4 big storylines for the NWSL playoffs

The NWSL semifinals take place on Sunday, and oh god the Courage already scored oh no they scored another one, this is gonna get ugly.

Sorry, now that I’ve got a joke off, both games should be very entertaining. The Reign, coached by presumed next USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski, are finally healthy and should give the reigning champs a stiff test. The other match, between the red hot Chicago Red Stars and ice cold Portland Thorns, also has a clear favorite but plenty of reasons for the underdog side to believe.

These are the four big storylines you should get caught up on before the games.

Enjoy your last chance to see Sam Kerr in NWSL

Sam Kerr is only able to make close to the amount of money she’s worth playing in the salary-capped NWSL because she splits time between the Chicago Red Stars and Australian W-League’s Perth Glory. She makes a lot more in Australia than she does in the United States. But this week, the FFA admitted that Kerr is unlikely to play in W-League this season. That’s bad news for Red Stars fans.

While Kerr hasn’t announced her plans yet, it’s pretty easy to piece together the puzzle. It would be stunning if she played exclusively for the Red Stars for $46,000 per season. Kerr is almost certainly heading abroad, which means you’ll probably see her suit up for one of Europe’s biggest names soon.

Kerr is arguably the best player in NWSL history. She’s the league’s all-time leading scorer, capturing her third consecutive golden boot this year. The league will undoubtedly be worse off without her.

But she’s got some work left to do before she leaves. The Red Stars, despite consistently having one of the league’s most talented rosters, have never won a playoff game. They’re favorites at home against the Portland Thorns, who have made the last two championship games, but are currently out of form.

Kerr will be fondly remembered as an NWSL and Red Stars legend no matter what happens this weekend, but she’d love to exit on a high.

Hey, WTF is up with the Thorns?

So, about the aforementioned Thorns. They posted an impressive 3-0 victory over the Red Stars on August 25 and have struggled mightily since, winning just one of their last six matches. Even more worrying, they scored just one goal during that run. Those six games include a shocking 6-0 defeat to the North Carolina Courage that felt like it could have been 12-0, plus a 2-0 derby defeat to Reign FC.

Why Portland’s attack has been so poor is tough to say. Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Caitlin Foord and Margaret Purce are all healthy. They’re actually doing a better job creating a high volume of shots than they were earlier in the season when they were scoring a ton of goals. The ball just isn’t going in the net.

They’re going to have to reverse that trend against a Chicago team that has won five games in a row, with a defense anchored by defender of the year candidate Casey Short, and World Cup winner Alyssa Naeher behind her in goal. The Thorns will not be gifted anything. They’re going to have to score from a world class move or an absolute banger.

Vlatko Andonovski’s shot at a storybook ending

Pen hasn’t hit paper yet, but all signs point to Reign FC manager Vlatko Andonovski being the next head coach of the United States women’s national team.

If you’re a casual women’s soccer fan just checking in for the playoffs, you might wonder why he’s been tabbed for the job ahead of other NWSL managers. His team has just 27 goals this season, exactly half the number scored by the Courage, the Reign’s opponents this weekend. But just getting to the playoffs at all required an outrageous coaching performance by Andonovski, and I don’t ever want to hear another coach complain about not having a talented enough roster ever again.

Reign FC lost an entire roster’s worth of players to injury and international duty this season. Their 33 players used — in a league with 20-player rosters! — is by far the most of any team in the league. Megan Rapinoe, named the best player in the world by FIFA, recorded 0 goals and 0 assists for the Reign this year. Jessica Fishlock, one of the world’s best midfielders, tore her ACL five games into the year. Andonovski got quality minutes out of assistant coach Stephanie Cox, who had been retired for two years. The team’s leading scorer, Bethany Balcer, played college soccer in NAIA.

Some key players are still out with season-ending injuries, but Andonovski finally has a large, healthy squad to pick from this weekend. Internationals Rapinoe, Allie Long, Steph Catley, Celia Jimenez Delgado, Rosie White and Jodie Taylor are all finally fit and settled in. No one expects the Reign to beat the Courage, but their squad is finally ready for the level of challenge.

Can we just take a second to appreciate the Courage? Holy crap.

Over the last four seasons, Paul Riley has coached the same core of players to seven trophies. Three NWSL shields, two NWSL championships, two International Champions Cups, and of course, they’re still in the running to win a triple. For the second season in a row.

The Courage scored 13 more goals than the second-best team, on 103 more shots. They allowed four fewer goals than the next best defense in the playoffs. I don’t need to tell you why they’re the favorites to win the title; their history and this season’s numbers speak for themselves. But the really cool thing about the Courage isn’t how good they are, but rather how they got here.

Ten players — Katelyn Rowland, Sam Mewis, Abby Erceg, McCall Zerboni, Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, Abby Dahlkemper, Jaelene Hinkle, Kristen Hamilton and Meredith Speck — have been with Riley for the entire ride, from the first title with the Western New York Flash through the move to North Carolina. The additions of stars like Crystal Dunn and Stephanie Labbe have certainly helped, but the players who weren’t even expected to make the playoffs in 2016 still form the backbone of arguably the best team in the history of women’s soccer four years later.

There was not one human being in 2016, including Paul Riley, who thought this was a world-beating superteam in the making. Which is why, even after all the trophies, Riley’s “nobody believes in us” bit hasn’t gotten stale with his players. It’s been four years and I still can’t quite believe they’re real.

NWSL semifinals: Sunday, October 20

North Carolina Courage vs. Reign FC: 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Chicago Red Stars vs. Portland Thorns FC: 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Girl AAT

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