Canadians set to play feature role in NWSL’s expanded playoff format

November 5, 2021
Canadians set to play feature role in NWSL's expanded playoff format


It’s been a year like no other for the National Women’s Soccer League.

As its playoff season is set to begin, the league is still reeling from the aftershocks of sexual and verbal abuse scandals involving several NWSL teams, coaches and management.

The players have soldiered on, turning their focus to rebuilding the professional soccer landscape in North America, including eight demands around player safety, which the league has agreed to meet.

While that plays out off the pitch, on the field it’s the first year for the NWSL’s expanded playoff format, which sees six teams qualifying to the post-season instead of four like in years past.

WATCH | Olympic champion Erin McLeod on ‘systemic failure’ of NWSL:

Orlando Pride Goalkeeper Erin McLeod on the ‘systemic failure’ of the NWSL to protect its players

CBC’s Anastasia Bucsis sits down with Olympian Erin McLeod in the wake of the Paul Riley sexual coercion allegations to discuss how the league failed its players, the systemic issues that allowed the abuse to take place, and what’s next for the league. 8:04

It’s single-elimination with the top two seeds (Christine Sinclair’s Portland Thorns and Quinn’s OL Reign) earning a bye straight to the semifinals.

The first round of the playoffs will begin Sunday, Nov. 7 with No. 3 Washington Spirit hosting No. 6 North Carolina Courage and No. 4 Chicago Red Stars taking on No. 5 Gotham City FC for a spot in the semifinal round.

The semifinals will take place the following weekend on Nov. 14, with the NWSL Championship on Nov. 20. The latter, which was originally scheduled to take place at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, was moved to Lynn Family Stadium, home of expansion club Racing Louisville FC.

Here’s a look at what to expect from each quarter-final, the top two teams waiting in the wings, and of course, the Canadian content:

No. 4 Chicago Red Stars (11-5-8) vs. No. 5 Gotham City FC (8-11-5)

Notable internationals:

Chicago: GK Alyssa Naeher (U.S.) — injured, D Tierna Davidson (U.S.), D Julie Ertz (U.S.) — injured, D Casey (Short) Krueger (U.S.), MF Morgan (Brian) Gautrat (U.S.), F Mallory Pugh (U.S.)

Gotham City: F Carli Lloyd (U.S.), F Midge Purce (U.S.), D Estelle Johnson (Cameroon), MF Naho Kawasumi (Japan), F Ifeoma Onumonu (Nigeria)

Canadian content: Chicago D Bianca St Georges (St-Charles-Borommée, Que.); Gotham City GK Kailen Sheridan (Whitby, ON), F Evelyn Viens (L’ancienne-Lorette, Que.)

Despite major injuries to stalwart defender Julie Ertz and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, the Red Stars are off to a sixth-straight playoff appearance and enter on a roll.

They earned at least a point in eight of their final nine games, including five wins, to finish fourth in the standings and earn home-field advantage for their quarter-final.

WATCH | Players pause games in moment of solidarity:

NWSL’s Washington Spirit, Gotham FC pause play to hold moment of solidarity

Players from Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit paused play at the sixth minute, in response to a league-wide scandal that saw Spirit coach Richie Burke fired over allegations of verbal harassment and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley fired over allegations of sexual misconduct. 1:47

Canadian goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan is the backbone of Gotham City, which rebranded from SkyBlue FC in the off-season.

Since joining the NWSL in 2017, the 26-year-old Olympic gold medallist has been the league’s saves leader, the top goalkeeper at the 2020 Challenge Cup and nominated for the 2021 ESPY award for the best NWSL player.

The 2021 playoffs mark the swan song for American national team member Carli Lloyd, who is stepping away from the game after over a decade of professional soccer and 312 caps and 128 goals for country.

The winner will play Sinclair’s No. 1 Portland Thorns, the NWSL shield winners.

No. 3 Washington Spirit (11-6-7) vs. No. 6 North Carolina Courage (9-6-9)

Notable internationals:

Washington: GK Aubrey Bledsoe (U.S.), D Kelley O’Hara (U.S.), D Emily Sonnett (U.S.), MF Andi Sullivan (U.S.)

