This week we review the 2021 NWSL Regular Season ahead of the expanded six team playoffs. This week's column look at each of the six playoff teams, while next week we will review the other four teams as well as news from one of the expansion franchises for 2022 in California.
2021 NWSL Regular Season End of Season Review—Part One
This week we look at our third and final 2021 NWSL Regular Season review. For the playoff race, after the expansion for 2021 to 6 from 4 sides in the past, the top two teams receive a first round bye. In 2019, the last full NWSL regular season before COVID hit, North Carolina, Chicago, Portland and Tacoma Reign FC (now OL Reign but still in Tacoma) made the top four playoff spots. All four sides made the playoffs in 2021 along with the Washington Spirit and the NJ/NY Gotham FC (formerly Sky Blue FC), with the Thorns and the Reign winning first round byes. Attendances improved as the season went on and the country increased its COVID vaccination rates in general, which allowed for larger crowds at sporting events, but the average per game attendance falls well below 2019's 7,399 per game average—Soccer Stadium Digest unofficially places the 2021 average at 5,528 because of stadium capacity restrictions as well as other distractions such as the Olympic Games Finals during the season. We will discuss the NWSL attendance figures from this season in an upcoming column as the figures are finalized.
In a season overshadowed by the sickening revelations of player disrespect, abuse and sexual coercion—with Paul Riley being the most dominate name but affecting a number of incidents and coaching changes across the league (see: The Week in Women's Football: The NWSL Coaching scandal and its impact on the league - Tribal Football)—we look at the league standings and key highlights of the season, which at many points paled behind what was happening with teams and the league off the field, but ultimately this is what the players' careers are for and the fans support.
The appointment of Marla Messing as the new NWSL interim commissioner late in the season was seen as a positive for the league to begin to shift from an owner and franchise focus to that of a concentration on players' safety, welfare and pay. Messing, a lawyer, was President and Chief Executive Officer of the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup. She previously had worked as a key executive on the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee (men's), both of which were huge successes in the States and paved the way for professional women's leagues and Major League Soccer on the men's side to launch operations. In 2018, Messing acted as a full-time consultant to Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Football Club, and the Spanish football club, F.C. Barcelona. Prior to that, Messing served as Vice President and Executive Director of the 2024/2028 Los Angeles Olympic and Paralympic Bid Committee. Messing began her career as an attorney at Latham & Watkins. Messing talked about her new position with the NWSL, "First and foremost, I am honored to have the opportunity to help lead the NWSL and fully embrace the abundantly clear need to transform the league so that player welfare is central to every discussion and decision. I also want to commend the bravery and strength of each and every player in the league to demand the change that should be at the core of every organization. Gaining the trust of our players and uniting players and owners is central to my approach so that we can most effectively create systemic change." Messing uniquely also reached out to the media and fans immediately upon her appointment:
It is an honor to step into this role at such an important moment in the NWSL's history. I could not be more eager to get started.
Foremost, I want to thank you for your continued support and passion for the NWSL and its teams. Your dedication—showing up to matches and cheering on our incredible players on and off the field—is essential to the success of our league. Through your support over the last nine years, the league has experienced successful growth, and I believe the best is definitely yet to come.
As I step into this interim role, I fully recognize the meaningful change that still needs to occur, the trust that needs to be rebuilt and the accountability that must be enforced. I can assure you that while I am in this role, I am committed to working closely with the board of governors, the players and all of you to make important changes across the league that will allow us to emerge as a stronger, more inclusive organization where player safety, welfare and respect are central to everything that we do."
In other league news, the championship game was moved from Portland to Louisville after player complaints about the 9 am kickoff (local time) for TV, fitting a CBS spot during the dominant NFL season—the same thing as was done with the 2003 WWC final in LA—that the field is artificial turf and the fact that the league granted the championship finale to the Thorns for the third time in nine years. Women's World Cup winner Jess McDonald argued on Twitter, "One, championship has already been held there. Two, let's try a different site (that doesn't have turf to top it off). Three, 9am????? What in actual efffff!!! My kid is barely up at that time. We deserve better than this, @nwsl this is NOT ok!!!!! 9am…..?? Who's idea was this??" With all the recent revelations of Paul Riley's abuse still a top topic that fans of the women's game were talking about, the league listened to their players and moved the game to Louisville for a 12 Noon start and on a grass field rather than Portland's artificial turf. The Thorns—not surprisingly—issued their own interpretation of the move, "We were the only NWSL club that submitted an initial bid to host the game despite the early 9 a.m. kickoff time, which was less than ideal for our fans and players. We are happy there is a resolution that works for all parties. For those who have already purchased tickets, more information is forthcoming. But, in recent weeks, as the league and its players' navigated scandal after scandal, this joint decision to relocate the match is the first sign that the league is willing [to] work with players towards some much-needed change within the league."
