June 21, 2024

After the most dramatic regular season to date in the National Women’s Soccer League, the playoffs began this weekend with a pair of low-scoring, cagey matches defined by gritty defending. Naturally.

OL Reign and NJ/NY Gotham FC advanced to the NWSL semifinals after defeating Angel City FC and the North Carolina Courage, respectively, in the first round of the six-team postseason. Each winning team prevailed thanks to superior defending that effectively prevented the opponent from exerting its style of play in the game.

North Carolina is the most possession-oriented team in the NWSL, but against Gotham on Sunday, the Courage largely failed to break down Gotham’s pressure in high areas. Angel City, meanwhile, found success in the second half of the regular season by overloading wide areas in an aggressive attacking system. The Reign stymied that by playing ugly soccer early and turning up the pressure after half-time.

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Angel City’s typical 4-2-4 shape in possession turned around its season. The visitors from Los Angeles entered Friday’s playoff match as the hottest team in the NWSL, having previously lost only once in 11 regular-season games under interim coach Becki Tweed, including a 5-1 thrashing of the Portland Thorns five days earlier.

The Reign, however, played a compact mid-block in the first half that clogged up passing channels for Angel City FC. Angel City got stretched in the second half in search of answers and the Reign pounced. Winger Megan Rapinoe and midfielder Jess Fishlock forced turnovers in high areas and the Reign eventually found a breakthrough three minutes from time, when forward Veronica Latsko won a jump ball on a cross lobbed into the area.

“The first half was tough,” Rapinoe said. “They had a lot of the ball, and we didn’t have our press right and we were kind of all over the place at times.”

Grittiness is a learned behavior, Rapinoe said, which might explain Friday’s result. Angel City was making its first playoff appearance in just its second season as a franchise. The Reign are in their fifth straight postseason, but despite three NWSL Shields for their regular-season triumphs, they have never won an NWSL Championship.

The 2014 Reign exemplified how beautiful soccer doesn’t always prevail in the playoffs. That team went unbeaten in 16 games and had world-beaters like midfielder Kim Little in her prime, but it failed to finish the season (and the next) on top of the podium.

Friday marked the first Reign playoff victory since 2015, after four straight failures at the semifinal stage. The win extended Rapinoe’s career for at least two more weeks. Rapinoe, a Reign original since the inaugural season in 2013, is in search of an elusive NWSL Championship before she retires later this year. Rapinoe’s brace in Chicago five days earlier earned the Reign another playoff berth. That was vintage Rapinoe and Reign: flashy goals in big moments. Friday’s playoff win was anything but. Still, it earned the Reign a road trip to take on Shield winners San Diego Wave FC on Nov. 5 in the semifinals.

Gotham ended its own dubious playoff streak on Sunday, winning an NWSL playoff game for the first time and a postseason game for the first time since the franchise — then known as Sky Blue FC — won a trophy in a different (now defunct) league in 2009.

Gotham’s performance was more of a complete defensive masterclass, a 2-0 win courtesy of a game-winning toe poke from midfielder Delanie Sheehan that trickled into the net in slow motion. Like Latsko in Seattle, Sheehan is an unsung hero for her team, a solid role player on a team with bigger names.

Stars were not the center of attention in the first round of the NWSL playoffs. The Courage were without leading goal-scorer Kerolin, who tore her ACL in the team’s regular-season finale. Without her, the most possession-based team in the NWSL struggled to keep possession or find an outlet to escape the high pressure of Gotham’s forwards.

“They executed [the plan] to perfection,” Gotham coach Juan Carlos Amoros said about his players. “[The Courage] couldn’t get us [played] through. A few times they found a switch and we shifted diagonally; we defended really well in the box.”

Gotham playmaker Yazmeen Ryan led a press that forced North Carolina to hit more hopeful long balls than usual. The Courage, who averaged a league-high 81% passing completion percentage in the regular season, completed only 71% of their passes on Sunday. They remained committed to playing out of pressure on the ground — even inside their own box — but only rarely made dangerous progress moving forward.

When North Carolina managed to break pressure, Gotham center-backs Ali Krieger — who also plans to retire after this season — and Maitane Lopez were up to the task. Defensively, Gotham was as good as it has been all year.

“It’s just a testament to what we’ve worked for all season, what we’ve done all season, staying true to how we play, how we want to play, and how we operate,” Ryan said of Sunday’s performance. “It’s so rewarding to see your hard work pay off, especially at such a crucial time. And I feel like we’ve kicked it into second gear and what a time for that to happen.”

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