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NWSL Semifinals: What to watch in the most competitive playoffs in league history

This weekend, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) semifinals kick off with matchups that many coaches and players argue is the most competitive it’s been since the league started back in 2012.

On Saturday, the Orlando Pride enter their first semifinal round in franchise history when they face the Portland Thorns on the road. On Sunday, NWSL Shield winners the North Carolina Courage will play the Chicago Red Stars—a team they haven’t been able to defeat all year.

These teams only have one shot at making the championship game, so get ready for some high-energy matches ahead. Here’s how the matchups pan out.

Orlando Pride vs. Portland Thorns

After dealing with various injuries with key players all season, the star-studded Orlando Pride (11-6-7) have found their stride towards the latter half of the season. Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris is looking in top form since recovering from her quad injury, and it seems that Alex Morgan hasn’t skipped a beat since dealing with hamstring issues from her time playing with Lyon. She’s clicking very well with Brazilian international Marta as well.

With the addition of forward Chioma Ubogagu up top, Kristen Edmonds in the midfield, and left full-back Steph Cately making runs up the sidelines, the Pride have a very dynamic, possessive-style of attack. Unfortunately, during their recent 3-2 win over the NC Courage, Orlando lost up-and-coming Brazilian star Camila to an ACL tear. Camila is primarily a defender, but played multiple positions throughout the 2017 season.

“Camila is a great player,” Ubogagu told Excelle Sports. “She’s young and she plays very maturely. She’s been huge for us because she’s played so many different positions and she’s been a great teammate to have. We are all really bummed to hear the results of her MRI. But I think this team is really deep. Whoever is called upon will step up and really build that position well for us.”

In their last match, rookie forward Rachel Hill took Camila’s place at one of the wing positions. The UConn product was actually picked 14th overall by the Thorns in the 2017 NWSL before Orlando acquired her in a trade in January. So far, Hill has already scored three goals in 14 games (eight of which were starts).

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To face the Thorns, Orlando will have to fly out to Providence Park, which is known to have some of the most passionate fans in the league. Entering that stadium can be intimidating to any away team that walks through its doors. The Thorns (14-5-5) themselves also present a challenge, especially since U.S. national soccer team forward Tobin Heath is finally healthy and back on the pitch.

Their midfield is stacked with other national team stars such as Allie Long and Lindsay Horan. Meghan Klingenberg also adds some experience in the backline as one of the most tenacious defenders in the league. She’ll most likely add to Portland’s offense as she makes runs down the left flank. Portland also has Canadian national team captain Christine Sinclair who is always dangerous at the top of the box. The Thorns will be hungry for redemption in 2017 as they lost last year’s semifinals to the Western New York Flash. In 2015, the team finished in 6th place overall.

“It’s been a tough season,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons told reporters. “It’s been a long road. It’s been a long journey. To be two points off the Shield is a compliment to the adversity they’ve gone through. And now we are getting healthier, we are getting stronger, getting sharper. We’ve learned some big lessons to get to this point, and the team is preparing strong and thoroughly to prepare for Saturday.”

North Carolina Courage vs. Chicago Red Stars

Even though they have a new name and moved to a completely new state this year, the NC Courage (16 -7 -1)—formerly known as the Western New York Flash—is the reigning champ of the NWSL, having defeated the Washington Spirit in the final. But the No. 1 ranked team isn’t thinking about what happened yesterday or even what happened last week when they won the Shield. There’s relatively little pressure among the players to repeat what they did last year. It’s about focusing on each game.

“I don’t think there’s any pressure,” forward Kristen Hamilton told Excelle Sports. “It’s a thought at the back of everyone’s head that it would be a really cool feat, especially since the Shield winners have never gone on to win the championship. But I don’t feel pressure from it. As long as we perform and we play a good game, I think everyone will be happy with whatever the results are.”

The Courage may be relatively relaxed going into Sunday’s game, but when that whistle blows they are guaranteed to light the fire as they quick on the attack. North Carolina makes more shots than any other team in the league with 317 to put them at the top of the leaderboard. The speed of forward Lynn Williams has been hard for defenders to handle as she takes players on one-on-one before the rest of her team catches up. In the midfield, league MVP finalist Sam Mewis has been a vital play maker for the squad while scoring six goals this season.

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Chicago (11-7-6) is going to be a tough opponent for North Carolina since the Courage haven’t yet figured out how to beat them. The Red Stars feature U.S. national team forward Christen Press as well as Julie Ertz who has been moved into the midfield. The combinations between Press, Sofia Huerta and Vanessa DiBernardo has proven to be lethal as together they have scored 20 out of 33 of the team’s goals. Chicago is also very solid on defense with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher organizing the backline. That backline also features Casey Short, who is a finalist for league defender of the year.

The Red Stars are known for holding their shape on defense and if the Courage is going infiltrate the box, they are going to have to find a way to pull defenders out of their positions with their quick transitions. This is Chicago’s third semifinal berth in a row, making them one of the most consistent teams going into the weekend. They have players who have developed together for years so their chemistry under pressure has a good chance of holding up.

“We’ve got a focused group this year,” Chicago head coach Rory Dames said in a press release. “This group never lost focus of what our end objective is.”

Watch the Orlando Pride play the Portland Thorns this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET, and on Sunday, catch the Chicago vs. North Carolina game at the same time. All matches can be viewed on Lifetime.

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