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Four storylines to look out for during the NWSL playoffs

The quarter-finals are here and we have some things to unpack heading into this weekend

Racing Louisville FC v NJ/NY Gotham City FC Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

With the NWSL playoffs now set and just around the corner (Sunday, November 7th. Bookmark it.), anyone interested in seeing how the quarter-finals will go should have plenty to look forward to. Not to mention that once we get the two winners from those games, Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign will be waiting to make their mark on the playoffs, and potentially, on the NWSL Championship.

Heading into playoff weekend, here are four big plotlines that you should look out for.

The swan song of Carli Lloyd’s professional career

This could be the last time we see Carli Lloyd in her cleats (if NJ/NY Gotham FC don’t make it past Chicago). We’ve already watched her say her goodbyes to the USWNT and now, we could be one game away from her saying goodbye for good to her football career.

Racing Louisville FC v NJ/NY Gotham City FC Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

Lloyd marked her last regular season appearance with a goal in Gotham’s 1-1 draw against Racing Louisville and will now set her sights on leaving the game with a NWSL Championship in her pocket. And why shouldn’t she? She’s accomplished everything one can at the international level and all that’s left is winning something with her club team to end her career on a high.

With Midge Purce and Ify Onumonu poised to play alongside her on Sunday, Lloyd will look to stun the Red Stars in Chicago and push her team one step closer to a spot in the NWSL Championship game on November 20th in Louisville. Gotham FC come into the playoffs unbeaten in eight games, however with only three wins in that run, they will look to make sure that the streak continues but with more wins than draws.

No matter what happens this weekend, Carli Lloyd has left her mark on the game and will undoubtedly be remembered as someone who gave their all to it.

The Spirit deserve a standing ovation

Seriously. They do. When you consider everything off the field (and on it) that the Spirit have had to contend with over the last few months (and longer), their place as one of the hosts in the first round in the playoffs should be applauded.

Houston Dash v Washington Spirit Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

They’ve had to deal with a COVID outbreak that led to two forfeited games, an owner who doesn’t want to sell and is willing to lose money over it and a former coach and GM who regularly abused the players. This was all ongoing while they were pushing for a place in the playoffs.

Their pure grit, determination and unshakeable belief in themselves saw them pick up five wins out of six after being handed two 3-0 losses and not playing a game since August 29th. Our friends over at Black & Red United will probably have a more nuanced take on the Spirit’s season but for now, the veteran leadership on the team and quite frankly, some outstandingly talented youngsters, have the Spirit on the verge of something great. They have the NC Courage to deal with first but with the run they’re currently on, they will be thinking “why not us?”.

The Courage have a chance to redeem their season

It’s been a long, long time since we can say that the NC Courage aren’t the favourites of any game they’re about to play. This season, that has been the case on numerous occasions before and after the departure of Paul Riley as the head coach.

Racing Louisville FC v North Carolina Courage Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The Courage haven’t been the same juggernaut that has ruled over the NWSL this season. They lost key players in Sam Mewis, Crystal Dunn and Abby Dahlkemper but they still had Lynn Williams, Debinha and Jess MacDonald to keep them going. For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened and the Courage have been a pale imitation of the all-conquering team we’re used to seeing.

All is not lost for the Courage though. They still made the playoffs (by the skin of their teeth) and will now look to end this season on a much more positive note. They travel to Washington to face the Spirit, who will probably be the pre-match favourites, but as anyone knows in football, this sport is unpredictable and if the Courage of old shows up on Sunday, we may need to rethink how this season ends for the North Carolina side.

The Red Stars are so unpredictable that they may just win the whole thing

I can’t quite make sense of the Chicago Red Stars. Sometimes, they look so impressive solid from front to back and other times, they look a goal away from completely crumbling. Their results throughout the season have exemplified this and yet, they still have the capability to be this season’s dark horses and surprise a lot of people.

Chicago Red Stars v OL Reign Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images

At the center of how well Chicago could do is Mallory Pugh. If she has a good game, Chicago win, If she has a so-so game, Chicago tend to lose. Pugh will be the determining factor of how far the Red Stars could go when all is said and done.

Don’t get me wrong, the backline for the Red Stars; in particular Casey Krueger and Sarah Gorden, have been immense but with such a yo-yo feel surrounding the team, even their efforts may be in vain. The Red Stars host Gotham FC on Sunday afternoon and will not want to crash out of the playoffs at the quarter-final stage. Pugh, and Kealia Watt, will need to be incredibly efficient in front of goal while the likes of Krueger and Gorden have been tasked with keeping Lloyd, Purce and Onumonu quiet for 90+ minutes. That’s a big ask but one they will have to answer if they want to make it to the semi-finals.

Quarter-final playoff schedule (Sunday, November 7th)

Chicago Red Stars vs NJ/NY Gotham FC: 3pm EST/12pm PST (CBSSN)

Washington Spirit vs NC Courage: 5:30pm EST/2:30pm PST (Paramount+)

Note: All playoff matches will be available internationally on Twitch.