NWSL 2021 Regular Season Update (in team order per the standings as of October 31.)
Note: This week we look at the top six teams who made the playoffs, with the last four teams and some expansion team news presented next week.
Portland Thorns (13-5-6, 44 points, First)
The Thorns have some uncertainty to deal with in the off-season with Mark Parsons leaving to take on the Netherland's Women's National Team full-time and no replacement has yet been named. For this season, the team rolled on and won the NWSL Shield for the second time (after 2016) as regular season champions following a 1-1 tie against OL Reign on October 13; Morgan Weaver scored her only goal of the regular season in the 3rd minute, offset by a late Megan Rapinoe penalty kick for the Reign. The Thorns set a league single-season record for shutouts with 13.
Young American phenom and second-year pro Sophia Smith year led the team with 7 goals while American forward Simon Charley and Canadian Olympic Games Final Gold Medal winner Christine Sinclair tied for second with 5 goals.
An indication of their strength of the Thorns was their having seven players called in for full or youth national team duty for four nations during the October FIFA international window. Thorns FC defender Becky Sauerbrunn, midfielder Lindsey Horan and forward Sophia Smith represented the U.S. Women's National Team in a pair of friendlies against Korea Republic. Also participating in two friendly matches were forward Christine Sinclair with Canada against New Zealand and midfielder Rocky Rodríguez with Costa Rica against Jamaica in two friendlies in Fort Lauderdale (one of which was postponed and the other was a scoreless tie on October 24). Defender Natalia Kuikka was called up by Finland for two FIFA World Cup UEFA qualifying matches—against Georgia and the Republic of Ireland—and midfielder Olivia Moultrie was selected for a training camp with the U-20 U.S. Women's National Team.
A positive event on the coaching side was the recent re-signing of goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer to a multi-year contract. Angerer played her final two professional seasons with Thorns FC, appearing in 28 matches (all starts) during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The 2013 FIFA World Player of the Year, Angerer finished her international career with 146 caps for the Germany Women's National Team and won two FIFA World Cups (2003, 2007). The former Portland Thorns FC goalkeeper and German international will begin her seventh season as part of Thorns FC's technical staff in 2022. After concluding her playing career in 2015, Angerer joined the club's coaching staff for the 2016 season, and was promoted to director of goalkeeping in 2018. During her tenure as part of the club's staff, Angerer has helped Portland win an NWSL Shield in 2016, the NWSL Championship in 2017, the 2020 NWSL Fall Series, the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and the 2021 Women's International Champions Cup.
Under the guidance of Angerer, Adrianna Franch was named NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year in consecutive seasons (2017, 2018), posting the best save percentage (78.6) and the second-most shutouts (14) in the league during that span. Selected in the third round of the 2018 NWSL College Draft, Bella Bixby debuted at the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup and in her first NWSL regular season with the club in 2021 has recorded seven shutouts
(the second-most in the league) in 13 appearances, posting a 0.77 goals-against average.
Angerer explained how excited she was to stay with the Thorns and Portland, "Portland is a special place. I love this city, the community and the people. I am grateful for the trust that I have been given by the club. I am passionate about continuing to develop our goalkeepers, while helping raise the bar so we can become the best club on and off the field during a critical time." This reporter has interviewed Angerer on multiple occasions and she is a huge asset to the league and loves working in it. I hope that she has a chance to be a head coach in the league in the not-too-distant future.
On November 1, just after the regular season ended, the Thorns announced that they had hired former Canadian international and Portland Thorns goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc as the team's General Manager and she would be in charge of the team's technical staff. LeBlanc (41) is currently CONCACAF's Head of Women's Football, beginning in 2018, but will leave her CONCACAF post. She replaces long-time GM Gavin Wilkinson, who was disgraced by his handling of the Paul Riley termination as head coach in 2015, but remains oddly the GM of the MLSPortland Timbers men's side. LeBlanc, who is also a women's football television personality, is tremendously respected in the game and is a tremendous hire for the league and the team.
Across 18 years at the international level with Canada, LeBlanc played in five FIFA Women's World Cups and two Summer Olympics, winning a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. She retired in 2015 after making 110 national team appearances (108 starts), helping lead Canada to CONCACAF Championships in 1998 and 2010 and a surprising fourth-place finish at the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Allocated to Thorns FC ahead of the club's inaugural 2013 NWSL campaign, LeBlanc helped Portland win the NWSL Championship in its first season. During the 2013 campaign, LeBlanc started and played in 21 of the club's 22 regular-season matches, recording seven shutouts, while making 92 saves with a 1.10 goals-against average and a record of 11-5-5. LeBlanc played in the first women's professional soccer league in the United States—the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA)—with the Boston Breakers from 2001-03 as well as Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) with several teams, while concluding her NWSL career in 2014 and 2015 with the Chicago Red Stars. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, she earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and management.
Her former Canadian national team and Thorns teammate Christine Sinclair was very excited about her appointment, "With Karina the sky is the limit. I've never met someone more passionate and set on growing the game. To have her back in Portland for me is a dream come true because she is going to take this club to places I don't think people think are possible. She's going to help this club be the benchmark for women's football around the world and I just can't wait to get started."
On a media call, LeBlanc said on November 1, "I know what it's like to live your dreams out and become a professional athlete and an international athlete; most importantly, I know what it's like to play in Portland. We won a championship in 2013, the inaugural year, and it's one of those things where I can say easily, it was the best year of my life. When this discussion started, it wasn't on my radar, but it became very quickly because I think it was after the article [Meg Linehan's Athletic article on Paul Riley's abuse of players] had come out and I spent a weekend, thinking, feeling, crying, and all of those things, and I think it was a moment in time, as we all have realized that this is a moment in time in women's soccer to be a part of that change. So when this opportunity came about and I started talking with the organization and the players, I realized it was an opportunity to do something that would have been truly personal for me. I'm excited to be here….What can I do to help inspire that group of players? What can I do to help inspire the community of people who love our sport, and that's how I got here. My goal is to help play a part in creating the most connected, purpose-driven women's soccer club. And I mean, connected with the fans, the community, the work we do in the community, on the field, I think if you look at the Portland Thorns right now, they just won the Shield. It's a great team, but most importantly, within the organization again, and I hope that I can help play a role in that….I think this league is in a time where we need leadership to come together and connect. I think the players want to feel seen and heard, and I think it's just a time for us to come together and provide hope, healing and that opportunity to rise…. I think it's time for all of us to come together and connect like we've never connected before, to be driven by things that have never been driven and move forward in a way that we've never done before, and I think where we are today is a time of healing, yet at the same time, hope."
She continued on the theme of player engagement and involvement, "I think the truth is we all need to ask ourselves hard question right now, and when we have that conversation sitting at the table, we need to say 'what can we do better, where'd we fail' and just be honest, because I think this is a moment in time for women's soccer. I said this before, seek first and understand before being understood….The players have a roll in that. The players' voice does count, and it's moving forward in a different way than we have in the past, and I say 'we' because I mean all of soccer. This is not just an NWSL issue, this is all of soccer globally, and I think what's happened now is that it's a time for us all to pause and think, what role can I play in this?
LeBlanc said that the process of finding the next head coach of the Thorns has been ongoing but she will be involved in the final decision. LeBlanc will be a huge benefit for the Thorns but CONCACAF needs to fill her role quickly, to build on the excellent work that she has done in her time with the Confederation.
