Bold Predictions for NWSL playoffs: Goalkeepers the X-factors in Spirit-Courage; expect extra time in Chicago


The 2021 NWSL playoffs are upon us with five elimination games between now and Nov. 20 to determine a champion. This is the first year for the NWSL’s expanded playoff format, with six teams qualifying instead of only four in years prior. You can catch all the action through CBS Sports family of networks, with games across Paramount+, CBS Sports Network and CBS

The quarterfinals begin on Sunday as Chicago Red Stars host NJ/NY Gotham FC on CBS Sports Network in a battle between fourth- and fifth-seeded teams. No. 3 Washington Spirit take on No. 6 North Carolina Courage on Paramount+ to close out quarterfinal action. The winners will go on to face Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign on Nov. 14 in the semifinals, with all roads leading to Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky, home of Racing Louisville FC, for the the NWSL Championship on CBS on Nov. 20.

Considering that only six points separated third and sixth place, we could be treated to the most competitive postseason this league has ever seen with the revamped format following an arduous 24-game regular-season grind. The playoffs offer a new slate, with teams believing that with only three consecutive wins the title is up for grabs. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some bold predictions for quarterfinal weekend that could impact the playoffs.

Red Stars vs. Gotham FC: 90 minutes won’t be enough

Both sides can claim good form entering this one, with Gotham having not lost a game since September (three wins, five draws) and Chicago winners of its past three (all by one-goal margins). Each team has dangerous options in attack, with Mallory Pugh and Kealia Watt for Chicago

Both teams have attacking front lines with dangerous options, with Mallory Pugh (four goals, four assists) and Kealia Watt (five goals, four assists) for Chicago and Margaret Purce (nine goals in 17 games) and Ifeoma Onumonu (eight goals, four assists) for Gotham FC. Chicago has been held to just one goal in two of the past three games and Gotham have been held to just one goal in the past three. It’s the lack of prolific scoring between the two clubs could set the stage for a nail-biter of a quarterfinal, perhaps with another narrow scoreline and drama extending into extra time.

Who would have the edge in a close game? Well, Chicago, based on their recent record, has a knack for working well under pressure in tightly-contested matches with the ability of closing them out late, defensively, to ensure three points. Don’t be surprised if the home side finds itself in a similar situation on Sunday and manages to eke another one out and reach the semifinals for the sixth consecutive postseason.

Spirit vs. Courage: Goalkeepers will be the X-factors

Washington and North Carolina have had to deal with a number of off-field issues, with the Spirit players having called on current owner Steve Baldwin to sell the team to minority owner Michelle Kang. North Carolina Courage terminated Paul Riley’s head-coaching contract after reports of sexual misconduct with former NWSL players. Despite the turmoil surrounding these franchises, the players on both teams have managed to rally around each other and resiliently march into the quarterfinals with a chance to make a deep run.

The Spirit frontline has remained consistent all season with golden boot winner Ashley Hatch and Rookie of the Year candidate Trinity Rodman combining for 16 goals. Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, meanwhile, have combined for 11 goals for a Courage team that has played postseason soccer every year since the introduction of the league back in 2017. 

But it’s not the attacking front that I want to focus on for this matchup. Keep an eye on the goalkeeping battle in this one which could be the X-factor in what should be a dramatic finish, as the Spirit’s Aubrey Bledsoe and the Courage’s Casey Murphy will do their best to keep this a low-scoring affair. Bledsoe has eight clean sheets to go with her strong distribution, which has been a contributing factor in the Spirit’s possession-based style and ability to play out of the back at times. For Murphy, her 11 clean sheets are tied for a league record set by Adrianna Franch in 2017.

Still, I give the edge to Bledsoe in this one. If the Spirit’s attack can keep their shots low and frequent against the 6-foot-1 Murphy, then they’ll punch a ticket to the semifinals.





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