This week we review the NWSL semi-finals, as Washington Spirit prepare to face the Western New York Flash in the NWSL Final in Houston next weekend.
Washington Spirit edge past Chicago Red Stars
The Washington Spirit won a hard fought match against the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in overtime on Friday, September 30, 2016. In front of a crowd of 4,249 who braved heavy rains and Friday night metropolitan D.C. traffic, the Spirit controlled play through most of the first half and were rewarded with a goal by U.S. international defender Ali Krieger from a high centering pass into the box by Canadian international defender Shelina Zadorsky. Chicago had more threatening attacks in the second half and tied up the game with a Christen Press goal. The U.S. international forward blew a chance to score the winner when she broke in on goal and, with goalkeeper Kelsey Wys stranded off her goal line, Press put the ball narrowly wide when it seemed easier to score. Nigerian international Francisca Ordega—who played in Russia and Sweden before coming to the NWSL—scored late in the second overtime to send the Spirit to their first NWSL Championship game.
Western New York Flash shock minor premiers Portland Thorns
In the second semifinal on October 2 in Portland in front of a NWSL playoff record crowd of 20,086, overtime was again needed to separate the Portland Thorns and the Western New York Flash, with the Flash shocking the regular season NWSL Shield champions 4-3. The game had so many undercurrents: Flash head coach Paul Riley had coached the Thorns in 2014 and 2015 but his contract was no renewed, the Thorns were the best defensive side in NWSL in 2016 by allowing only 19 goals while the Flash were the highest scoring side with 40 goals (while Portland was second in the league with 35 goals), and these two sides battled in Rochester in the first NWSL championship game in 2013, which Portland won 2-0. The Flash absorbed tremendous offensive pressure by the Thorns and, against the run of play, took a 2-0 lead in the first half with tallies by Sam Mewis and Makenzy Doniak—both from long throw-ins by Flash forward Jessica McDonald. Canadian international forward Christine Sinclair volleyed a long-range blast past her Canadian international teammate Sabrina D'Angelo in goal to send her side into halftime with only a one score deficit (2-1). Paul Riley was thrown out of the game during the first half for bumping the fourth official—in a move that seemed more accidental than malicious. U.S. international defender Emily Sonnett scored late in the second half to send the game to overtime (2-2). 2016 Golden Boot Winner Lynn Williams, who had hit the woodwork twice in the first half, scored twice in the initial overtime period; the first off of another long Jess McDonald throw-in and the second on a counter attack, with a clinical pass from Mewis after she intercepted a throw-in and ran 40 yards towards goal. U.S. international midfielder Lindsey Horan scored at the end of the first overtime period to cut the Flash lead to 4-3. There was no further scoring but lots of action in one of the most entertaining games in the history of the league.
This was the first time in league history that both semifinals had gone to overtime.
On Sunday October 9, the Washington Spirit will take on the Western New York Flash for the NWSL title in Houston, where this reporter will be on site.
NWSL Attendances on the rise in 2016
The fourth season of NWSL saw average regular season attendance increase by nine percent (5,558) in 2016 from 5,046 in 2015 and up 26% from 2014 (4,139). Most of the gain was attributed to the expansion Orlando Pride (8,765). Portland Thorns again led the league in attendance (16,945—up considerably from their league leading 2015 total of 15,639), which was higher than that of five Major League Soccer teams in Columbus, Washington D.C., Colorado (Denver area), Chicago and Dallas. Thorns/Portland Timbers President Mike Golub was invited by the Australian Football Federation to speak to their long-range planning conference for women's football earlier this week, an event which was sponsored by FIFA, which shows the amount of respect that the Thorns franchise has in the world of women's football.
The attendance figures for 2016 by team are:
Portland Thorns 16,945
Orlando Pride 8,785
Houston Dash 5,696
Seattle Reign 4,602
Western New York Flash 3,868
Washington Spirit 3,782
Boston Breakers 3,570
FC Kansas City 3,162
Chicago Red Stars 3,005
Sky Blue FC 2,162
NWSL Average 5,558
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribalfootball. His latest book is Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey