The NWSL Podium: Top Performances is a weekly series that looks at the best attacking, defensive, and goalkeeping performances each week.
The 2018 NWSL season has come to an end. After an exciting playoff race that was often too close to call, we finally have our final four. And in the last two weeks of action, the matchups did not disappoint. These were the weeks of the home team, where only the Washington Spirit were denied a win for the home fans (they settled for a draw). Sky Blue earned their first win of the season in their final game against the Orlando Pride. The North Carolina Courage scored five goals in a thrashing of the Houston Dash that broke all sorts of NWSL records. And at Providence Park on Friday night, the Cascadia rivalry added another stunning chapter. Here is a full breakdown of the scores from Weeks 23 and 24:
Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue (1-1)
Chicago Red Stars vs. Sky Blue (5-0)
Portland Thorns vs. Seattle Reign (3-1)
Sky Blue vs. Orlando Pride (1-0)
Utah Royals vs. Chicago Red Stars (2-1)
North Carolina Courage vs. Houston Dash (5-0)
Top Three Goalkeepers
1. Nicole Barnhart— The Utah Royals were so close to making the playoffs in their inaugural season, but missed the mark by just two points. While their final game against the Chicago Red Stars was purely playing for pride, pride is something the Royals were interested in. What better way to send off home fans than by beating the team that topped you in the playoff race? Barnhart played a critical role in earning this win for the Royals. She faced 14 shots from the Chicago Red Stars and made seven saves. In the first half, Chicago dominated the offensive opportunities. With the exception of Kerr’s goal in the 39th minute, Barnhart was generally able to read the Chicago offense and stop their attack. Her best save came in the 40th minute, right after Kerr’s goal. Nagasato took a shot, and Barnhart got her fingertips to it, pushing the ball up and over the net.
2. Kailen Sheridan— Sky Blue had a tough schedule this week. And I understand that some will say Sheridan shouldn’t be on this list after allowing five goals against Chicago on Tuesday night, regardless of what she did in the other games. But I think Sheridan’s other performances are worth looking at, particularly her performance in the win over Orlando. Sheridan faced 20 shots from the Orlando offense and made six saves. She had help from her defenders, particularly Dominique Richardson and Erica Skroski, but she made some critical saves to earn the clean sheet. In the 10th minute, Sydney Leroux passed a ball to Alex Morgan, who got behind the defenders. Sheridan made the decision to come out, and was able to stop Morgan from getting her shot off. In a similar play in the 42nd minute, Leroux got behind the defenders and Sheridan made the decision to come out. Leroux launched her shot, but Sheridan deflected it, and it was collected by the Sky Blue defense.
3. Aubrey Bledsoe— In the Spirit’s match against Sky Blue, Bledsoe officially broke the NWSL record for most saves in a single season. Bledsoe finished the season with 108 saves and just four shutouts. She faced 20 shots and tallied five saves against the Sky Blue offense. It didn’t take long before she was challenged— in the 5th minute, she had to make a diving save off a shot from Madison Tiernan. At the start of the second half, she made another diving save off a shot from Shea Groom. It’s worth noting that Bledsoe’s opponent in goal, Kailen Sheridan, finished the season just one save below her at 107.
Top Three Defenders
1. Erica Skroski— It was a busy week for Sky Blue, but despite their exhaustion, they did not give up the battle to earn their first win in the final match of the season. They did find that win, thanks to a late goal from Carli Lloyd. But it was also thanks to some excellent defending, particularly from Skroski. Skroski provided excellent coverage of Alex Morgan, preventing the stellar forward from scoring on more than one occasion. Her first block came in the 10th minute, when a beautiful ball came into the final third for Morgan. Skroski ran with the forward, and stuck her leg out when Morgan took her shot. When Morgan tried to recover possession, Skroski jumped up and tapped the ball forward to her teammate, who cleared it out. Nearly the same play occurred in the 63rd minute, where again Morgan was sent in a long ball and again Skroski was able to stick her leg out and gain possession. Skroski finished the game with seven clearances, two tackles, and one block.
2. Abby Erceg— The North Carolina Courage have already won the Shield and punched their ticket to the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. But in their last match of the season, they were aiming to set records. Team Captain Abby Erceg helped them do that. She started the game with an assist on Jess McDonald’s goal in the 13th minute, the first of the night for the Courage. But she shined on the other side of the pitch, where she played a key role in earning the Courage their 11th shutout of the season. In the ninth minute, Sofia Huerta charged down the field, looking to spark the Houston offense. But Erceg came in with a sliding tackle. In the 15th minute, Houston again tried to get things going up front with Veronica Latsko, but Erceg was able to get the takeaway. Houston’s offense has definitely clicked, especially in the later half of the season, but any time they were able to get going, Erceg and her fellow defenders were there to shut it down.
3. Emily Menges— The Portland Thorns needed to win this match to secure home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and the defense was a factor at both ends of the pitch. After getting a bit rattled by the early goal from Jess Fishlock, the Portland defense locked in and kept Seattle out of the net. Menges played a critical role defensively, alongside Emily Sonnett. She had 47 touches and two tackles on the night.
Top Three Attackers
1. Sam Kerr— The Red Stars had some work to do in these last couple of weeks if they wanted to make the playoffs, and they got the job done. First, the Chicago Red Stars faced Sky Blue at home. Sky Blue was playing their second game in 48 hours, after a rain delay in Washington DC on Saturday night led to a Sunday morning match between the Spirit and Sky Blue. Chicago was able to take advantage of their exhaustion, scoring five goals in their win. Amongst those goals was Sam Kerr, who earned the team’s 3rd goal of the night in the 64th minute. Brooke Elby sent a ball into the box and Kerr was able to get her head on it. Sheridan dived to make the save, but the shot was too strong, and the ball bounced off her hand and into the back of the net. Kerr earned an assist on the next goal. After Gilliland sent a ball into box, Kerr was able to send it over to Rosie White, who slipped past the defenders and sent it into the back of the net. Chicago’s second match in these weeks was on the road against the Utah Royals. The lone goal for Chicago came from Sam Kerr in the 39th minute— a stunning header where Kerr actually seemed to hang in the air, waiting for the ball. Kerr took a total of 14 shots between the two games and finished the season with 16 goals, enough to win her the 2018 NWSL Golden Boot.
2. Lindsay Horan— The narrative couldn’t have been better. Under the Friday night lights, the Portland Thorns needed a win to claim the No. 2 spot on the table and earn homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Their opponents? The Seattle Reign, their biggest rivals. The Reign have been a fantastic team this season, and they went up early in the match, but the Thorns weren’t intimidated. The Great Lindsay Horan made sure they came out on top. Her first goal came in the 30th minute. Midge Purce sent a ball across to Sinclair, but Sinclair was tripped up. The ball rolled out of the box to the feet of Horan, who launched a rocket into the top corner. The Thorns took the lead early in the second half, courtesy of Tobin Heath, but the rest of the match remained tense as Seattle sought their equalizer. Horan put those thoughts to bed in the 82nd minute. Heath took the corner kick and Horan got her head to it, sending the ball into the top corner. The Thorns now have homefield advantage in the semi-final and host the championship, a huge advantage in Portland.
3. Lynn Williams— One of the many records the Courage broke this week was the most goals in a single season. They needed to score three goals to break the record, but always the overachievers, they scored five. Two of those goals came from Lynn Williams. Her first goal came at the end of the first half. Jess McDonald split the defenders, sending the ball to Williams. Williams was covered by Lindsay Agnew, but she was able to cut back and send the ball past Sheridan for the Courage’s third goal of the game. Williams also got the 4th goal of the match, in the 57th minute. McDonald sent the ball into the box, and Williams tapped it into the bottom corner. Williams finished the season with 14 goals, just two behind Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr.