You would think that the North Carolina Courage would be the favorite in the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs, which begin Saturday. The Courage won the playoff title last year, when it was the Western New York Flash, then opened 2017 on a four-game winning streak in its new Carolina home, and cruised from there to the regular-season title.
Though the Courage is the No. 1 seed, it’s hard to see it as the favorite, given the recent results of the other three squads that made the playoffs.
The Portland Thorns, seeded second, have won nine of their past 11 games. The Orlando Pride, the No. 3 seed, has not lost since July. And the Chicago Red Stars, who take on North Carolina in this weekend’s semifinals, endured an up-and-down season but defeated the Courage in all three of their regular-season matchups.
If anything, Orlando might be the best pick for the playoffs, despite needing to go on the road in the semifinals. The Pride boasts the league’s highest-scoring attack, led by forward Alex Morgan and the indefatigable Brazilian star Marta, the five-time world player of the year. Since Morgan returned from a hamstring injury in July, Orlando has been one of the league’s best teams.
Portland might take issue with Orlando’s status as favorite, given that the Thorns have been almost as good as the Pride since midsummer. The Thorns missed star winger Tobin Heath for almost the entire season. The fan favorite ended up playing just the last two matches of the year. Her absence threw off the Thorns for the first half of the year, but in the second half, coach Mark Parsons turned Canadian striker Christine Sinclair into more of a playmaker than an out-and-out center forward, The result was a turnaround in the team’s season. Now that Heath is back, Portland is a force to be reckoned with and will have the NWSL’s rowdiest fans behind it in the semifinals.
Chicago might be the most difficult of the four teams in the playoffs to predict. Striker Christen Press produced, as always, leading the team with 11 goals, and national team standout Julie Ertz impressed after being converted from a central defender to a midfielder. The Red Stars were short on consistency all year, though. If they hadn’t defeated North Carolina in all three games this year, the Red Stars might be an afterthought in the four-team playoff picture.
North Carolina, meanwhile, is the reigning regular-season champion and the defending playoff champion. Forward Lynn Williams scored three goals in the final two games of the year, and midfielder Sam Mewis is a finalist for the league MVP award. The Courage may not be the favorite, but it is — for the moment — still the champion. In the one-game, single-elimination format of the NWSL playoffs, sometimes that small been-here-before advantage is enough to make a difference.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• No matter how Orlando does in the playoffs, it hasn’t been a great week for Alex Morgan (above). The Pride star, along with MLS players Giles Barnes and Donny Toia, was thrown out of the Epcot theme park in Orlando last weekend, and was observed by police to be “highly impaired.” What does it say about the profile of women’s soccer that Morgan, not Barnes or Toia, is the name that appeared in all the headlines?
• It’ll be hard for NWSL awards voters to pick anyone but Sky Blue FC striker Samantha Kerr for the league’s MVP award. Kerr set a single-season record with 17 goals, including a pair of hat tricks, and was the talk of the league throughout the year.
• Major League Soccer will announce its next two expansion teams in mid-December, bringing the league to 26 teams (though the Miami franchise is still theoretical). Cincinnati, which has drawn more than 20,000 fans in the second-division USL this year, might be the front-runner, with several other cities — including Nashville, a bid that includes the Vikings owners — still in serious contention.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
World Cup qualifying: France at Bulgaria, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, FS2. Such are the margins in UEFA qualifying that one bad result can put any team in jeopardy. For France, that result came in the last game, an ugly 0-0 home draw against lowly Luxembourg. Now France needs a difficult road victory against Bulgaria to stay ahead of Sweden.
NWSL: Orlando at Portland, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime. Orlando’s second NWSL season saw the Pride draw more than 6,000 fans per home match. That was good for second place in the league. But it’s also barely a third of the fans that pack Providence Park for the average Thorns home match. This one will be a rowdy, exciting sellout.
World Cup qualifying: Scotland at Slovenia, 11 a.m. Sunday, FS2. The Scots are one victory from the qualification playoffs, thanks to a dramatic 1-0 win against Slovakia on Thursday. Slovenia, meanwhile, could leapfrog Scotland with a victory, though it would also need another failure from Slovakia to make the playoffs. This, then, is like a one-game qualifier for the playoff round.
NWSL: Chicago at North Carolina, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Lifetime. Chicago’s season has ended here, in the league semifinals, for two consecutive years. This time there’s no excuse for the Red Stars not to advance. They have that three-game winning streak against North Carolina, and a confident, rested team. The Courage, though, has that championship experience.