OL Reign (13-3-8, 42 points, Second)
The Reign floundered early in the season (losing five of their first eight games with two wins and a tie) but drummed out French head coach Farid Benstiti and replaced him with former Reign and Arsenal head coach Laura Harvey—the team then caught fire and ended up making the playoffs and finishing second in the league, only two points behind Interstate 5 rival Portland. We seem to now have another Pacific Northwest soccer derby (after the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers of MLS) to drive fan interest which will help the women's game stay in Western Washington (always a lingering concern with majority owner Olympique Lyon of France) and hopefully thrive back in Seattle (they currently play 45 minutes away in Tacoma). A crowd of 27,228 came to the first game of a Seattle-Portland NWSL/MLS doubleheader in late August—with over 45,000 at the second game—which is a tremendous achievement as NWSL franchises were trying to recover the vital gate revenues after COVID.
The three loan imports from parent club Olympique Lyon—goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, German international midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan and forward Eugenie Le Sommer—did contribute after a painfully slow start but Americans Sophia Huerta and Bethany Balcer—both in their second year with the club—and Wales international Jess Fishlock were absolutely key to the club's magnificent turn-around in 2021.
Sophia Huerta in action against Kansas City during the 2021 season. Photo courtesy of OL Reign.
Third year American forward Bethany Balcer (who was the 2019 season Rookie of the Year) led the club with 9 goals in 15 matches, LeSommer finished with 7 goals, with two braces in her last five matches, Megan Rapinoe came back from the Olympics and finished with 6 goals while Fishlock had 5 goals and 4 assists. Midfielder Huerta (1 goal, 6 assists—tied for the league lead with Trinity Rodman of D.C. in the later) was sublime at times this season with her passing.
This team fully believes in itself and fell just two points short of the NWSL Shield and could make the Final Game for the third time under coach Laura Harvey (after 2014 and 2015); they have come together nicely in the second half of the season and Reign followers should be very excited about the future of this franchise in the Seattle area.
Washington Spirit (11-6-7, 36 points, Third)
All hail to the players who—despite owners fighting tooth and nail to control the franchise, a head coach who was toxic and fired after he resigned for health reasons to come back to a role in the front office and two games postponed because of COVID—made the playoffs and will host a first round match. (See: The Week in Women's Football: NWSL 2021 regular season review - Tribal Football). Some reporters pick the Spirit to make the final game for the first time since the 2016 season. Ashley Hatch was tremendous in leading the front line and won the Golden Boot with 10 goals. Rookie and 19-year-old forward Tiffany Rodman (who never played any college soccer games because of COVID) was stunning all season—tying Sophia Huerta of OL Reign in assists with 6 along with 6 goals—and should be a lock for the league Rookie of the Year award. Ashley Sanchez had 4 goals. Swedish international Julie Roddar of Sweden was steady in midfield—she joined this season from 2020 Damallsvenskan champions Goteborg and played collegiately in the States at the University of Wisconsin and Florida Gulf Coast—and finished with 1 goal and 1 assist in 14 games. Audrey Bledsoe in goal was also strong this season and finished fifth in the league with 68 saves. She should see more time with the national team as should Ashley Hatch and Rodman as a result of their play in 2021.
Mexico Women's National Team Head Coach Monica Vergara called in Spirit backup defender and Rookie Karina Rodriguez (who appeared in four games for the Spirit this season since joining the side in late June) to the team's match against Colombia, which the team won 2-0 at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in September. She was also called into the side for their 6-1 win over Argentina on October 23 in Tepatitlan de Morelos but didn't [lay and won her first cap as a substitute on June 12 against Japan in a 5-1 loss. She started one game and came on in the second as a substitute when Mexico lost a pair of friendlies to the U.S. 4-0 in early July just before the Olympic Games, both in East Hartford Connecticut. The former UCLA Bruin was also a previous member of the U.S. U-20s Women's National Team and competed in the 2018 CONCACAF Women's Championship.
Interim head coach Kris Ward, who was an original assistant in the first year of the club in 2013, was brought in from a private school in LA after being a scout for the MLSSeattle Sounders for 8 years to lead the side after Burke was fired. The club finished the season undefeated in 9 games (6 wins and 3 ties) and Ward was in charge of seven of those (5 wins and 2 ties), but we did not include the two COVID forfeits (see below) as part of those statistics. Ward has made a strong statement to be in charge on a full-time basis, though the other approach to this snake bit club is to just purge all remnants of the past coaching turmoil and start anew.
