It may be getting colder outside, but the postseason competition is heating up across the leagues. Home field advantage proved key in the USL Conference Semifinals, with all four home clubs advancing to the next round. MLS playoffs kickoff after a two-week hiatus for international play, and the NWSL season wraps up with two teams looking for their first league championship.
The two Western Conference clubs meetup for the first time this season, both looking for their first USL Championship Final berth.
Orange County advances to its second-ever Conference Final after besting Oakland Roots in a 6-5 penalty shootout after the California clubs played to a 0-0 draw. After each side converted their five opening penalties, OC goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky came up huge with a diving save. The shootout almost continued when a Ronadlo Damus shot was saved by Oakland goalkeeper Paul Blanchette, but the penalty was replayed when the assistant referee ruled that the keeper left his line early—and the Haitian scored on his second attempt.
San Antonio FC heads into its first appearance in the Western Conference Final following a 3-1win over Rio Grande Valley FC, with forward Santiago Patiño’s brace leading the way in SAFC’s first victory in the South Texas Derby. The San Antonio defense remained strong, allowing just three shots on target.
The big question for Saturday – what will come out on top: San Antonio’s high-pressure offense or Orange County’s strong goalkeeping? This season, SAFC has posted the second-most shots in the Western Conference, while OC keeper Rakovsky has only conceded two goals since the beginning of October and posted two clean sheets in as many postseason matches.
Tampa Bay will play host to Louisville in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference final.
The Rowdies, who entered the postseason with the league’s best record, advances after a 1-0 victory over Birmingham Legion FC last weekend. Following a scoreless first half, forward Yann Ekraput put the 2020 USL Co-Champions ahead in the 57th minute off a cross from Conner Antley. LouCity heads into Saturday’s match following a game-winning 89th minute penalty from Cameron Lancaster in last weekend’s 1-0 win against Charlotte Independence.
Similar to the Western Conference matchup, it’ll be a battle of a high-scoring offense and a stingy defense. LouCity heads into the weekend second in the league in scoring, while Tampa Bay has conceded the fewest goals. The visitors will be looking for payback following last year’s postseason faceoff when the Rowdies claimed a 2-1 victory on the road.
Despite being separated three positions in the playoff standings, these Eastern Conference clubs have been pretty even throughout the season.
All three of their meetings ended in a draw, and they finished the regular season separated by only three points. Nashville will be looking to capitalize on their home field advantage and add to their streak of unbeaten home matches, dating back to November 4, 2020.
Orlando City punched its ticket to the postseason with a 2-0 win over CF Montreal on Decision Day. While Daryl Dike has delivered in the final stretch of the season—scoring seven goals in nine games—the Lions will need star players Nani and Mauricio Pereyra to step up, as many feel that their lack of quality and leadership was what led to the club’s playoff elimination last season.
Nashville secured the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a 1-1 draw against New York Red Bulls in their final regular season match – becoming the fourth team to clinch a playoff berth in their first two seasons as an MLS franchise. The Boys in Gold have been a formidable opponent this season – posting the fewest losses and tied for fewest goals allowed across the league.
Third seed Washington and fourth seed Chicago will both be seeking their first NWSL Championship title at Lynn Family Stadium (Louisville, KY) this Saturday—marking the first time that neither the #1 nor #2 seed have reached the final.
The Spirit secured their final berth with a come-from-behind win over OL Reign this past weekend. Reign took an early lead, but rookie Trinity Rodman pulled the Spirit even before halftime and Ashley Sanchez found the back of the net for the go-ahead goal in the 68th minute.
Red Stars punched their way to the final with an on-the-road upset of top-seeded Portland Thorns – a 2-0 win. Things weren’t looking good when former USWNT member Kealia Watt went down with an injury midway through the first half, but it was her replacement, Katie Johnson, who put the first goal on the board less than 10 minutes later. Sarah Woldmoe sealed the win in the 59th minute.
Saturday’s final will feature several USWNT players - Kelley O'Hara, Andi Sullivan, Emily Sonnett, Ashley Sanchez, and Ashley Hatch for Washington; and Tierna Davidson, Alyssa Naeher, Casey Krueger, Julie Ertz, and Mallory Pugh for Chicago.