after McKeown had forged a path through the visiting backline.

Attacking right back Taylor Smith arrived at the beginning of the second period for North Carolina. She almost made an instant impact, haring through the right channel but lashing her shot into the side netting. It would be the last effort on goal that the Courage would get in the 2021 season.

With seven minutes of extra time left Sullivan found Rodman out on the left flank. The rookie hadn’t had a great night in fairness, but with a player as dynamic and talented as she is there was always the promise that maybe she could deliver one game-changing moment. And she did, squeezing out half a yard on her marker before whipping in the only shot over 120 minutes that Murphy couldn’t handle. Hatch was first to the loose ball and smashed it into the roof of the net.

It was heart breaking for Murphy after such a great display.

After that it became an exercise in game management for Washington and they held out comfortably against a Courage team that suddenly looked spent.

It’s been a long, hard season for the Washington Spirit as an organisation with backroom unrest, fans screaming for the owner to sell up, the mid-season sacking of disgraced former Head Coach Richie Burke and forfeited matches due to breaches of Covid-19 protocols. But you wouldn’t know it to look at the players. They look a tight-knit group, they have leaders all over the pitch and, most importantly, they are enjoying the ride. OL Reign had better take them seriously next Sunday…

All the world’s a stage. And all eleven of us are players…

Both play-off matches are on Sunday 14th November.

OL Reign v Washington Spirit (3pm ET; 20:00 GMT)

Portland Thorns v Chicago Red Stars (5.30pm ET; 22:30 GMT)

Both matches will be broadcast for UK / Europe audiences on Twitch NWSL.

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