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NWSL Playoffs: Key Questions, Players for All 4 Contenders

The North Carolina Courage, Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars and Reign FC are vying for NWSL's title.
NC Courage, Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns and Reign FC are in the NWSL playoffs

The 2019 NWSL playoff bracket is set, with four teams having punched their ticket to the semifinals: the North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns and Reign FC. The Courage will host the Reign and the Red Stars will host the Thorns on Sunday, Oct. 20, with the winners advancing to the final in Cary, N.C., on Sunday, Oct. 27.

Here's what you need to know about each team heading into this year’s playoffs:

No. 1 Seed: North Carolina Courage

One Big Question: Can They Make It Two in a Row?

No NWSL team has gone back-to-back since FC Kansas City in 2014 and 2015. The Courage though, recently wrapped up their third straight NWSL Shield and will enter the playoffs as the favorite to repeat. Their quest is not without challenges though: for one thing, they recently lost right back Merritt Mathias to a torn ACL, thrusting veteran Heather O’Reilly into a starting role that no one saw coming. O’Reilly is retiring at the end of the season and had largely played a bench role this year for the Courage, but she’ll now be counted on in a big way. One year ago, North Carolina overcame the loss of midfielder McCall Zerboni, who had been playing like the team’s MVP, right before the playoffs and still went on to win the title. Can they do it again?

X-Factor: Debinha

The Courage are littered with high-quality and high-profile players—the likes of Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, Jessica McDonald, Abby Dahlkemper, Lynn Williams and more—but Debinha has quietly been integral to their success. The Brazilian midfielder has come into her own in 2019, recording seven goals and six assists, and has generally been a force in the North Carolina attack with her vision, mind-bending passes and goal-scoring ability. The Courage have won all seven of the games in which she’s scored, and she figures to play a crucial role if this team is to repeat.

Why They Will Win It All: While its season wasn’t quite as dominant as in 2018, North Carolina is still the NWSL’s most complete team and actually scored one more goal than it did last season, breaking its own league record. The Courage’s relentless, high-pressure attack (they’ve taken an absurd 103 more shots than the next closest team) wears opponents down and has been known to have a snowball effect, turning a 1-0 or 0-0 game into a two or three-goal margin in the blink of an eye. Motivation isn’t a problem for this squad, which has fully bought into Paul Riley’s system and famously embraced an underdog mentality in 2018 despite being anything but that. Additionally, North Carolina has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, with the final already set for Sahlen’s Stadium—where the Courage haven’t lost this year.

Why They Won’t: The Courage have looked strangely vulnerable at times of late, including needing a highly questionable PK call to edge the Houston Dash 1-0 at home in September and then falling 2-1 to the Washington Spirit less than two weeks later. In both games, a familiar issue plagued North Carolina: finishing. Houston opted to crowd the box in its matchup, conceding possession and getting as many bodies as possible in the way to either block or alter shots. Against Washington, N.C. logged 27 shots, including nine on target, but only found the back of the net once. This is the same team that took 40 shots to score twice in a last-second win over Manchester City in the summer ICC tournament, a reminder that despite all its weapons, one collective bad or unlucky day in the playoffs could sink the Courage.

No. 2 Seed Chicago Red Stars

One Big Question: Can They End Their Semifinal Curse?

Being in the NWSL playoffs is nothing new for the Red Stars, who are making their fifth straight appearance. That’s the good news. The bad news is that their last four trips all ended in the semifinal round, by a combined score of 8–1. Needless to say, one goal in four years is not going to cut it. But there is more good news for Chicago: this year, it avoids North Carolina in the semis after being eliminated by the Courage in back-to-back seasons. If the Red Stars, a team that’s been around since 2009 in the WPS days, can get by Portland and wind up facing N.C. for the championship, it may give them the mentality shift they need to win their first title.

Key Player: Sam Kerr

It’s hard to picture Chicago snapping its semifinal curse without a big day from Kerr. A full-fledged star, the 26-year-old Australian striker has scored a combined 51 goals in the last three seasons and broke her own NWSL single-season record this year with 18. In the 12 matches Kerr has scored in this season, Chicago has gone 9-1-2. She’s still looking for her first career NWSL playoff goal, having been held scoreless in last year’s semifinal and in two starts back as a 20-year-old for the Western New York Flash in 2013.

