Washington Spirit Host Chicago Red Stars Friday Night in the Semifinals of the 2016 NWSL Playoffs
Christen Press, Vanessa DiBernardo and Alyssa Naeher clash with Crystal Dunn, Diana Matheson and Joanna Lohman when the Chicago Red Stars meet the Washington Spirit in the semifinals of the 2016 NWSL Playoffs on Friday, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1 at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md.
The winner of the match Friday will reach the first NWSL Championship Game in their history as both teams have previously appeared in the postseason – with the Spirit making the playoffs the last three seasons and Chicago the last two – but neither side has advanced past the semifinals.
The Red Stars come into the contest having snapped a three-game winless run with a 3-1 victory over Washington in the final week of the regular season in a result that ensured Chicago the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.
The loss for the Spirit was their second straight to close the regular season – the first time all year Washington suffered defeats in back-to-back games. It also opened the door for Portland Thorns FC to win the next day and claim the 2016 NWSL Shield for the league’s best regular-season record.
Regardless, Spirit coach Jim Gabarra will be looking for his side to regroup for the club’s first-ever home playoff match – an advantage the team earned with Washington’s best season to date in the NWSL.
Gabarra and his players massed 39 points behind the No. 3 offense and the No. 4 defense in the league that powered the Spirit to a pair of five-game unbeaten streaks this year as well as a run that saw the team go 7-1-1 during a nine-game stretch from July 2 to Sept. 7.
Washington had the second-best home record in the league with a 7-1-2 mark at Maryland SoccerPlex – including a 2-0 victory over the Red Stars on July 9, with midfielder Estefania Banini and forward Katie Stengel scoring for the Spirit while goalkeeper Kelsey Wys made five saves to earn her second of two shutouts on the year.
The clean sheet Washington kept that day was the last time they held an opponent off the scoreboard and come into the match Friday against Chicago having not earned a shutout in their last nine matches – tied for the second-longest current run in the league.
Despite their defensive struggles in the second half of the season, the Spirit had the No. 1 ranked offense for much of the season before allowing five goals in their last two games. Washington finished the 2016 campaign tied for fourth in defense – two goals behind No. 1-ranked Portland Thorns FC and just one behind the Red Stars, who were tied with FC Kansas City for the second-best defense in the league.
Chicago – led by Naeher and her back line of Julie Johnston, Samantha Johnson, Arin Gilliland and Casey Short – is tied with Seattle Reign FC for the most shutouts this season with eight. While the Spirit – with their defense led by Ali Krieger, Estelle Johnson, Megan Oyster and Shelina Zadorsky – were right behind them with seven clean sheets.
Naeher finished the season with six shutouts – tied with FC Kansas City goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart for the league lead. On the other side of the ball, Gabarra will have a choice to make as to which of his goalkeepers will appear in goal.
Canada international Stephanie Labbe was tied for second in the NWSL with five shutouts, but has not appeared in a match since return from participating in the Olympics as back up Kelsey Wys played the last 11 games of the season for Washington.
On the offensive side of the ball, Gabarra will be looking to his deep collection of attacking talent to propel the Spirit into their first NWSL Championship Game as Washington had six players finish the season with three or more goals.
Banini led the way with five goals – all of which she scored in a seven game stretch before the Olympic break. The Argentina international was injured during the layoff and missed five games with a left knee problem, but returned as a second-half substitute in the final match of the regular season.
Matheson, Lohman and Stengel all finished with four goals on the season, while Dunn followed up her 2015 NWSL Golden Boot with just two goals in 13 appearances this year – but did lead the team with five assists.
Red Stars coach Rory Dames will be looking to Press (8 goals in 14 appearances), DiBernardo (7 assists) and forward Sophia Huerta (7 goals) to provide the offensive spark for Chicago.
Both Washington and the Red Stars were accustomed being in front this season – as the Spirit led the league with 720 minutes ahead and Chicago ranked second with 606 minutes ahead in matches. Meanwhile, neither side will want to fall behind Friday – as both clubs went winless this season in matches in which they trailed at any point.
Tickets for Friday’s NWSL Semifinal between the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars may be purchased by visiting tickets.washingtonspirit.com or calling 301-337-8579.
The WSU Team bringing you news and updates from the world of women’s football.