2021 NWSL semifinals: Bold predictions for Reign vs. Spirit and Thorns vs. Red Stars


The 2021 NWSL playoffs are down to their final four, and semifinal action is set for Sunday. OL Reign host the Washington Spirit on CBS Sports Network at 3 p.m. ET in a battle between second- and third-seeded teams. No. 1 ranked Portland Thorns FC are looking to add to an already successful 2021, and will host the fourth-seeded Chicago Red Stars at 5:30 p.m. ET to close out semifinal action. You can catch all the action through CBS Sports family of networks, with games across Paramount+, CBS Sports Network and CBS

The winners of both semifinals will go on to compete in the NWSL Final, with all roads leading to Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky, home of Racing Louisville FC, for the NWSL Championship on CBS on Nov. 20.

With the stage set, let’s make some bold predictions for Sunday’s semifinals.

OL Reign vs. Spirit: Harvey heads back to final

OL reign are set to host the Washington Spirit at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma and will hope that the home field will play to their advantage. The Reign dropped their two previous regular season matches against the Spirit this year, each at Cheney Stadium. A narrow 1-0 defeat back in May off an own goal from Megan Rapinoe, and a 2-0 loss in October. This will be the third playoff meeting between the two sides in their history, with the last coming in 2015.

Head coach Laura Harvey was the Reign’s manager in each of the precious semifinals, and I believe she could have the franchise in their third NWSL championship final based on her ability to make adjustments and to get the most out of her players as they head into the match off a bye week. After returning to the club in the second half of the season, Harvey slotted forward Sofia Huerta into the fullback position, which allowed more players into the midfield and in the front line — it paid dividends as Dzsenifer Marozsán returned to her more preferred midfield position and Eugenie Le Sommer and Bethany Balcer continued to score goals.

The Spirit tout a lethal attacking line of their own, headed by 2021 Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez, and 2021 Rookie of the Year candidate Trinity Rodman — who led the league with with 6.1 one v ones per 90. I also think their defense has been overlooked a bit this year, and made the bold prediction last week that the quarterfinal would be a goalkeeper battle. Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe and the backline earned eight shutouts during the season, and center back Paige Neilsen led the NWSL with 6.3 combined tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes.

Past and recent histories aside, the game will feature far more new faces to the penultimate round, with Reign players like Rose Lavelle, Sarah Bouhaddi, Marozsán, and Le Sommer making their first NWSL semifinal appearances. The Spirit will be without their lone 2015 semifinal representative, Tori Huster, who was carried out of the quarterfinal with an injury.

I think the game could come down another close scoreline, played on a narrow pitch, and possibly won or lost in the middle third. Whoever retains the ball and capitalizes in the final third will be victorious, and I’m going with the Reign based on how they finished the season with the second-highest possession percentage in the NWSL (54%) and believe they will be on their way to a finals appearance if they continue that trend.

Thorns vs. Red Stars: Goal-fest for Portland

The Portland Thorns will host Chicago Red Stars at Providence Park, and based on current forms of both teams, the possibility of it being a goal-fest feels unlikely, but that’s why I believe the semifinal will provide some goal scoring.

Portland enters the semifinal off a bye week and is due for a big day in front of goal after lack of finishing has followed them into the playoffs. The team has one win in its last four matches and has scored two goals in that same span. Chicago is currently on a similar trend of narrow scorelines as the Red Stars head into the semifinal with four consecutive wins averaging one goal per game in their last three matches.

Both sides are nearly even in goals scored this year, but six of Chicago’s goals were own goals (a league record for forced own goals) and two penalties. Portland just edges out the Red Stars with 30 goals, with one coming off an own goal and three penalties. Despite the two sides each splitting a win in their two regular season matches, their recent forms suggest the semifinal could have a similar scoreline from Chicago’s 2-1 victory in September, instead of the season opening day fixture that was a 5-0 blowout by Portland. Even with similar goal totals, I’m giving my bold prediction for another three goal scoreline in favor of the home side.

Despite the Thorns absence of Crystal Dunn due to the recent announcement of her pregnancy, the team has ample attacking options on their roster compared to Chicago which could stretch the Red Stars midfield. If the Thorns are able to out work the middle third, the Red Stars tendency to sit back and counter could betray them if Portland strikes first. 

Portland’s ability to attack in waves can break down even the stingiest of defenses over time, and should either goalkeeper be challenged with a penalty kick, neither Bella Bixby or Cassie Miller have saved an attempt this regular season when tasked with the scenario. 

After narrow 1-0 wins in the quarterfinals, look for this semifinal to end with multiple goals, and Portland advancing to the final.





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