X-Factor: Casey Short

Painfully left off this summer’s USWNT World Cup roster, Short responded by putting together a campaign that could win her NWSL Defender of the Year. The left back has had a brilliant season and is someone Chicago can trust to lock down the wing and make life miserable for opposing attackers. In the regular season, she logged 43 clearances and 26 interceptions and even chipped in offensively with two goals and three assists. Short was the league’s only player named to all six NWSL Team of the Month lists in 2019, a testament to her consistency. The Red Stars’ defense will need to be staunch against an attack like Portland’s (and in a potential final matchup with North Carolina), and that starts with Short.

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Why They Will Win It All: The Red Stars have gone through their share of highs and lows this season, but their highs are as good as anyone. After hitting a rough patch in August, Chicago won five straight in September to end the regular season, outscoring those opponents by a combined 10–2. The connection between Kerr and Yuki Nagasato is the best in the league and tough for anyone to contain, and the defense has the likes of Short and Julie Ertz in front of goalie Alyssa Naeher.

Chicago will enter the Oct. 20 semifinal having last played a club game on Sept. 28, a break of 22 days (the other three playoff teams played on Oct. 12). Rust is a natural concern, but the Red Stars’ lowest points this season have felt influenced by the fatigue of a crazy year around the league. Six of Chicago’s players spent the offseason playing in Australia’s W-League, and four more are U.S. players who went the distance at the World Cup. And while those U.S. players had a couple friendlies since their last NWSL game, the bonus time off could be a difference-maker.

Why They Won’t: For one thing, there’s that aforementioned semifinal curse. Chicago must get that monkey off its back before it can even think about winning a championship, and to do so it must beat the Thorns for the first time this season. Beyond that, the Red Stars’ attack can at times grow too dependent on Kerr, and if they’re struggling to keep possession or create chances, they may be tempted to revert to lobbing balls over the top and hoping their star can get on the end of them. It’s not a bad strategy with someone as good in the box as Kerr, but Chicago is at its best when it’s giving different looks in the attack. Only three Red Stars (Kerr, Nagasato and Vanessa DiBernardo) have scored at least three goals this season; compare that to Portland and North Carolina, who have five players apiece.

No. 3 Seed: Portland Thorns

One Big Question: Can They Turn Things Around Quickly?

Unlike its semifinal opponent, Portland certainly isn’t entering the playoffs on a high note. Since winning three straight in August, the Thorns are 1-3-1 over their last five games, the lone win being a 1-0 home victory over the Houston Dash. Even more concerning is the fact that the one goal against Houston, scored by Tobin Heath, was Portland’s only goal in that five-game span. That window also included a brutal 6–0 loss to the Courage in front of 17,500 of its home fans, a game that the Thorns had entered as the first-place team in the league table. Instead, they sputtered down the stretch and now must win on the road if they are to reach their third-straight final.

Key Player: Lindsey Horan

It’s been an interesting year for Horan, who was coming off a career season in which she scored 13 goals won the 2018 NWSL MVP award. Even acknowledging a club season cut short due to the USWNT’s time in France, Horan hasn’t had nearly the same production in her 13 games in 2019, scoring just one goal and adding two assists. The 25-year-old also recently returned from a concussion but played 78 minutes in the Thorns’ regular-season finale and seems to be a go for Sunday. Portland needs Horan to be a force in the midfield and could especially use some of the set-piece magic that helped her score seven goals with her head alone in 2018.

X-Factor: Midge Purce

With the likes of Horan, Heath, Christine Sinclair and Hayley Raso all missing time at the World Cup this summer, it was Purce who stepped up in the Portland attack and helped the Thorns go 5-2-2 in the span when their U.S. players were away. With six goals in eight games, Purce proved she deserved minutes even after the Thorns’ stars returned and has continued to play a role in the attack. While she’s cooled off in terms of scoring (her only goals since were a brace against Chicago) and may come off the bench on Sunday, she could be a valuable piece for Mark Parsons if Portland is hunting for a goal in the second half.

