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The story of the NWSL semi-finals: defense

That age old refrain of “defense wins championships” may become a reality this Saturday.

NWSL: National Womens Soccer League Semifinal-NJ/NY Gotham FC at Portland Thorns Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Over 210 minutes during the NWSL semi-finals, two goals were scored. Just two. NJ/NY Gotham FC needed an extra time goal by Katie Stengel to book their place in the final while a shot-come-cross from Veronica Latsko got OL Reign to their first NWSL championship since 2015.

Both teams went up against the top two teams in the NWSL standings when all was said and done, and managed to keep both the Portland Thorns and San Diego Wave from being able to trouble their goalkeepers on a regular occasion.

A Krieger-led backline stymies Portland’s attack

On a wet Sunday night at Providence Park, Ali Krieger and the rest of Gotham’s backline were in impeccable form. Despite three of the four playing on yellow cards in the latter stages of that game, Portland only created to clear chances throughout 120 minutes of football. Mandy Haught in goal stopped Sophia Smith one-on-one and Morgan Weaver couldn’t sort out her feet quickly enough to make the most of her chance late in the first 90 minutes.

NWSL: National Womens Soccer League Semifinal-NJ/NY Gotham FC at Portland Thorns Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Apart from that, Gotham’s backline were steady and did what was required to keep Portland to just three shots on target. Looking at the lineups before the game began, Portland looked like they were ready to start on the front foot and stay there by moving Crystal Dunn further up the pitch. It may have led to some good attacking sequences for Portland but in the final third, Gotham’s backline prevented any of those sequences from become real goal-scoring opportunities.

Gotham’s defense was helped out by those further up the pitch, mainly Lynn Williams and Esther, who dropped back when needed to provide cover for their teammates. It made it even harder for the likes of Dunn and Smith to influence the game and gave the Gotham backline enough flexibility to shift with Portland whenever the ball switched sides. Once Stengel scored in the 107th minute, most felt that it would take something spectacular for Portland to come back in that game. That was all due to how well Gotham defended and it paid off as they saw off the previous NWSL champions and booked their first ever trip to the NWSL Championship.

Pressing proves key for OL Reign

Unlike Gotham, OL Reign defended from front to back against San Diego to make sure they too, would make the NWSL Championship. While the backline, led by stalwart Lauren Barnes proved difficult to breakdown for San Diego, it was the press by the likes of Jordyn Huitema, Rose Lavelle and Veronica Latsko that helped OL Reign win this game.

OL Reign didn’t press the entire game but chose their moments well of when to press, stopping San Diego from using Route 1 football to try and put Alex Morgan through on goal. The forwards pushed up against Abby Dahlkemper and Naomi Girma, stopping them making any big switches with a pass, and then the rest of the OL Reign team would push the Wave’s creatives players close to the sidelines to stop any central passes.

NWSL: National Womens Soccer League Semifinal-OL Reign at San Diego Wave Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

OL Reign have had San Diego’s number, in both regular season play and the Challenge Cup, by using similar tactics in each of those previous games. They had seen that San Diego don’t have the same depth of talent out wide as they do in the middle and made sure that San Diego could only attack from out wide, and not let the likes of Jaedyn Shaw get the ball in dangerous positions.

San Diego ended up with four shots on target but only one of those, by Alex Morgan, proved to be any danger for Claudia Dickey in OL Reign’s goal. The away side pressed the hosts to almost perfection and once Latsko got the goal they needed, OL Reign had enough veteran nous and experience to see out the game.

Both Gotham FC and OL Reign will now play each other in San Diego to become first-time Championship winners. Despite the semi-finals being a more defensive effort, this final may end up being more about which manager nails their tactical plan better. The two sided met twice in the regular season, sharing the spoils with one win a piece so there’s no telling which team is favoured to win the NWSL Championship. It may need another determined and smart defensive display from either team to get the win and both sides have shown that they’re fully capable of doing so.