Courage host Reign, Thorns visit Red Stars in NWSL semis

October 18, 2019

Don't be so quick to hand the North Carolina Courage the National Women's Soccer League championship, Megan Rapinoe says.

Rapinoe's Reign FC visit the Courage on Sunday in one NWSL semifinal match, while the Portland Thorns play at the Chicago Red Stars in the other. The Courage, who finished atop the league standings, are favored to win the title for the second straight season.

"We for sure are the underdogs. But, you know, I think from that perspective, I love the way that we play, and what we can bring," Rapinoe said. "We're kind of the underdog. We have nothing to lose. So I'll be wreaking havoc on them all day, hopefully."

Rapinoe, who has been hampered at times by injury since the United States won the Women's World Cup in France this summer, said she plans to play.

Despite her optimism, the Reign face a considerable challenge in the Courage, the NWSL Shield winners for the third straight year with a 15-5-4 record. The Courage also set a league record for goals in a season with 54.

Paul Riley's side is loaded with talent, including national team players Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, Jess McDonald and Crystal Dunn. Lynn Williams led the team this season with 12 goals.

"They can just attack from so many different areas," Rapinoe said. "I mean, they have Crystal Dunn, Debinha, Lynn Williams, and Jess McDonald, and Sam Mewis coming out of the midfield. I mean, they're stacked all over the field. They're just relentless."

The Reign finished fourth in the standings with a 10-6-8 record. Rapinoe and USWNT teammate Allie Long are joined on the squad by England's Jodie Taylor and promising rookie Bethany Balcer, who had six goals this season.

The Reign's semifinal comes amid rumors that coach Vlatko Andonovski is the front-runner to coach the national team. Jill Ellis, who led the team to back-to-back World Cup victories, stepped down earlier this month.

Riley and Utah Royals coach Laura Harvey have announced they aren't pursuing the post.

Reacting to reports that his appointment was imminent, Andonovski told reporters on a conference call: "As of right now, none of that is true."

The Thorns, meanwhile, have won just once in the last five matches, and they've scored only one goal over that span. But it's worth noting that before that string they beat the Red Stars 3-0 at Providence Park.

"No, I'm not concerned," Portland's Midge Purce said. "We've been shut out, but that's fine. I think soccer and scoring is kind of like this with teams and individuals. I think it's really natural for teams to go like this and I think if we pop off at the right time it doesn't really matter."

Like the Courage, the Thorns (11-6-7, third in the standings) are loaded with talent, including national team players Tobin Heath, Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan and Adrianna Franch. Canadian Christine Sinclair leads the team with nine goals.

Historically the Thorns have fared well against the Red Stars: Chicago hasn't beaten them since 2013.

"If there's a way to get out of their slump in finishing, they probably feel good about who they have coming up on the weekend," Chicago coach Rory Dames said.

The Red Stars (14-8-2, second in the standings) are paced by Australian Sam Kerr, the league's Golden Boot winner who scored 18 goals in 21 matches to break her own league record for goals in a single season. Kerr is widely expected to leave the NWSL and play in Europe next season.

The Red Stars have been to the semifinals five straight times but have never reached the final.

The winners of each semifinal will meet on Oct. 27 in North Carolina.

The NWSL, in its seventh season, has lasted longer than any other women's professional soccer league in the United States. Attendance during the regular season enjoyed the so-called World Cup Bump, with all nine teams seeing an increase.

The average across the league was 7,337 fans per game, up from 6,024 last season. That bodes well for the league's health as expansion rumors continue to swirl.

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