As the 2016 NWSL playoffs approach, we take a brief look at the history of the NWSL playoffs, how it all works and what we should expect this weekend as the Washington Spirit take on the Chicago Red Stars on Friday, Sept. 30 (8 p.m. ET; FS1) and the Portland Thorns host the Western New York Flash on Sunday, Oct. 2 (5 p.m. ET; FS1).
Here are five things to know about the NWSL playoffs:
A Historic Year
2016 marked the first time a woman’s professional league reached a fourth season of play in the United States; a fantastic development for the growth of the sport worldwide. The National Women’s Soccer League began in 2013 with eight teams, which included the Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, FC Kansas City, Portland Thorns, Seattle Reign FC, Sky Blue FC, Washington Spirit and Western New York Flash. In 2014, the Houston Dash joined the league to make it nine, followed by the Orlando Pride in 2015 to up the total number of teams to 10.
For Club and Country
Eleven U.S. Women’s National Team players will take the field this weekend, hoping to win it all with their club teams. The Portland Thorns lead the way with five players on their roster (Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long and Emily Sonnett), followed by the Chicago Red Stars (Julie Johnston, Alyssa Naeher and Christen Press), the Washington Spirit (Crystal Dunn and Ali Krieger) and the Western New York Flash (Samantha Mewis). Read more about all 11 players here.
Four; Two; Champion
Unlike other leagues, the NWSL’s small number of teams forces the postseason to be quick. The single elimination tournament begins with four teams (the top four finishing teams in the NWSL regular season automatically advance), with all four teams in actions – two matchups total – in the span of a weekend. The two winners then advance to the championship match. The NWSL Final will take place on Oct. 9 at BBVA Stadium in Houston, Texas, and will air live on FS1. Since playoff games cannot end in ties, two straight 15-minute overtime periods are played, followed by a penalty shootout of best-of-five rounds plus extra if needed. The winner of all three previous NWSL Finals have been determined in regulation.
One Team Looks for Repeat, Other Three Look for First Title
With two-time champions FC Kansas City (2014, 2015) out of the playoffs this year, the NWSL trophy will belong to someone else for the first time since 2013. The Portland Thorns are the only team in the playoffs – and only other team in the league – to have won a title on a previous occasion (2013; a 2-0 win against WNYF). However out of the five U.S. WNT players on the Thorns’ roster, only Tobin Heath and Allie Long were part of the 2013 championship team. If the Chicago Red Stars, Washington Spirit or Western New York Flash were to result triumphant in the championship match, it would make them the third different team in league history to claim the coveted trophy. The Flash (2013) have advanced to the championship match before, while a trip to the finals would be a first for the Spirit and Red Stars.
Several WNT players in the league’s playoffs are nominated for NWSL Awards, including Tobin Heath, Allie Long and Christen Press for Most Valuable Player, Julie Johnston for Defender of the Year, Alyssa Naeher for Goalkeeper of the Year, and Emily Sonnett for Rookie of the Year. Additionally, Heath finished the regular season with a new club and league record for most assists in a single season with 10, while Naeher finished atop the league standings tied with FCKC’s Nicole Barnhart for clean sheets earned in the regular season with six.