NWSL Playoff Preview: A battle of close friends and a one-sided rivalry

The NWSL playoffs kick off with the semifinals on Sunday. 

NWSL semifinals, Sunday:
NC Courage vs. Reign FC, 1 ET, ESPN2.
Chicago vs. Portland,  3:30 pm ET, ESPN2.

They could mark the last games for one of the league's best coaches and its all-time leading scorer. But there are plenty other storylines to the postseason.

Here's a look at the four teams.

Courage overcomes mid-season losses. The North Carolina Courage has won the NWSL Shield in all three seasons it's played in Cary since its move from Western New York and will be looking for its second straight league championship.

This season's Shield was the most impressive since the Courage had seven starters who missed the middle portion of the season because of the Women's World Cup: Americans Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald and Samantha Mewis, Brazilian Debinha, Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and Abby Erceg, who played for New Zealand.

“I thought we planned really heavy for it in the offseason," said head coach Paul Riley, "and the expectation was that it was going to be tricky no matter what plan we had."

The Courage went on a late-season run and won the 2019 regular-season title with the league's best offense (54 goals scored) and best defense (23 goals allowed).

The Courage's depth covered up whatever issues it might have with missing players. It had seven players named to the all-league announced by the NWSLPA. In addition to Erceg, Dunn and Debinha, left back Jaelene Hinkle, midfielder Denise O'Sullivan and forwards Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton were picked.

Reign FC coach says it ain't so. Second-year Reign FC coach Vlatko Andonovski is considered the leading candidate to replace Jill Ellis as the U.S. women’s national team head coach, but on a conference call with the media he said talk of a move was premature.

“As of right now, none of that is true,” he said.

Andonovski won league titles with FC Kansas City in 2014 and 2015 and is close with Riley, the only other coach to win two NWSL titles (Western New York in 2016 and the Courage in 2018).

“We got really close doing the pro course together, then running things off each other and talking football for days and days,” said Riley. “Vlatko is one of my favorite people in the world. He’s a brilliant coach. He’s a breath of fresh air in the league.”

Riley said the Courage has always had great games against Andonovski's teams.

“He always throws a little wrench in things when we play him," added. "I like that. It’s a great challenge to me and our players."

Reign FC's star is Megan Rapinoe, but the 2019 FIFA Women's Player of the Year played only five of 24 NWSL games because of the Women's World Cup, other commitments and injuries.

In Rapinoe's absence, Andonovski got great things out of Bethany Balcer, an undrafted rookie out of NAIA school Spring Arbor. Balcer was the only player to play all 24 games and led Reign FC with six goals.

Red Stars take aim at first final. The Chicago Red Stars have made the NWSL semifinals four years in a row -- and lost in the semifinals all four years.

Sunday's game against Portland is only the second playoff game at SeatGeek Park.

“One of our big goals this year was to try to play a home game in the playoffs,” said Rory Dames, who has been the Red Stars coach since the NWSL's launch in 2013. “We know how hard it is to play on the road in the playoffs. We were able to accomplish that goal this year.”

Sunday's game could be the last home game for Australian star Sam Kerr, the league's three-time scoring champion. She is rumored to be headed to England's Chelsea after the season.

But the Red Stars, who have won five games in a row, are more than just Kerr, who finished with a league-record 18 goals in 2019.

They also feature U.S. World Cup champions Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian, Tierna Davidson and Alyssa Naeher. Japanese Yuki Nagasato had eight goals and a league-high eight assists. Defender Casey Short was a surprise cut from the U.S. World Cup team but was good enough to make the NWSL Team of the Month every month.

Thorns search for best version of themselves. Portland won its second NWSL title in 2017 but lost at home to the Courage in 2018.

It fell out of the top spot to the Courage late in the 2019 regular season and eventually dropped to third place behind the Red Stars, losing a chance to play at Providence Park, where they averaged more than 20,000 fans a game.

The Thorns won only one of their last five games and scored only once. They hit bottom with a 6-0 loss at home to the Courage on Sept. 11. All this with a lineup that featured seven World Cup players, including U.S. stars Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan and Canadian great Christine Sinclair.

Portland coach Mark Parsons is looking for a turnaround in the playoffs.

“We haven’t been the best version of ourselves over the last four or five games," he said, "and now we get to draw a line under that and go into tournament mode."

In Portland's favor is its record against Chicago. The Thorns beat the Red Stars 3-0 twice after drawing 4-4 in their first 2019 meeting. Going back to the start of the NWSL, Portland has lost once in 20 games.

Even Dames said Portland was probably relishing the chance to face his Red Stars.

“If there’s a way to get out of their slump in finishing," he said, "they probably feel good about who they have coming up on the weekend.”

Photo: Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire

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