The 2016 NWSL playoffs kick off tonight with the Washington Spirit hosting the Chicago Red Stars at 8 p.m. ET at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md. The match will air live on FS1 and will be available on FOXSportsGo.com and the FOX Sports Go App. The winner of this matchup will reach its first NWSL Championship Game. Despite both teams making it to the post-season in the past, neither has ever advanced past the semifinals.
Washington finished with the second-best record in the league – and its best season as a franchise – after a strong overall performance throughout the 20 games of the 2016 regular season. Captain Ali Krieger started 14 games of the 15 she played in for the Spirit, and was part of a sturdy backline the only allowed five goals at home – the fewest in the league. Crystal Dunn featured in 13 games, starting 12 and recording two goals over the final three games for the Spirit. She finished as the team’s leader in assists with five.
Washington and Chicago met twice in the regular season, with each team getting wins at home. The first meeting, a 2-0 Spirit victory, did not feature any U.S. Women’s National Team players as it fell on the same day as the USA vs. South Africa friendly in Chicago on July 9. The second matchup, which was also the regular season-finale for both teams, took place recently at Toyota Park in Chicago on Sept. 24, a 3-1 Red Stars win. Dunn was the sole goal scorer for the Spirit that day.
The loss for the Spirit against Chicago marked the first time all year Washington suffered back-to-back losses. Nonetheless, the Spirit, who finished the regular season with a 7-1-2 record at home will hope to use its home field advantage on Friday night as they host the first playoff match in franchise history.
Chicago Red Stars
Chicago qualified for its third consecutive post season by virtue of finishing as the team with the third-best record in the league, behind the Portland Thorns and the Washington Spirit. The Red Stars enter the match coming off a 3-1 win against the Spirit in Chicago, which included a goal from Red Stars’ captain, Christen Press. Chicago is anchored by Alyssa Naeher in goal and joined by fellow WNT teammate at center back, Julie Johnston.
Naeher and Johnston lead a backline that recorded eight shutouts in the regular season, the most in the league (tied with Seattle Reign FC). Naeher started in all 13 games she played, earning six clean sheets – tied with FC Kansas City goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart atop the league. Johnston, who helped Naeher organize the Chicago defense, played all 90 minutes of the 12 games in which she featured. Press finished the regular season as the leading scorer for Chicago, tallying eight goals in 14 games played. She also finished in the team lead for most shots taken (62), almost doubling the shots taken by Red Stars teammate Sofia Huerta (35).
All three WNT players in the Chicago roster are up for NWSL Awards with Naeher up for 2016 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, Johnston in the running for NWSL Defender of the Year and Press up for NWSL Most Valuable Player.