Despite impressive efforts from both the Seattle Reign and Chicago Red Stars in the 2018 NWSL semifinals, the final two teams standing during this 2018 NWSL season that will meet in the Championship are the same two that played in the 2017 final – the 2018 NWSL Shield Winners North Carolina Courage and the reigning NWSL Champions Portland Thorns.
This year, Portland will have a distinct advantage, as the Championship Game venue that was selected months ago will be Providence Park, home stadium of the Thorns, and home to some of the best fans in all of women’s soccer. The atmosphere is sure to create a historic night in the history of the women’s pro game in the USA.
U.S. WNT head coach Jill Ellis named her 20-player roster for the 2018Concacaf Women’s Championship on September 19, and six of those players will be on the field for the NWSL title game: Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn and Samantha Mewisfor North Carolina; and Tobin Heath, newly crowned NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan, and Emily Sonnett for the Thorns. Additionally, Adrianna Franch (Portland) and Merritt Mathias (NC) will also join the WNT for training to help the USA prepare for World Cup qualifying.
With almost a third of the U.S. WNT qualifying roster vying for the league crown on Saturday, here are a few things to keep in mind when you tune into the match:
HOW TO WATCH
The 2018 NWSL Championship will air live starting at 4:30 p.m. ET on Lifetime in the U.S. For international viewers, the game will be available on nwslsoccer.com and the NWSL app. For complete social coverage check out twitter @NWSL.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Due to Hurricane Florence, the North Carolina vs. Chicago Red Stars semifinal had to be moved from Cary, N.C. and was relocated to Providence Park, where the courage won 2-0 to advance to the Final. North Carolina was far and away the top team in the league for the entire year. With 17 wins in a 24-game regular season, the team finished with a record-breaking 57 points – a whopping 15 points ahead of second-place Portland – and easily won the NWSL Shield for the second year in a row.However, North Carolina will be playing in front of an extremely partisan and sold out crowd at Providence Park as the Courage attempt to avenge last year’s loss. Through the first five years of the league, no NWSL Shield winner has ever won the NWSL Championship.
Portland had a rollicking but interesting year. Plagued by injuries early on, the Thorns rallied to finish strong, beating Seattle in their regular season finale to jump over the Reign and into second place in the final standings, earning the right to host the semifinal. Against their Pacific Northwest rival in the semifinal, the Thorns came from a goal down with scores from Horan and Heath to take the match 2-1 and give themselves a chance to match FC Kansas City and become the second team in NWSL history to win back-to-back NWSL titles.
The 2018 game will be a rematch of the 2017 final, which saw the Portland Thorns earn their second title in franchise history with a 1-0 win vs. the North Carolina Courage at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Lindsey Horan scored the lone goal of the match in the 50th minute and was named NWSL Championship MVP.
U.S. WNT IN ACTION
Portland: The 2018 season was a comeback season of sorts for WNT forward Tobin Heath. After missing almost all of 2017 and some early parts of 2018 due to injuries, Heath came back into action midway through the year and has slowly regained her form to once again become one of the most lethal players on the pitch. In the regular season, Heath finished with seven goals and seven assists – second most on the league – in just 17 appearances, and was named to the NWSL Best XI. WNT defender Emily Sonnett built on her successful 2017 with another strong season in the 2018. Also named also to the NWSL Best XI, Sonnett started all 21 games she appeared in, subbing off only twice. Perhaps nobody had a better year than 24-year-old WNT midfielder Lindsey Horan. Horan’s 2017 – for both club and country –showed promise, but in 2018 she really excelled on the field. The 2018 NWSL MVP was a key player for the Thorns all year, playing every minute in 22 regular season games she appeared in and scoring 13 goals, third-best on the league, with six of them coming on headers. Named to the NWSL Best XI, Horan led the league in total touches (1,852) and duels won (297), including aerial duels (141) and is the first MVP to not win the Golden Boot on the same season (that honor went to Australian international and Red Stars forward Sam Kerr who tallied 16 goals).
North Carolina: After recovering from an injury suffered at the end of 2017, WNT midfielder Samantha Mewis returned to the field midway through the season and slowly began to regain her form. Mewis finished the regular season playing in 18 games with 12 starts, and scored three goals. If there was any doubt of whether Mewis was feeling 100 percent, she proved that she was back to the form which saw her start every WNT game last year when she struck a world-class goal from distance against Chicago in the semifinal that clinched the game and earned her a mention on SportsCenter’s Top-10 plays.
For WNT defenders Crystal Dunn and Abby Dahlkepmer, both named to this year’s NWSL Best XI, 2018 was another excellent year. Traded to North Carolina right at the start of the season, Dunn quickly meshed well with her new team, playing in 23 games and scoring six goals with seven assists. Dahlkemper played every minute of every game she appeared in and marshalled the best defense in the league, which allowed only 17 goals – least in the league – and maintained a perfect record at home.