Also on the coaching side, Annie Worden joined the technical staff as an assistant coach, in late September after serving most recently as the Premier Soccer Director at Premier Progression Academy. Worden played four years at Fordham University where she was named captain her senior year. In her 75 games at Fordham, she scored 18 goals and added eight assists. After her junior season in 2011, she was named most valuable player for Fordham. After graduating from Fordham, Worden spent time training with the Chicago Red Stars.
Not hours after then coach Richie Burke said that he was leaving his post to deal with a medical situation, The Washington Post reported that eight women employees who work or had worked for the Spirit, as well as three current and former players, said they had been subjected to a workplace culture that was toxic for women and, many said, for women of color. One former player, Kaiya McCullough, told The Post that she was verbally abused by Burke and that "he made me hate soccer." The Spirit's only female assistant coach and three of its most senior female executives left their jobs with the team and two other female employees left shortly after Burke did. (See: The Week in Women's Football: The NWSL Coaching scandal and its impact on the league - Tribal Football).
Local D.C. soccer icon Ben Olsen, who played at D.C. United and served as the head coach of the MLS club for over a decade, was named the Spirit President in early September to oversee all day-to-day operations, driving the development of the team's business and sporting operations, and the overall effort to enhance the club's culture and identity. Olsen played professional soccer for 13 years, all of them with D.C. United. During that time, he won two MLS Cup titles, and his individual honors included two-time MLS All-Star, MLS Rookie of the Year, and MLS Cup MVP. He earned 37 caps with the United States Men's National Team and represented his country at the 2000 Olympics and the 2006 FIFA World Cup. After retiring from professional soccer, Olsen served as the Head Coach of D.C. United from 2010 to 2020, during which time he was named MLS Coach of the Year. Olsen has served as a club executive advisor with D.C. United for the past 18 months. Olson brings a reputation of integrity to an organization that effectively has none within the D.C. market or throughout the league—either due to no awareness or knowledge of the turmoil the club has been in this year.
One of Olson's first tasks was to face a club COVID situation which ultimately cost them six points, including a game in Portland on September 4, when the Spirit pulled out just nine hours before kickoff and the Thorns were expecting a large crowd (they averaged 15,000 or more per game since July) and at Audi Field on September 12 against OL Reign. The two teams which finished above them in the standings were ultimately given walkovers and the three points while the league fined the Spirit for breaching league medical protocols Reports were that the Spirit had four positive COVID cases and 'multiple" unvaccinated players—as many as eight. Multiple sources told The Equalizer that the origin of the Spirit's COVID-19 outbreak began with an unvaccinated player traveling out of market, followed by the team's failure to properly isolate and/or test the player upon return. Multiple sources also say that the Spirit again broke protocol by traveling to Portland before confirmed PCR test results were returned
Then, as the team was playoff-bound, more bad news from the team that arguably is the worst organization in women's pro soccer history—which is a real nadir given that we had some teams in WPS with clueless owners and front offices and then Sky Blue FC in NWSL with their under-funded operation for years, as well as OL Reign's first few years in Seattle and their adversarial relationship with the MLS Sounders. On October 25, Pablo Maurer in the Athletic reported that the Spirit had to train at a local high school—Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia—for a week after falling out with MLS side D.C. United over the use of their facility regarding the terms of their long-term agreement. According to Maurer, "The Spirit had partnered with D.C. United in 2019, signing a 10-year agreement to make use of Audi Field, United's home stadium in Southwest D.C., and Segra Field, the United-owned facility used by USL side Loudoun United, in suburban Loudoun County. In that agreement was also language surrounding the future use of United's training facility; the Spirit, the agreement said, would move into that facility as soon as it was completed, and the two sides would negotiate a fee for said use in 'good faith' at a later date. D.C. United moved in to the facility on October 11th. The negotiations for the Spirit to stay there have proven contentious, to this point. United, who built a lit, grass field for the Spirit's use at an expense, one source said, of some $1.1 million, have asked the NWSL club to pay some $16,000 a month for use of that field and the training facility itself. That number includes rent and also maintenance of the grass field and the expense of its replacement after five years, which one source familiar with the agreement said averages out to about $75,000 a year. The Spirit would also be responsible for its share of utilities at the venue." Olson helped the Spirit negotiate the future price down to that level as the MLS team had wanted substantially more money.
Michele Kang, the D.C.-area businesswoman the league is backing to take over the club, has said that she wants to build a training facility for the Spirit. Two other NWSL clubs—Racing Louisville and the Orlando Pride—have their own facilities; a third, KC NWSL, is currently building their own privately funded facility slated to open next year at a cost of $15 million. If D.C. can survive the current turmoil, that might be a good plan and sent a positive message to the players, fans and the league of their commitment to build and improve the franchise. However, as we go to press, there are reports that the team will be sold to a local D.C. indoor sports and performance center—which this year hired former Spirit assistant coach Tom Torres as a youth coach, who was forced out of the Spirit in 2020 after making inappropriate comments about the players—while Kang, who many of the players back, would be out. We will keep the readers updated as the sad turmoil continues.
Chicago Red Stars (11-5-8, 38 points, Fourth)
In a year that has shaken so many league teams to their core; the Red Stars have done a brilliant job of just focusing on their play and the season. After a slow start, head coach Rory Daimes has the Red Stars back in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year—a league record. They lost only one game in their last eight matches, with five wins and two ties. Julie Ertz played only 29 minutes in the season opener before injuring her knee. She played for the U.S. during the summer Olympic Games in Japan but has yet to play again in the league. Her return would be massive for a team that has done well this season and slid under the radar.
Cassie Miller (ex-Florida State University and PSV Eindhoven) was tremendous in goal after Alyssa Naeher went to the Olympic Games and has been out since then with an unannounced injury; Miller allowed only 14 goals in 15 games and had 5 shutouts. The team has shared the scoring burden between Kealia Watt (5 goals), Mallory Pugh (4 goals), Rachel Hill and Makenzie Doniak (each with 3 goals)—and Doniak's total was only behind her four goals for WNY Flash in 2016 when they won the league title. She scored 5 in 11 games with Koge in Denmark in 2020/21 season and 7 in 12 matches for Adelaide United in 2017/18 in Australia. Morgan (Brian) Gautrat and Sarah (Killion) Woldmoe each adding two goals from midfield.
NJ/NY Gotham FC (8-11-5, 35 points, Fifth)
Gotham was undefeated in their last eight regular season games, including five ties, with their 3-0 win on the road in North Carolina on October 17 being crucial to their playoff bid (their first since 2013 as Sky Blue FC) and damaging to the Courage's hopes (see below) as Midge Purce scored a brace and Carli Lloyd's single all came in the second half. That undefeated streak started when the club named Scott Parkinson and Beverly Goebel Yanez as head coach and lead assistant, respectively, early in September and they have not lost yet as they enter the playoffs against Chicago since previous head coach Freya Coombe took a job with Angel City FC for next year and was surprised that the NJ/NY side didn't let her finish the season. Parkinson and Goebel have placed themselves in a strong position to have their temporary tags removed, as Kris Ward has in D.C. They led the league with 11 ties, four more than the teams finishing 8th through 10th Orlando, Racing Louisville and Kansas City, which all had seven ties. They scored 29 goals—tied for fourth best with Washington—but had the second fewest goals allowed with 21, behind only Portland with 17. Their improvement over the season helped them move up to finish fifth in the final table.
Midge Purce led the side with 9 goals, just edging Nigerian international Ifeoma Onumanu with 8 goals and Carli Lloyd in her last year in league had four while French international Gaetane Thiney had two goals in 12 games.
Midge Purce (with the ball) faces defender Estelle Johnson in a NJ/NY Gotham FC practice this summer. Photo courtesy Ashley Intile/NJ/NY Gotham FC.
A significant home game for the club was a special hometown farewell game at Subaru Park in Philadelphia, home of the MSL Philadelphia Union, celebrating Carli Lloyd's legendary Gotham FC and U.S. Women's National Team career, which finished 0-0. Lloyd grew up across the river in nearby Southern New Jersey. The first-ever NWSL game in the Philadelphia area ended in a 0-0 draw in front of a stellar crowd of 9,532 and raises the possibility of Philadelphia putting together a bid for a team in the future.
