NWSL Playoffs: Even matchups underscore strength at top of the league

It is hard to imagine two more even matchups for the semifinals: Portland vs. Orlando and North Carolina vs. Chicago. Portland and Orlando are both loaded with U.S. and international stars. North Carolina won the NWSL Shield as regular-season champion but
the Red Stars swept the Courage in three games.

NWSL Semifinals:

Portland vs. Orlando, 3:30 pm ET, Lifetime
North Carolina vs. Chicago, 3:30 pm ET, Lifetime
Final:Oct. 14 in Orlando, 4:30 pm ET, Lifetime

1. North Carolina (16-7-1): Coming off its surprise 2015 NWSL championship as the Western New York Flash, the Courage jumped out to an early lead that it never relinquished but it has slowed down in the last month, going 2-2-1 in its last five games.

Players to Watch. Four young national team players -- three from UCLA and one from Pepperdine -- have helped transform the Courage into the NWSL's best team. Abby Dahlkemper has played every minute at center back. Out of the blue, Taylor Smith made the national team on the basis of her work at outside back, while Lynn Williams (9 goals, 5 assists) and Samantha Mewis (6 goals, 3 assists) lead the attack.

Courage roster:
Goalkeepers (2): Sabrina D'Angelo, Katelyn Rowland
Defenders (9): Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle, Nora Holstad, Yuri Kawamura, Stephanie Ochs, Taylor Smith, Meredith Speck, Samantha Witteman
Midfielders (6): Makenzy Doniak, Elizabeth Eddy, Samantha Mewis, McCall Zerboni, Denise O'Sullivan, Debinha
Forwards (5): Kristen Hamilton, Ashley Hatch, Darian Jenkins, Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams

2. Portland (14-5-5): The best supported team by a wide margin, the Thorns are making their  fourth appearance in the playoffs in five seasons but have not won the championship since the inaugural season in 2013. They enter the playoffs with a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1) overall and have won seven straight matches at Providence Park.

Players to Watch. National team veteran Tobin Heath returned for the last two games after missing the rest of the season while recovering from a back injury. Other U.S. national team players on the Thorns are Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg and Allie Long. The international contingent includes Canadian Christine Sinclair, plus Amandine Henry (France) and Nadia Nadim (Denmark), who will both return to Europe after the season.

Thorns roster:
Goalkeepers (2): Britt Eckerstrom, Adrianna Franch.
Defenders (5): Kendall Johnson, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Katherine Reynolds, Emily Sonnett.
Midfielders (7): Celeste Boureille, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Tobin Heath, Amandine Henry, Lindsey Horan, Allie Long, Mallory Weber.
Forwards (7): Savannah Jordan, Tyler Lussi, Meg Morris, Nadia Nadim, Hayley Raso, Christine Sinclair, Ashleigh Sykes.

3. Orlando (11-6-7): The second-year Pride didn't win its first game until May 14, five weeks into the season, but got hot after Alex Morgan returned from Lyon in June. A big factor in its success was its improved form on the road. It went 5-4-3 in 2017 after winning just one of its first 15 road games.

Players to Watch. Orlando has the best offense in the league, led by Marta (13 goals, 6 assists) and Morgan (9 goals, 4 assists).  Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger and Morgan give the Pride three national team veterans.

Pride roster:
Goalkeepers (2): Aubrey Bledsoe, Ashlyn Harris
Defenders (6): Camila, Steph Catley, Alanna Kennedy, Ali Krieger, Monica, Toni Pressley
Midfielders (5): Jocelyn Blankenship, Nickolette Driesse, Kristen Edmonds, Jordan O'Brien, Dani Weatherholt
Forwards (7): Danica Evans, Jamia Fields, Rachel Hill, Alex Morgan, Jasmyne Spencer, Chioma Ubogagu, Marta

4. Chicago (11-7-6). The Red Stars, who swept all three games against North Carolina, finished with a 3-0-1 record after struggling in August. A 7-3-2 start to the season was enough that a third consecutive appearance in the payoffs was never really in doubt.

Players to Watch. U.S. national team players Christen Press (11 goals, 4 assists), Sofia Huerta (6 goals, 4 assists) and Julie Ertz (4 goals, 3 assists) leads Chicago in scoring. National team keeper Alyssa Naeher anchors the third-best defensive record in the league.

Red Stars roster:
Goalkeepers (2): Michele Dalton, Alyssa Naeher
Defenders (5): Arin Gilliland, Sarah Gorden, Samantha Johnson, Katie Naughton, Casey Short
Midfielders (8): Morgan Brian, Danielle Colaprico, Taylor Comeau, Vanessa DiBernardo, Julie Ertz, Summer Green, Lauren Kaskie, Alyssa Mautz
Forwards (5): Jen Hoy, Sofia Huerta, Stephanie McCaffrey, Yuki Nagasato, Christen Press

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