North Carolina: MF Debinha (Brazil), D Abby Erceg (New Zealand), MF Angharad Jane James (Wales), MF Sam Mewis (U.S.) — injured, MF Denise O’Sullivan (Ireland), F Lynn Williams (U.S.)

Canadian content: Washington GK Devon Kerr (Barrie, ON); North Carolina D Lindsay Agnew (Kingston, ON)

The Spirit, which last qualified for the playoffs in 2016 when it played for the championship, has won four straight and conceded just one goal in its past five matches.

2019 goalkeeper of the year Aubrey Bledsoe anchors the team’s back, along with American national team defenders Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett.

Andi Sullivan is pivotal in the midfield and, up front, striker Ashley Hatch is fresh off winning the NWSL’s Golden Boot with a league-high 10 goals. And don’t forget about uber-talented rookie Trinity Rodman, the 19-year-old daughter of basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman. She’s got six goals and six assists this season.

The Spirit had a successful season in spite of a bitter dispute among the team’s ownership and the firing of coach Richie Burke after an investigation into allegations of harassment and a toxic work environment for female employees.

The Courage have also battled off-field turmoil, after former coach Paul Riley was fired after accusations of sexual coercion involving players across multiple teams.

They squeaked into the post-season thanks to the combination of a hard-fought draw against the Thorns and the Houston Dash’s loss to Washington.

But never count the Courage out. They won back-to-back NWSL championships in 2018 and 2019 and boast two of the strongest midfielders in the league, Brazil’s Debinha and American Sam Mewis, a nominee for the Ballon d’Or (Mewis is currently out rehabbing from knee surgery).


No. 1 Portland Thorns (13-5-6) vs. winner of Chicago/Gotham City

Notable internationals: MF Crystal Dunn (U.S.) — injured, D Natalia Kuikka (Finland), MF Lindsay Horan (U.S.), MF Rocky Rodriguez (Costa Rica), D Becky Sauerbrunn (U.S.), F Sophia Smith (U.S.)

Canadian content: F Christine Sinclair (Burnaby, B.C.)

The Thorns were the class of the league this season, taking the Challenge Cup and the Supporters’ Shield.

Sinclair, the 38-year-old captain, continues to produce with five goals this campaign. Could she add yet another championship to her Olympic gold medal?

WATCH | Sinclair on the mark in match vs. Dash:

Christine Sinclair scores for Thorns in loss to Dash

Olympic gold medallist Christine Sinclair of Burnaby, B.C., scores for Portland Thorns FC but her team would eventually fall to Houston Dash 3-2. 0:38

Portland set a record for most clean sheets in an NWSL season with 13 in 24 games. The Mark Parsons-coached team allowed just 17 goals against this season.

The Thorns recently made a splash announcing former Canadian international goalkeeper Karina Leblanc their new general manager. The head of women’s football for CONCACAF replaces Gavin Wilkinson, who was placed on administrative leave by the club in the wake of sexual harassment and coercion allegations made against former coach Paul Riley.

No. 2 OL Reign (13-3-8) vs. winner of Washington/North Carolina

Notable internationals: GK Sarah Bouhaddi (France), D Alanna Cook (U.S.), MF Jess Fishlock (Wales), MF Rose Lavelle, F Eugenie Le Sommer (France), F Megan Rapinoe (U.S.), MF Dzsenifer Marozsan (Germany)

Canadian content: MF Quinn (Toronto)

The Reign got off to a horrible start, fired their coach Faridi Benstiti and went from ninth place at the end of June to second overall thanks to a scorching second half.

Laura Harvey, who formerly coached the club, has a plethora of international stars at her disposal. The midfield is particularly strong with Marozsan, Lavelle, Fishlock and Quinn and they have plenty of scoring power via Bethany Balcer (9 goals), Le Sommer (7) and Rapinoe (6).

With the quality the Thorns and Reign possess, it’s tough not to believe the NWSL championship will come down to a battle of the Pacific Northwest.


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