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Upset weekend arrives in the NWSL and we didn’t see it coming

A moment of magic from Ashley Sanchez and a resolute performance for Chicago means that we have two finalists that no one expected in the NWSL Championship game

Chicago Red Stars v Portland Thorns FC: Semifinal - 2021 NWSL Championship Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Honestly, did anyone have both the Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars making it to the final in Louisville this Saturday? Personally, I felt maybe one of those teams would cause an upset but both? I definitely didn't see that coming.

The Spirit had caused OL Reign all sorts of problems throughout the season and based on their form coming into the playoffs, I felt that they had as great a chance as everyone else to make a run in the playoffs. Chicago though, with the news that both Mal Pugh and Kayla Sharples were out of the team right before the match against Portland, that was an unexpected result.

Washington Spirit v OL Reign: Semifinal - 2021 NWSL Championship Photo by Stephen Brashear/ISI Photos/Getty Images

It took a flash of greatness from Ashley Sanchez for the Spirit to topple the Reign and one of the more grittier performances you’ll ever see from the Red Stars to stun the Thorns in front of their own fans.

Ashley Sanchez, what did you do?!

Watching this game, I knew that both teams were capable of producing something special at any moment and they had shown that throughout the regular season. Both sides have players who can create something out of nothing and on Sunday, the opportunity fell to Ashley Sanchez.

The game was tied in the 68th minute and the Spirit had spent most of the second half putting in great blocks and thanking the footballing gods that OL Reign didn’t have their shooting boots on that day. They got a set piece that OL Reign tried to clear but the ball fell to Sanchez and then this happened:

The angles don’t do this goal justice until the replay that’s behind the goal

Sanchez not only had the wherewithal to know that no one was at the back post, but she also had the audacity to try something so cute from such a tight angle. Not enough can be said for just how talented the Spirit’s frontline is but we can add that they have the guts to try out anything, even if the percentages are against that shot or movement being effective. Let’s hope they never lose that spark.

The Spirit have had so much happen to them on and off the pitch. Interim head coach Kris Ward and the veterans on the team have steadied the ship and pushed their team onward to not only make the playoffs but also make it to the NWSL Championship game. Who’s to say they don’t have enough still left in the tank to push this team over the line and make them NWSL champions for the first time in their history

A word on OL Reign, the losing side in this match. With Eugénie Le Sommer, Dzsenifer Marozsán and Sarah Bouhaddi set to return to Lyon, we can’t forget how they’ve risen to the occasion in the latter half of the season. Le Sommer scored one of the best goal we’ve seen in the NWSL and Marozsán showed us why she’s regarded as one of the best midfielders around. They’ve made their mark on the NWSL and we hope we’ll see them again one day. OL Reign will look to reboot next season and with a double expansion draft looming, there’s a good chance that this team will be broken up and remade into something new. Whatever may come, with Laura Harvey back at the helm, don’t be surprised to see them back in the playoffs again.

Chicago doesn’t care about your narratives

The Red Stars are a confounding team but it’s this that makes them so compelling to watch. Going into the match at Providence Park, not many had given them a chance to make it to the final due to notable absences that were announced a day before the playoff match. On top of that, they lost Kealia Watt in the first half to injury and it felt that everything that could go wrong for them was happening.

That is, until Katie Johnson decided to silence the home crowd.

Chicago weren’t done and in the second half, Sarah Woldmoe cemented Chicago’s resolve even further with a goal worthy of winning any match.

Chicago may have more focus on their attacking players but their backline has been one of the best in the league this season. Not only that, but head coach Rory Dames has found a way to tactically nullify every team he’s faced in the playoffs, no matter what players are or aren’t available to him at the time. If Sarah Gorden and Tierna Davies continue to be as rock solid as they’ve been, Chicago may just end up lifting the trophy in Louisville soon.

We can’t forget the other team in this match up. The Portland Thorns played exceptionally well over the course of the regular season to become the NWSL Shield winners and will rue their inability to break down the Red Stars backline. Mark Parsons has also officially signed off as the head coach of the team so next season, who knows that this Thorns team will look like when the dust settles after the expansion draft and the college draft. They still have players in that roster that could lead them to the playoffs again, Sophia Smith and Angela Salem to name a few, so I wouldn’t count them out just yet. This weekend’s loss will sting but the Thorns are the type of team to bounce back quickly from such a loss.

Storylines can help elevate a piece from a playoff win to something extraordinary. Both the Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars have narratives/storylines surrounding them that would make either side a worthy NWSL champion. Saturday’s final should be a fun, fun game.