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This NWSL Final Is The Result Of Knockout Soccer At Its Best

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

It’s been a rough year for favorites in women's soccer.  The U.S. Women’s National Team limped their way to a bronze medal at this year’s Olympics, and now the NWSL's 2021 title is set to be claimed by either the No. 3-seeded Washington Spirit or No. 4-seeded Chicago Red Stars. The two teams will meet this Saturday in the league final, each riding a wave of momentum and playing with a clarity of purpose.

When the Red Stars walked into Providence Park shorthanded and took their semifinal game against Portland, 2-0, it wasn’t the first time a No. 4 seed had taken down the best team of the regular season—the now-defunct Western New York Flash did the same to the Thorns in 2016. But this is the first time in NWSL history that both lower seeds have won their semifinal, and the final will not feature either the first- or second-place regular season team.

Some of this is down to luck, both bad and good. The semifinal that No. 2 OL Reign played at home against Washington was struck by a late autumn "atmospheric river" that left much of the Pacific Northwest underwater. The grounds crew at Cheney Stadium did everything they could to get the Reign’s converted baseball field playable by kickoff, and both teams did get through the match relatively unscathed. But the conditions limited some of the Reign’s dynamism, and after conceding a very early goal to Eugenie Le Sommer, the Spirit were able to swing momentum in their favor with an injection of veteran calm and youthful exuberance. The Spirit eventually claimed the win with one of the most audacious goals of the year: 

The Spirit are a dangerous team right now, focused on becoming unbeatable after their manager was removed mid-season following allegations of emotional abuse from a number of former players. The team has been something of a mess off the field throughout the year, with the club still in an open ownership dispute and the team itself forfeiting two games due to a COVID-19 outbreak that is rumored to have been caused by unvaccinated players. But during the second half of the season, they figured out a balanced approach that made them almost impossible to score on, and their movement in transition is extremely hard to defend so long as Trinity Rodman is having a good day.

If the Reign converted only a few of their good chances in the semifinal game, we’d probably be talking about their matchup with the Rest Stars in the final right now. But such is the beauty of knockout soccer, a relative rarity in domestic club play. The nature of a league table is to reward consistency over mercurial rises and falls, and the trophy is given to the team who amasses the most points throughout the year. Knockout rounds do exist globally, like the UEFA Champions League and international summer tournaments, but even then the existence of two-legged ties, played both home and away, frequently lead to the higher-quality side prevailing. 

The NWSL—like MLS—awards a prize to the best team of the regular season, so that consistency is still rewarded with hardware. But a unique facet of playing the sport stateside is that Americans love a playoff, and with it the feeling that anything actually can happen in a single game. With the NWSL’s small semifinal round in its first seven seasons—only four teams total made the playoffs—the ability for a team to create momentum through a playoff run was frequently cut at the knees. In the early days of the league, the dominant Seattle Reign, two-time shield winners, were taken down in two consecutive finals by the lower-seeded FC Kansas City (coached by current USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski). One team was a consistent regular season monster, the other a post-season broadsword sharpened at exactly the right time.

With this year's added quarterfinal round, the ability to build momentum and shock the league has only grown. The Chicago Red Stars, the lower seed in Saturday’s matchup, isn’t so much a sharpened dagger as a single brick that’s been thrown in the window of the postseason. The Red Stars were slight favorites in their quarterfinal matchup against Gotham FC, a game they won, 1-0, on a nice strike by Mallory Pugh. But then Pugh was declared ineligible for the match in Portland due to being in COVID-19 protocol (amongst conjecture she herself might not be vaccinated), and it seemed like the Red Stars had possibly taken one knock too many after losing Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher relatively early in their season. They also hadn’t won in Portland since 2013.

The good news for Red Stars fans, and possibly nobody else, is that what Chicago has become in the face of those absences is a perfectly drilled piece of antimatter. Every tactic the other team tries, Chicago has an answer for. In last weekend’s match, the Red Stars started three defensive midfielders, one of whom was set up in such an advanced position that she originally appeared to be the team’s No. 10. Even when their other starting attacker, Kealia Watt, went down with an injury in the first half hour, the Red Stars stuck to the defensive process and gave no extra space, which led to a few miracle goals.

In a rare moment in which the Red Stars pushed forward with numbers, Katie Johnson cheated a ball near-post that ricocheted off Thorns keeper Bella Bixby into the back of the net. In the second half, Sarah Woldmoe sent a ball from well behind the 18-yard box to extend the unlikely lead. Those were the sort of unexpected goals that can get people starting to use a phrase like "team of destiny," but it was Chicago's ability to smother all of Portland's usually potent attacks that eventually won them the day.

The 2021 NWSL final will feature two teams who have been sculpted into something new by a year full of hardship, off the field for Washington, and on the field for Chicago. The league will have a true first-time winner for the first time since that Western New York upstart squad lifted the trophy in 2016. These finalists might’ve killed a few narratives on the way to Louisville, but the possibility of brand new history is something the league should embrace, rather than run away from. For everyone else, there’s always next year.

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