NWSL playoffs: How to watch, key players and the home advantage factor

The NWSL playoffs are back after the international break, and it feels like these two semifinal games couldn’t come soon enough. NWSL Shield-winning San Diego Wave FC and Portland Thorns FC finally enter the fray as the top two seeds, hosting OL Reign and NJ/NY Gotham FC, respectively.

The Wave and Thorns have had a long lay-off thanks to their first-round bye weeks, so neither team has played a match since Oct. 15. That’s a 21-day break. This is only the second year of this NWSL playoff format featuring quarterfinal byes for the top two teams. Results were split last year, so there’s no trend data to look to. The Reign and Gotham both advanced from their quarterfinals during the weekend of Oct. 20 ahead of the international window.

Thanks to the standard NWSL chaos, it feels like seeding doesn’t matter too much — though home advantage can always play a role, especially in two stadiums like Snapdragon and Providence Park. Attendance will be high, passions will be higher, and on Sunday, we’re going to find out if these four teams will opt for cautious chess matches or punch-for-punch transitional madness.

The winners will advance to the NWSL championship on Nov. 11 at Snapdragon Stadium. That also means the Wave could get a home game in the final. It’s happened before for Portland in 2018 and North Carolina in 2019 after the NWSL shifted to a predetermined venue for the championship in 2015.

Any combination of these four teams offers an intriguing match-up. There’s potential for a Cascadia rivalry final between the Thorns and Reign, a battle between the top two teams in the Wave and Thorns, or — for many of the neutrals, perhaps the most sentimental pick — Reign and Gotham for a Megan Rapinoe vs. Ali Krieger final game face off.

How to watch

Both semifinal games are on CBS Sports Network. Based on what’s currently available on the CBS website, it does not appear that either game will be aired on the Golazo network, which is free to watch. International fans can stream both matches on the league’s website.

No. 2 Portland Thorns vs. No. 6 Gotham FC – Nov. 5, 7 p.m. ET

Vibe check: The Thorns present one of the most interesting narratives heading into the semifinals, as their final match of the regular season was a 5-1 defeat at the hands of Angel City FC. Twenty-one days is a long time to forget that ever happened, though. Portland has a historical edge over Gotham and one that isn’t particularly close. “Since the beginning of the 2018 season, Portland has lost just once to Gotham (W7 D6 L1) in all competitions,” per the NWSL. But if there’s one team in this final four that has big upset vibes, it’s Gotham. There’s obviously no scientific method to this assessment, just the outside observation that the club has never had this level of camaraderie before.

Players to watch: Portland’s Sophia Smith is almost certainly not yet at 90-minute match fitness, having only just earned her first 45 minutes back with the USWNT during the international break, but Smith can still do a lot of damage in even a single half of soccer. Last year’s MVP and this year’s Golden Boot winner, she has a lot of lost time to make up for. Oh, and the Thorns have a second MVP nominee in midfielder Sam Coffey. On the Gotham side, Lynn Williams puts in a massive shift on both sides of the ball, and she’s going to need another one to try and shut Portland down. I can think of a previous instance when she rolled into Providence Park and broke some hearts. Plus, we’ve got the Krieger retirement storyline.

What they’re saying: “(The international break) hasn’t really had too much of an impact. While (national team players) are gone, we’ve had the same normal practices, we’ve all been working hard. It doesn’t matter where we’re at, we’re always working hard to get better for each other.” — Jenna Nighswonger, defender and NWSL Rookie of the Year nominee

No. 1 San Diego Wave vs. No. 4 OL Reign – Nov. 5, 9:30 p.m. ET

Vibe check: This game has the best potential for meme-age, thanks to Casey Stoney and Laura Harvey’s fondness for perching on a cooler on the sidelines. The Reign is already embracing it on social media.

The Reign got the better of the Wave both times this season, though both wins were only by one goal. Both teams offer a stingy defense: the Wave only allowed 22 goals during the regular season, while the Reign conceded 24. The Wave feels like the more complete team, but the Reign has a greater potential now than we’ve seen so far this year. The semifinals feel impossible to predict a final result, but both of these teams thrive on their defense. Either side might only get one crack at a game-winning goal, or… sorry to curse us all, I could easily see this one going to extra time and even penalties. Be prepared with some caffeinated beverages, just in case.

Players to watch: It is a big-name showdown, thanks to OL Reign’s Rapinoe (trying to extend her career by one more game on Nov. 11) and the Wave’s Alex Morgan. For San Diego, it’s all about what Morgan and Jaedyn Shaw might open up for each other in terms of offensive opportunities. For the Reign, Emily Sonnett, who can play basically any defensive or midfield position at this point, is key. Her movement to help cover the wings to help the outside backs helped the Reign move past Angel City in the quarterfinals, and she led the team in recoveries.

What they’re saying: “I think we’ve done a really good job in San Diego, just having that vibe but still staying focused, making sure training’s intense. … The focus has been high, and the intensity has been high in training, which has been really good to see. At the same time, we have a little bit of extra time to recover.” — Naomi Girma, Wave defender and MVP nominee

(Photos of Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith: Katharine Lotze; Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

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