NWSL Semifinal Preview
Updated: Oct 31
On Sunday, November 5, the semifinal round of the 2023 NWSL Playoffs will kick off in what is sure to be a close battle between the four remaining teams. With the league-leading San Diego Wave hosting an OL Reign team that they've never beat and the Portland Thorns playing host to an explosive Gotham FC side, it will be an exciting finish to determine the two Championship contenders. Here we'll preview how each team can move on and what they will have to overcome to prevail.
San Diego Wave
The San Diego Wave secured the NWSL Shield as the league leaders at the end of the season and have enjoyed a quarterfinals-round bye. They will host a familiar OL Reign team at Snapdragon Stadium. While San Diego has arguably been the most consistent team all season, they will be facing a team that they have never beaten. In fact, in eight games across all competitions, the Wave have never defeated the Reign in their short club history. They have lost all four matches against the Reign this season.
If the Wave can finally crack the code on OL Reign, it will most likely come from the foot of young striker Jaedyn Shaw. The 18-year-old has five goals and three assists and has a knack for creative, explosive attacks. San Diego will also need 2022 Rookie and Defender of the Year Naomi Girma to hold down the backline against a fluid Reign team. They will also get a boost from their home supporters. Interestingly, if San Diego beats the Reign, they will have home-field advantage once again, with the Championship game being hosted at Snapdragon Stadium on November 11.
San Diego will need to shake off any cobwebs that came from a week of rest and face a compact, disciplined, and deep OL Reign side in order to get to their first-ever championship match.
Portland also had the advantage of a first-round bye thanks to a second-place finish in the regular season. The Thorns will be glad for an additional week of rest for their star striker, Sophia Smith, who is recovering from an injury. Smith returned in the final two games of the Thorns' campaign as a sub, but the 2023 Golden Boot winner hasn't scored a goal since August.
The Thorns have looked shaky in the last few weeks of the regular season, including ending their season with their biggest loss of the year, 5-1, to Angel City. However, this is an experienced squad that looks very similar to the 2022 Championship winning team. Portland will rely on Sam Coffey, the league leader in assists, to hold down the midfield. They will host Gotham FC in the semifinals, who they've split results with this season, with one win and one loss.
If Portland can move past their inconsistencies this season and play at the level they've proven themselves capable of, they will be a tough opponent to beat.
OL Reign will travel to San Diego to take on the Wave after defeating a tenacious Angel City team in the first round of the playoffs, 1-0. While Angel City had the better first half, the Reign settled into the second half and eventually found the back of the net thanks to a header by Veronica Latsko. They were bolstered by crafty play from Rose Lavelle, who subbed in for the Reign side for the first time since early September.
The Reign play best when they can utilize their wingbacks and control the play of the game, but they are notorious for struggling to find the back of the net. With the legendary Megan Rapinoe retiring at the end of the season, they certainly have the motivation to win it all but have historically been unable to close out important games. Take the 2022 playoffs as an example, where the NWSL Shield-Winning OL Reign lost 2-0 in their first match in the postseason against the Kansas City Current.
If the Reign can score early and dictate the pace of the game, they will find success as they have this year against the Wave. However, they will face a tough and cohesive San Diego squad on their home turf.
NJ/NY Gotham FC
NJ/NY Gotham FC upset the third-ranked North Carolina Courage 2-0 in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. The Courage were without MVP candidate Kerolin, who tore her ACL in the final match of the regular season. Gotham's high-octane attack came in waves and eventually broke down the Courage's tough defense to secure a semifinal slot. They will travel to Providence Park to take on the Portland Thorns, where they lost a match just earlier this month.
Gotham's star-studded frontline of Midge Purce, Lynn Williams, and Esther González would be lethal enough without Rookie of the Year contender Jenna Nighswonger's attacking midfield presence. However, their off-ball movement can leave them vulnerable to counterattacks, something that Portland is sure to capitalize on. If they cannot get on the board early in the game, they may need to rely on more heroics from veteran defender Ali Krieger.
They are riding the high of their club's first playoff victory and will hope to take that momentum with them to Portland.
Both semifinal matches will take place on Sunday, November 5. The Thorns will host Gotham at 7 pm EST. Shortly after that, San Diego will kick off against the Reign at 9:30 pm EST. In the NWSL's most competitive season yet, this round of the playoffs looks to be even more exciting than ever before.