Defense was a strong point this season for Gotham FC with American Caprice Dydasco playing in 24 games, fellow American with many years playing in Germany Gina Lewandowski with 20 games, Cameroon international Estelle Johnson (19 games) and Erica Skorski (11 matches and in her sixth season with the club—she played collegiately in the state at Rutgers) and rookie Brianna Pinto, with 10 appearances, who played with U.S. youth national teams and with the University of North Carolina Tar heels. Kaelin Sheridan in goal was outstanding and Bosnia and Herzegovina international Didi Haracic played well in 8 games while Sheridan was at the summer Olympic Games with Canada.
Veteran midfielder Allie Long made her 150th NWSL regular season appearance on September 4 in a scoreless tie at home against Chicago, making her one of just six players to reach this milestone in NWSL history. She joins Lauren "Lu" Barnes (OL Reign), teammate McCall Zerboni, Merritt Matthias (North Carolina Courage), Christine Nairn (Houston Dash who has just retired), and Tori Huster (Washington Spirit). Long was acquired in a trade with the OL Reign in April and has appeared in every match for Gotham FC with one goal scored.
North Carolina Courage (9-6-9, 33 points, Sixth)
The Courage was tumbling down the table—in early September they were in second place—in the last two months of the season, losing 5 of their last 6. Their playoff hopes came down to their last regular season match against Portland—their chief rivals for the title over the past 5 years and immediate past home of their now disgraced former head coach Paul Riley—where they gritted out a 0-0 tie in front of a Providence Park crowd of 17,584. That result left them a point ahead of the Houston Dash, who lost the next day in Washington 1-0, so the Courage just squeaked into the playoffs. With all the turmoil the club has faced of late, they should feel very fortunate as the players have been through an emotional cement mixer.
Casey Murphy was outstanding in goal this season and the Courage attack was again led by veterans Lynn Williams (28) with 7 goals and Jess McDonald (33) with 4 tallies, while mid-season acquisition and former U.S. international Amy Rodrigues added three as did Brazilian midfielder Debinha and Meredith Speck, the former Yale University player who finally became a more essentially piece of the team; she more than doubled the number of minutes (844) in her sixth year with the club (from 369 in 2016) and played in 18 games, 3 more than in 2018—though she has been a part of the league title winners in 2016, 2018 and 2019 and was on the runner-up side in 2017.
New import Diane Caldwell of Ireland (33)—who joined the club after 5 seasons with SC Sand in Germany, one season with Cologne and time in Norway and Iceland, only played in 7 games while her national team colleague Denise O'Sullivan (27) is vital in the midfield. Another new import, Angharad James of Wales (27), played in 16 games and had one goal after joining the club following three seasons with Reading and 11 seasons in total in the WSL, beginning with Arsenal's Academy. Havana Solaun of Jamaica, who signed in 2020 and played in the Fall Series, appeared in19 games with 1 goal and should be on the list of returnees, though everything depends on who is selected as the permanent head coach.
With a clean sheet in the least regular season game in Portland, Casey Murphy tied Adrianna Franch's NWSL record for most clean sheets in a single season with eleven.
Republic of Ireland international midfielder Denise O' Sullivan reflected on the crucial match in Portland to the media, "Overall, I thought it was a good performance by the team. A few players have been away on international duty, and obviously the team has been apart...well, a few of us...for ten days now, so to come in and play like that, I think the team was relentless tonight. There was a lot of energy, the only thing that let us down was trying to get the ball in the back of the net. I'm proud of the girls. We gave everything that we could tonight, and that's all we could do. I don't want the season to finish yet, hopefully things go our way and we can be together for another week at least."
Interim head coach Sean Nahas added, "I think the players were brilliant. A lot of the players have shown, as they have for the past four weeks, tons of character and resilience. Before the game, we talked about being backed into a corner and there's only one way out, and that's through everybody. The game had ebbs and flows, I felt that for the first part of the half we were very, very good, and then Portland got a grasp of the game and so the game was sort of ups, downs, and waves. [The players] have done everything that I've asked of them, and I've told them how proud I am of them. I have a feeling we'll have another week together, I want another week together. I feel like today marked a massive thing for the players in terms of turning that corner."
Note: Next week we will review the seasons for teams finishing 7th-10th—Houston Dash, Orlando Pride, Racing Louisville and Kansas City)/
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get yours copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey
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