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Barbra Banda And Temwa Chawinga Were Bigger Than The Season’s Biggest Game

Temwa Chawinga #6 of Kansas City Current controls the ball during the first half of the National Womens Soccer League game against NJ/NY Gotham FC on April 14, 2024 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Saturday, the Orlando Pride and the Kansas City Current played the NWSL season's most important game yet. Both teams entered the match tied at the top of the table with 35 points, and each carried historic regular-season unbeaten streaks. Neither team had lost a game all season, and the Current's unbeaten streak was 17 stretching back to the end of last season. Saturday's game was meant to be a defining battle between the league's two best teams, but it quickly, and fittingly, became a contest that was overwhelmed by the star power of each team's best player.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Barbra Banda and Temwa Chawinga were running the NWSL. Never has the truth of that assertion been more apparent than it was on Saturday, when Banda and Chawinga both played so well that the game itself became of secondary concern to their individual performances. Both players entered the game tied for the lead league with 11 goals, and neither wasted any time demonstrating their control over the action. In the first minute, Banda dribbled into the box from the right wing, easily pried open a shooting window, and forced a kick save from Current keeper Adrianna Franch. In the 20th minute, Chawinga cushioned a long pass with the outside of her foot, kept the ball away from three defenders, and set her teammate up for a shot on goal.

The game went on like that. The NWSL's extended highlight reel of the match almost exclusively features Banda and Chawinga, and contains the pair scoring two of the best goals of the season. Banda was the first to strike, stabbing a pass at the edge of the box past her defender and then sprinting onto the ball too quickly for the keeper to do anything but flail at the shot:

Just over a minute later, Chawinga got the golden boot race back on even footing by unleashing an astonishing individual goal. She received a pass just inside the halfway line, shrugged Carrie Lawrence off her back, sprinted through two lines of defense, and rolled the ball into the far corner of the net:

This is a strange thing to say, but I can't really think of any other way to put it: Chawinga and Banda were both so good that they ruined this game. The defender Chawinga rolled on the way her goal, Lawrence, was as overmatched as I've ever seen one player be in a soccer game. Chawinga saddled her with a yellow card in the 14th minute, and then just kept bullying her. In the 42nd minute, after being overpowered and bodied off the ball again, Lawrence made a stupid, desperate lunge into the back of Chawinga's legs, earning her second yellow and dismissal from the game. It was the kind of foul that gets committed when a player has decided, consciously or not, that they are no longer fit to share the field with their opponent.

Red cards ruin games, and this one turned what promised to be a great one between the league's two best teams into just another 11-on-10 siege. Or at least it did until Banda got onto the ball again in the 60th minute. Leading a 3-on-3 break, Banda dribbled into the box and then flicked a strange, slow, curling pass with her right foot that just barely bent its way past a defender's foot and sat up for Adriana at the back post. The pass didn't end in a goal, but it did send Franch crashing into Adriana, which the referee whistled to give the Pride a soft penalty. If red cards ruin games, then so do dodgy penalties; this one allowed Marta to step to the spot and score the winning goal.

Professional defenders aren't supposed to end up so physically defeated before halftime that they have no choice but to get red-carded. Keepers aren't supposed to be caught so off guard by a pass that they go flying into an attacker who skies a shot. Teams that have to play more than half of a game with 10 players aren't supposed to win 2-1. Two players aren't supposed to be at the center of every meaningful action that takes place across 90-plus minutes of soccer. One player isn't supposed to be this close to breaking Sam Kerr's single-season goal-scoring record at this point in season, let alone two. A lot of things that aren't supposed to happen are coming to fruition in the NWSL this season, and that's because Chawinga and Banda are unlike any other stars in the league.

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