Why They Will Win It All: Portland is not lacking in playoff experience, having played in each of the last two finals and winning the championship in 2017. Parsons has a star-studded roster led by Heath, Horan, Sinclair, Adrianna Franch, Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett, plus a number of promising young players like Purce, Ellie Carpenter, Simone Charley and Andressinha. This team had a great shot at the Shield before its late-season slide, and it has too much talent to think it isn’t capable of flipping the switch. The semifinal matchup could work in its favor as well; the Thorns went 2-0-1 against the Red Stars this year and have only lost once to Chicago (back in 2013) in 20 all-time meetings.

Why They Won’t: The Thorns’ disappearing attack (which perhaps not coincidentally coincides with midfielder Gabby Seiler’s season-ending injury) is a major concern, and something that must be corrected before going against a Red Stars team with Kerr and Nagasato at its disposal. And while Portland is certainly capable of turning it on, it’s hard to look at its recent form and feel confident it can win one game, let alone two in a row. If it were to get past Chicago and potentially meet North Carolina in the final for a third straight year, that 6-0 blowout will linger in everyone’s minds (Portland did previously beat the Courage back in August, but it took a pair of N.C. own goals to do it). Even if the Thorns meet Reign FC, they lost all three matches against their Pacific Northwest rival this year.

No. 4 Seed: Reign FC

One Big Question: Will the Vlatko News Loom Large?

On Monday morning, the BBC reported that Reign head coach Vlatko Andonovski will be the next USWNT coach, news that U.S. Soccer told SI's Grant Wahl is not a done deal yet and Andonovski himself has since tried to play down. While Andonovski was long rumored to be a serious candidate, the report comes just days before Sunday’s semifinal, naturally leading to questions about whether this could potentially affect Andonovski’s team, especially mentally. It’s possible knowing their coach is (likely) leaving could give them extra motivation to play for him, or it could serve as a distraction at an inopportune time. Both can also be true. Regardless, this story is sure to hover over the semifinal weekend.

Key Player: Megan Rapinoe

After missing the vast majority of the NWSL season due to a combination of injuries and the World Cup, Megan Rapinoe is back. Fresh off winning the FIFA Best Women’s Player of the Year award, Rapinoe brings a new dimension to the Reign FC attack, especially when it comes to her service into the box or on set pieces, where the USWNT forward is known to shine. For a team that has struggled to create this season (the Reign’s 27 goals lag far behind the other three playoff teams) amidst a string of injuries, Rapinoe’s presence alone makes them more dangerous.

X-Factor: Bethany Balcer

Balcer has been one of the biggest surprises of the entire NWSL season. In a perfect example of Andonovski’s keen ability to find and develop talent, she was invited to the Reign’s preseason after going undrafted out of NAIA school Spring Arbor, then earned a supplemental contract to open the season. She started the second game of the year and scored her first career goal, then made her mark when internationals were away at the World Cup with two more. Balcer has continued to get starts and minutes throughout the season and has especially come on of late, scoring three goals in the Reign’s last five games. Rapinoe gets the headlines, and English international Jodie Taylor has also stepped up her game down the stretch, but don’t be surprised if Balcer comes up big for the Reign.

Why They Will Win It All: No team has been more snakebitten by injuries this season than the Reign, who played most of the season without stars Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock (the latter of whom remains sidelined), lost two goalkeepers and now start rookie Casey Murphy. They have had their depth tested so much that they had to sign and start assistant coach Steph Cox out of retirement at one point. Yet despite all of this, here they are, one of just four teams still standing. They’ve been one of the league’s most consistent teams, losing back-to-back games just once, and they’ll be playing with house money against the Courage. The Reign have been defying the odds all season—why stop now?

Why They Won’t: Even with Rapinoe back, the attack remains a question mark. The Reign’s goal differential of 0 is the worst of the playoff teams, despite the fact that they’ve held their own defensively and conceded three or more goals in just three of 24 games. Their 17 assists rank sixth in the league, and they’re going up against a Courage team that’s had 42 assists and a plus-31 goal differential. Keeping North Carolina off the scoreboard will be a Herculean task—it’s been shut out just once this season, and that was without its U.S. players—and the Reign will need to be clinical with whatever chances they do get if they are to keep pace. One other thing of note: the Reign led the league in fouls committed and are well ahead of the other playoff teams, and set pieces are not something you want to be giving out in an elimination game.