NWSL Championship Recap – Matildas Edition

The NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) is arguably the best women’s soccer league in the world. Based in the US, the season runs from March to September. There is no overlap with the W-League which runs from October to February. For many players, both Australian and American, playing in both competitions is the only way to make ends meet from the game. It’s also attractive to players to be able to gain experience playing against quality players on two different continents.

It’s probably not the worst thing being in summer all year around, too!

As a result of all of this it’s important to pay at least some attention to the NWSL to see the kind of form the W-League girls are in heading into a new season. Here’s a rundown how the W-League girls did in the finals.

Portland Thorns FC 2 – Seattle Reign 1

Portland and Seattle have probably the fiercest rivalry in the NWSL and the game did not disappoint. Full of crunching tackles and yellow cards it was a surprise that no one was sent off, not least the mercurial Jess Fishlock for Seattle (Melbourne City).

In the end Portland prevailed thanks to goals from US National Team stars Tobin Heath and Lindsay Horan. If Horan sounds familiar to you, she was the player who scored in injury time to level the Tournament of Nations game between the Matildas and the US earlier in the year. She scored with her head this time too, beating Seattle goalkeeper Lydia Williams (Melbourne City) with a precise finish. Williams must be having nightmares involving Horan’s forehead…

Speaking of Lydia Williams, she had a solid but not spectacular game in goal, ably supported by left back Steph Catley (Melbourne City). However, she was well and truly outshone by her opposing number Adrianna Franch. I wouldn’t be shocked if Franch is a late signing for a W-League team as she looks to stake her claim to win a cap for the US National Team. Among her most spectacular save was a one handed effort to stop a brilliant volley from Jodie Taylor (Melbourne City).

If you’re getting sick of the Melbourne City Reign, there were other teams represented on the Portland side of the game. US defender Emily Sonnett (Sydney FC) was typically solid at the back, although if Sydney want to re-sign her they would be concerned by the fact that she limped off with a knee injury in the 92ndminute. Caitlin Foord (Sydney FC) got a rare start up top after her injury in the last W-League season and while she didn’t look quite back at her best she played an important role in the lead-up to the first goal and most importantly played a full 90 minutes without breaking.

Ellie Carpenter (Canberra United) held her own at left-back in a match-up against one of the best in the world, US star Megan Rapinoe, but was not given the freedom to be a large part of the Thorns attack. Finally, Hayley Raso (Brisbane Roar) would have featured if not for an injury that she suffered against the Washington Spirit 3 weeks ago, officially a “non-displaced fracture of the transverse processes of L2, L3 and L4” but basically amounts to a broken back. She will miss the first few games of the W-League season, as well as the Matildas next two international breaks.

Portland now have the chance to play in a final at home. 21,000 people in Portland will buoy them for whatever challenge is to come.

North Carolina Courage 2 – Chicago Red Stars 0

The second semi-final was held at a neutral venue in Portland due to the presence of Hurricane Florence making it unsafe in North Carolina. It was also delayed until Tuesday night (Wednesday morning here in Australia) meaning that the winner of this game has three less days preparation for the Championship game.

Theoretically, this should have hindered North Carolina – Portland fans aren’t exactly fond or neutral towards them. Watching the game, you wouldn’t have known that.

There weren’t too many current W-League players in this game. I was emotionally invested for only really two reasons. The first – I desperately wanted North Carolina to lose. This is partly owing to their genuine superiority in every way this season (think Sydney FC in the A-League the last few years) and partly owing to one of their full-backs, Jaelene Hinkle (for info on that see here). The second reason I was emotionally invested was the presence of Young Australian of the Year, Golden Boot Winner, Best Player In The World (even if FIFA doesn’t think so) Sam Kerr for the Red Stars.

Unfortunately the Courage’s superiority showed in the end. They were dominant on and off the ball. One of the great strengths of the Courage is their ability in midfield and they showed it today, never letting Chicago get too comfortable.

It could have been different. Early in the first half Yuki Nagasato hit the crossbar and not long after Kerr (Perth Glory, in case you forgot) hit the post. Chicago played just about to the best of their ability, pressing high and giving themselves every chance to score. They weren’t scared of the record-breaking season of the Courage.

In the end, a goal early from Jess McDonald and an absolute rocket from Samantha Mewis late saw the Courage home.

As much as I hate to say it, I think the Courage will win the final game of the season. They have only lost one game all season and that was against the Utah Royals. As much as Portland will relish in the home ground advantage, I just can’t see them (and our Aussies) withstanding the all-round outstanding nature of the Courage.

I would love to be proven wrong!

North Carolina Courage 3 – Portland Thorns 0

Personally, the worst part about this game is that it started early in the morning down here in Canberra where I am writing. My whole day is ruined. RUINED.

The same W-League stars started this game as against Seattle but they couldn’t contain the power of the Courage. One of the biggest things that stood out for me is the way that the Courage continuously won the second and third ball. Pretty much all the 50/50 balls were going the way of North Carolina. They repeatedly won the ball back in Portland’s half and were able to create chances on the back of that.

It was good to see Ellie Carpenter (Canberra United) make some more attacking runs in the first half of the game, and Caitlin Foord (Sydney FC) created several chances at number 9. However, both were guilty of making poor decisions in the final third. Crosses weren’t connecting, shots weren’t being taken, and Portland were unable to get chances away.

Emily Sonnett (Sydney FC) was largely anonymous at centre-back apart from a searing attacking run into the box when Portland were already 3 goals down. I suspect that may have something to do with the knee injury she sustained last week. US International Tobin Heath was the standout for the Thorns, often singlehandedly making runs against the run of play to try to create something for her team.

Again, there’s not much to talk about on the Courage side of things in terms of current W-League players. You may remember Abby Erceg who played for Adelaide United for a few seasons – she was stoic at centre-back. Her centre-back partner Abby Dahlkemper (Adelaide 2015/16) was much the same. Starting keeper Katelyn Rowland (Newcastle 2016/17) had little to do, but did make a spectacular save in the second half. Jess Mcdonald (Melbourne Victory 2012/13) scored two of the three goals and was deservedly named player of the match.

What does this all mean?

The Thornies W-League players have only a month to recover from the heartbreak of today and prepare for the W-League season. This schedule is gruelling but they would have only learnt from their season and should come back better players. In particular, at only 18 (the youngest ever NWSL player) Ellie Carpenter has improved throughout the season and will be even more of an asset for Canberra (and the Tillies) this season. Caitlin Foord has benefitted from the rehab that Portland has provided and should be just about hitting her peak fitness heading into this new season.

As always my great overarching hope is for the Matildas, and with less than a year to a World Cup the experience of some of our Aussies being in a finals series can only do them good.

The Courage thoroughly deserve their win. But, with no current W-League players and no Aussies, I just don’t care. Thornies for 2019!

Featured image from Ellie Carpenter’s Twitter page.

By Taryn Heddo