Let’s take a moment to delight in how incredible both quarterfinals were. Tension turned up to a million and the players on every team put on absolute shows. This league is so deep, fun, and so mind-blowingly competitive that the teams who lost can walk away knowing the difference between them and their opponents would make a gnat’s cough look like a hurricane.
There was a remarkable symmetry in both games, with each containing a fatal flaw for the loser, a match-winning goal, and an OMG DID YOU SEE THAT? moment. Let’s talk about them.
As matches wear on, particularly matches played in near 90 degree heat, tired legs lead to more gaps. In a tied game — and just as that was starting to happen — Dash head coach Juan Carlos Amorós subbed off Salmon in the 76th minute. Salmon’s calling card as a proven goalscorer at only 21 years old is being able to find those gaps and make runs that are impossible to cover with fresh legs, let alone tired ones.
Almost as soon as the sub was made, Kansas City began pressing Houston high. Without the threat of a long outlet, the Current could take up more aggressive positions. The move also freed Alex Loera, who was filling in well at defensive midfield for the suspended Desiree Scott.
The Dash had one good chance as Michelle Alozie found space to drive in on goalkeeper AD Franch, who made a fantastic 1 vs. 1 save. But it’s tough not to wonder what might have happened if Salmon had found that space. At the very least, her presence may have forced Kansas City to stay more honest defensively. Instead…
Don’t be fooled by Alex Loera being a center back or defensive midfielder, she’s still one of the most creative players on the pitch.
With Salmon off the pitch, she roamed around the box looking to make a difference. In the 10th minute of second-half stoppage time, she helped construct the match-winning goal with her only pass inside the box.
Kansas City’s positioning pinned Houston in deep, forcing them into a turnover. The ball pinged to Loera who spotted Lo’eau LaBonta (the Current’s primary creative player) at the top of the box.
The two read one another perfectly. Loera darted into space behind Houston’s backline after making the pass, and LaBonta spotted her and made a disguised first-touch pass to avoid tipping off defenders until it was too late. Loera then flashed the ball across the box to Kate Del Fava for the match-winning touch.
Sánchez was a genuine terror for Kansas City to cope with all match. One of the loneliest places to be on a football pitch is matched up 1 vs. 1 with Sánchez – who knows this and takes full advantage. She has the best left foot in the league while being a remarkably technical dribbler, and a brain stuck in villain mode that tells her to try to ruin the defender in front of her.
Sánchez’s usual weapon of choice is the nutmeg (dribbling the ball through a defender’s legs), but for this moment she took to the air.
A second Kansas City defender came over to block the shot at the very last moment, which was good awareness to cover a teammate, but also left us all gasping and wondering what might have been.
Though San Diego is an expansion team, head coach Casey Stoney has plenty of experience building a deep team, and The Wave brought in talent through every mechanism available. In addition to the expansion draft, which they shared with other newbies Angel City FC, they signed draft picks, made in-league trades, added through the Discovery List (Jaedyn Shaw), and recruited internationally.
Chicago, meanwhile, was far less active, even as they were devastated by long-term injuries, particularly to their defense, throughout the season. The result was the Red Stars relying on a smaller pool of players playing a significant amount of minutes. In a tough playoff match, that matters. Particularly against a side like San Diego which can offer not only fresh legs, but a variety of new problems to solve by making changes throughout the match.
Chicago was forced to make changes out of desperation. This forced players into positions and duties that were unfamiliar, but head coach Chris Petrucelli had no one else to call on.
Just like in last year’s Championship match, a tired defense finally caved, ending the Red Stars’ season. It’s unfair to the players who are giving their all, but are being let down (yet again) by their front office.
Casey Stoney listed Golden Boot winner Morgan and teammate Taylor Kornieck as very very questionable coming into the match due to injuries picked up a couple weeks back. A coach? Playing mind games? In the NWSL? Mama we’ve made it! Morgan and Kornieck were both in Stoney’s starting XI and both played over 100 minutes.
In the 110th minute, a corner was sent in that bounced harmlessly but was collected by Sofia Jakobsson, who passed it to Morgan and Chicago labored to get out and close down. Morgan took a speculative left-footed shot from a wide angle but got the ball to bounce just in front of USWNT teammate Alyssa Naeher and into the far side netting.
It was a special strike from a player who has led San Diego’s historic run to the playoffs, and into even more history as they become the first expansion team to reach a playoff semifinal. The Wave have already set the bar for future expansion clubs, and there’s no telling where it will end up once their season is done.
One of the most tension-filled and harrowing places to be in a winner-take-all soccer match is having a one-goal lead and trying to keep the ball away from the opponent. They can’t score without it, so teams and players typically deploy every tool to maintain possession of the ball.
Players will take turns drawing yellow cards for time wasting, and instead of heading toward goal, players will dart toward the corner to continue the game of keep away. Most teams get away with it, but there are times the opposition wins the ball and puts hearts in throats as they head the other way. However, San Diego has a secret weapon in Amirah Ali.
Ali is a rookie from Rutgers but has already shown a remarkable ability to keep the ball tied to her foot while twisting, turning and feinting. Ali used all of these skills while holding off and dribbling away from two Red Stars defenders. It’s not often that a time wasting maneuver becomes ‘OMG Did You See That?’ but, uh, OMG DID YOU SEE THAT?