In what will be the final game of professional soccer at SeatGeek Stadium in 2021, the red-hot Chicago Red Stars will welcome Gotham FC for a do-or-die playoff game. The Red Stars, who are unbeaten in four games, successfully navigated the final weeks of the season to earn a home playoff game for the second season in a row. They will be hoping to ride the momentum going into the game, on what is expected to be a beautiful early afternoon.
Road to the Playoffs
Over the course of the season, both the Red Stars and Gotham proved to be some of the most consistent teams in the NWSL. The Red Stars pipped them to fourth, ensuring that this game would be played on home turf. Gotham finished fifth, securing qualification after ending the season on an eight-match unbeaten run dating back to late August.
The Red Stars saw the two players who are arguably their best go down hurt but have still managed to maintain consistency during a challenging season. Julie Ertz was injured on the opening day of the season, in a 5-0 loss at Portland which seemed hopeless; the team showed character to rebound from that and a rough first few weeks to climb up the table heading into the Olympic break. Sarah Gorden consistently performed in a central defensive role at such a high level that she was nominated for NWSL Defender of the Year, more than making up for the loss of Ertz. Alyssa Naeher went down during the Olympics and has not played since, but Cassie Miller stepped into the #1 role and has performed admirably.
Gotham have had by far the most draws out of any team in the league, with nearly half their matches ending in ties; 14 times in 2021 have they done so. They have drawn their last three games, all by a score of 1-1, so both teams should consider being prepared for the possibility of extra time and penalties. Midge Purce led the team with 9 goals; despite being snubbed from the USWNT’s Olympic roster during the summer, she has been one of the top players in the league this season and is the favorite to win the league’s MVP.
Players to Watch
The main focal point of the Red Stars attack all season has been Mallory Pugh. The MVP candidate joined Chicago after a trade with Sky Blue (now Gotham FC) and she has not looked back. Pugh only got on the field once for Sky Blue, as she struggled for fitness during 2020 and into early 2021. When she regained her form, though, she showed her quality in the final third and why she was once viewed as the great hope of the US Women's National Team.
Danielle Colaprico has been a big part of the Red Stars team since she was drafted in 2015, and though she has not started many games in the last few months, her experience could be valuable. She has been one of the key reasons that Chicago has qualified for the postseason six seasons in a row, and with Julie Ertz still out, there is a chance she could slide back into the midfield and make an impact.
Like the Red Stars, Gotham has numerous players with USWNT experience. Allie Long and McCall Zerboni have featured on the international stage in the past, but Purce will be a key piece in the next few years. With nine goals and one assist, she has been the standout player in the league and has carried Gotham on her back at times. She can play on the right-wing or in a plethora of different positions around the field.
Lloyd’s Last Dance
The Red Stars have a chance to spoil Carli Lloyd’s retirement party; the USWNT legend is in her final season, and given the NWSL’s single-elimination format, a loss for Gotham would mean that her career would come to an end. The Red Stars are focused on winning the game, regardless of the outcome for the opponent, though.
“For us, it's about doing our own gameplan and hopefully we’ll take care of things,” said Red Stars midfielder Morgan Gautrat.
Lloyd briefly played for the Red Stars in 2009, appearing 16 times and scoring 2 goals in the short-lived WPS.
Though Ertz and Naeher are still out and are not expected to return until 2022, the Red Stars should have most of the full team back. Katie Johnson, Sarah Woldmoe, and Casey Krueger missed the last game of the regular season due to COVID protocol, but all three are back in training and are available for selection.
What's on the line
The winner of this quarterfinal sets up a date with the top-seeded Portland Thorns, in Portland, next week. Though Portland built a stacked roster and never dropped out of first place across the whole season, they only finished 2 points clear of second place.
“There’s a different feeling about the playoffs this year,” said Red Stars head coach Rory Dames. “There’s not that dominant team this year... we certainly think that we’re good enough to beat anyone in the league.”