After sneaking past Gotham FC at SeatGeek Stadium last weekend, the Red Stars visit Portland, Oregon, with a spot in next week’s NWSL Championship on the line. The Portland Thorns, the #1 seeded team in the NWSL playoffs, are the favorites to win their third title. The Red Stars snapped an eight-year regular season winless streak against the Portland Thorns last month and will be looking to win on the road in Oregon for the first time since the league’s inaugural season.
Road to the Semifinals
Both the Red Stars and Thorns are regular fixtures in the NWSL playoffs; this year is no different, and the two will face off in the playoff semifinals for the second consecutive season.
The Thorns won the NWSL Shield, finishing the season on 44 points. After winning to NWSL Challenge Cup to open the year, they started the regular season with a commanding 5-0 win over Chicago. After week 3 they embarked on a long streak, in which they only lost one game all summer. They began to falter in the final weeks of the season, though winning just one of their last six games.
History is in their favor here, though; six of the last seven Shield winners have gone on to advance to the championship game. The Thorns have not lost a home playoff game in half a decade, either.
As for the Red Stars, it was an interesting season. After a rocky start where the front line struggled to find any sort of rhythm, the Red Stars were consistent for most of the year before coming into form at the right time in the fall. A 1-0 win over Carli Lloyd’s Gotham FC at home in the playoff quarterfinal secured a place in the team’s sixth consecutive semifinal.
Though Chicago has played in six consecutive semifinals, they have only won at this stage once. It was a 1-0 win over none other than the Portland Thorns, with Sam Kerr’s first-half goal all that could separate the two teams in Bridgeview.
Players to Watch
The Red Stars will be without several key pieces, including MVP contender and last week’s match-winner Mal Pugh, who is out on Covid protocol. Thus, other players will have to step up in their absences. One contender to shine in the front line is Mexican international forward Katie Johnson. She has filled in a few different roles in the attacking four, and despite missing the last regular-season game due to COVID protocol, she is back and available for selection. Most of her minutes have been off the bench this year, but she could play a big role on Sunday.
With the second-best offense in the league, Portland will surely prove a big test for the relatively inexperienced Red Stars defensive line. Sarah Gorden, a defender of the year candidate, and Arin Wright have both had great seasons. The 29 and 28-year-olds will be partnered with Tierna Davidson (23) and Tatumn Milazzo (23). This will be the biggest test yet for Milazzo, who has very little big-game experience as a professional. Morgan Gautrat has also been one of the best midfielders in the league and will be the key to the Red Star’s success in the middle of the pitch.
The Thorns will be missing two big names, but still have one of the best rosters in the league, Sophia Smith scored against the Red Stars earlier in the year, and is still one of America’s top forward prospects. Alongside Smith, Morgan Weaver and Bella Bixby were both called into the latest USWNT camp after breakout seasons. The 16-year-old prodigy Olivia Moultrie, who caught national attention earlier this year for the saga surrounding her pro contract, is also an option after featuring in camp for the Under-20 National Team last month. They also boast such legendary players as Becky Sauerbrunn and Christine Sinclair.
Alyssa Naeher and Julie Ertz are still out; Alyssa Naeher was injured against Sinclair’s Canada in the Olympic semifinal, and Ertz was injured at Providence Park in the 5-0 loss on opening day. There are some new absences, too...
Mallory Pugh is out due to COVID protocol. Casey Krueger is also out, due to illness; she missed the quarterfinal for the same reason. Kayla Sharples is also not available.
In their places, Tatumn Milazzo will likely fill in at right back, with Danielle Colaprico coming back into the midfield. Without Pugh, Katie Johnson will likely start rather than come off the bench as she usually does.
Of note, however, is that Portland will have two key players missing: Crystal Dunn (pregnancy) and Lindsey Horan (facial injury).
What's on the line
A spot in the championship game is up for grabs. The final, which will be held in Louisville on November 20th, will be between the winner of this semifinal, and the other semifinal between the Washington Spirit and OL Reign.