The Game Changers is a weekly series looking at the most important results each week. Each section will look at one team and how its win, loss, or draw impacts the season.
As we enter the final weeks of the NWSL season, the playoffs are starting to take shape. Two teams have already clinched playoff spots: the North Carolina Courage (who also clinched the NWSL Shield) and the Chicago Red Stars. The Portland Thorns haven’t clinched yet, but they sit in the No. 3 spot, eight points ahead of the No. 4 Utah Royals and the No. 5 Seattle Reign. The Utah Royals and Reign FC continue to battle it out for that final spot; the two teams are currently tied on points, with the Utah Royals currently sitting in the final playoff spot due to goal differential. These two teams still have everything left to fight for. Here is a full breakdown of this week’s results.
North Carolina Courage vs. Houston Dash (1-0)
Chicago Red Stars vs. Washington Spirit (3-1)
Utah Royals vs. North Carolina Courage (0-3)
Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC (0-1)
Portland Thorns vs. Houston Dash (1-0)
North Carolina Courage clinch the NWSL Shield.
The North Carolina Courage earned two wins in Week 23, but it was their 3-0 victory over the Utah Royals where they clinched the NWSL Shield for the third year in a row. The two teams were relatively even in terms of shots and shots on goal. But it was the Courage who found the back of the net three times, starting with a goal from Samantha Mewis in the 30th minute. Mewis stepped up to take a penalty for her side after Kristen Hamilton was taken down in the box. She slotted the ball into the left corner to give the Courage the lead. Jaelene Hinkle and Debinha scored back-to-back goals in the 65th and 70th minute to put the game away for North Carolina.
The Courage haven’t looked as strong in 2019 as they did in 2018, but they still managed to come out as the strongest team in the NWSL regular season. And they certainly look strong heading into the NWSL playoffs. They’ve won their last six games in a row. Can anyone stop them?
The Chicago Red Stars dominate Washington to clinch a playoff spot.
The Chicago Red Stars clinched a playoff spot this week, dominating the Washington Spirit in a 3-1 defeat. Sam Kerr opened up scoring in the 9th minute, launching her shot over the outstretched arms of Aubrey Bledsoe for her 17th goal of the season. Yuki Nagasato made it 2-0 less than fifteen minutes later, finishing off a pass from Kerr. In the 32nd minute, it looked like the Spirit might get an opportunity to get a goal back, but Alyssa Naeher stopped a penalty kick from Chloe Logarzo. Kerr sealed the game for the Red Stars in the 49th minute with her 18th goal of the season, finishing off a beautiful pass from Yuki Nagasato and beating both the Spirit defenders and goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. The Spirit got a late goal from Mallory Pugh, but it didn’t have much of an impact on the match.
Sam Kerr has now scored 18 goals this season, beating her own record for the most goals scored in an NWSL season. Yuki Nagasto leads the league in assists, with eight on the year. And the Red Stars have won their last four games, scoring at least three goals in three out of those four matches. Could this be the year they finally make it to the NWSL Final?
The Portland Thorns are one step closer to clinching.
The Portland Thorns didn’t clinch a playoff spot this week. But they came one step closer with a 1-0 win over the Houston Dash. Even though the Thorns appeared to dominate in nearly every statistical category, it was the lone goal from Tobin Heath that lifted them above the Dash. In the 48th minute, Horan was able to slide a pass to the feet of Tobin Heath, who directed the ball into the left corner to give Portland the lead. With that goal, Portland took one more step towards the postseason.
With Reign FC and the Utah Royals losing their games this week, Portland appears to be in a solid position to make it to the playoffs. Which really just leaves one more question mark. Will it be Reign FC or the Utah Royals who have a chance to compete for the title?