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The first round of the NWSL playoffs is determined by goalkeeping errors

In football, one moment can change everything. The NWSL playoff matches this past weekend proved that point

North Carolina Courage v Washington Spirit: Quarterfinals - 2021 NWSL Championship Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

Sometimes, football is a cruel game. All it takes is one mistake, one small margin that determines the difference between a win and a draw, and during the quarter-finals in the NWSL playoffs, those margins were in full effect.

Chicago Red Stars and NJ/NY Gotham FC spent most of their match up trying to control the midfield as neither side were willing to let their opponents’ dangerous wide players influence the game. It was a battle of attrition which led to very few chances and both goalkeepers not having much to do.

What led to the eventual outcome of a Chicago win was one error. That was all it took for this game to flip on a dime and turn towards the Red Stars favour. Kailen Sheridan, who has had a remarkable season, decided to play the ball through the middle to McCall Zerboni as play resumed again. Chicago had spent most of the match cutting off the channels out wide so in order to avoid a turnover, Sheridan decided to pass the ball to her captain instead. This was exactly what Chicago had been waiting for.

The Red Stars had baited Gotham FC into trying to play through the middle and the minute that happened, they approached from Zerboni’s blindside and nicked the ball off of her close to her own area. Sarah Woldmoe, the player who had taken the ball off of Zerboni, then played a lovely through ball for Mal Pugh who took it first time and bent it past Sheridan.

That was the only goal that came in this game and it came off of one error. One moment in the match where things did not line up perfectly for one team and the other team took full advantage of it. Sheridan made up for her error with a great stop 1v1 against Pugh later on but that wasn’t enough to stop the Red Stars from knocking Gotham FC out of the playoffs, and sending Carli Lloyd off into the sunset without a coveted club title.

The game between the Washington Spirit and the NC Courage was another example of one moment changing the destiny of both teams.

Throughout the first 90 minutes and the first half of extra time, goalkeepers Aubrey Bledsoe and Casey Murphy had kept the scoreline at 0-0, despite multiple opportunities for both teams to score. In fact, their performances produced an important part of what turned out to be a highly entertaining match between two teams determined to attack as much as possible.

Debinha rattled the crossbar, Lynn Williams should have scored from close range, Trinity Rodman and Kelley O’Hara almost produced absolute beauties, yet Bledsoe and Murphy were there to keep their teams in the game.

As penalties began to loom closer, the Spirit quickly shifted the ball out wide to Trinity Rodman. The young starlet shifted inside and then shot towards goal. Murphy, who up until the 113th minute of this game, had been immaculate, failed to push the ball away from goal. Instead, she pushed it back into the middle, finding Ashley Hatch who finished into the top corner from close range.

Casey Murphy spent a long time face down on the grass after that goal and it wasn’t difficult to sympathise with her in that moment. She had done everything right and the one time she made a small mistake, she got punished for it.

It’s a heartbreaking way to lose a game especially considering how fantastic Murphy had been from the first whistle until that moment.

Football is a game of moments. Of one incident after another which determine whether a team wins or loses. This past weekend in the NWSL proved that unequivocally.