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The best NWSL semifinals ever featured 10 goals and guaranteed a first-time champion

It took two extra-time games, 10 goals, an upset, and one coach ejection to get there, but with semifinal wins this weekend, the Washington Spirit and Western NY Flash are going to Houston and the NWSL Championship game.

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Opening day. It's April. Spring, if you live in a place where there are seasons, just Saturday if you don't. Your team is taking the field for the first time, and you pile into the bleachers or crank up the old YouTube machine. You've studied the roster, said goodbye to old favorites, anticipated all those rookie debuts and the magic that that one big signing will bring.

You think about last year -- good or bad -- but only for a moment, and then you erase it. Now, it doesn't matter. Doesn't matter if you finished at the bottom of the table or lifted a trophy in October. Doesn't matter if your whole team retired or you signed the greatest player in the world. Today, everyone is good and everyone is bad. By next week, or maybe by tonight, you'll have written the whole thing off. But not today. Today is hope and promise and your team, and you, are invincible. You're sure you're going to win it all.

Then there is that record scratch back to reality. For some, it's quick. By May that great montage moment ends. For others, it goes on, maybe until August, or Labor Day if you're lucky. Here, in a 10-team league, by late September, time's run out for almost everyone though. Then, there are only four teams left, four teams that took that hope and turned it into something tangible -- a season that was the one you were always supposed to have, the patience required to build something from within finally paying off, a success that feels somehow defiant.

Those were the four playoff teams at the beginning of this weekend. Portland, the powerhouse on paper finally living up to expectations on the field. Washington and Chicago, two teams carefully constructed and slowly climbing the ranks from terrible to true contenders. Western NY and a season spent proving that it was possible, both despite this roster and this coach, and because of those things too, to reclaim some far-off former glory.

Those were the four. Now, there are two.

Washington's dream season, the one where they hung out at or near the top of the table all season long and then got a home playoff game for the first time ever, continues thanks to a 2-1 win over Chicago on Friday night. Western NY's season goes on too, the Flash knocking off Portland 4-3 on Sunday, reminding everyone along the way that the road to success is not always paved with a star-studded roster.

For Washington, Friday's win is by far the biggest in club history. They'll have a chance to top it next weekend of course, but whatever happens in Houston, 2016 will be the Spirit's best-ever season. Washington had never won a playoff game before, and they'd tried twice. In both 2014 and 2015, the Spirit made the playoffs as the fourth-place team, and both times they lost to Seattle.

Washington came close to beating the Reign that first year, taking a 1-0 lead into the 72nd minute before Seattle scored twice, turning on whatever that late-game magic thing they always seemed to do was. Last year, it was never really close. Washington held onto a 0-0 draw into the second half, but then it was all Seattle, again, and an eventual 3-0 loss for the Spirit.

Washington must have temporarily flashed back to 2014 on Friday night then when, after leading 1-0 for 80 minutes thanks to a goal by Ali Krieger, Chicago's Christen Press found the equalizer. The Red Stars and Spirit had split their season series and Chicago historically hasn't had much success in D.C., but with Press' goal, it also felt like the momentum was starting to shift in their favor.

There are good Spirit stories from before this season. Crystal Dunn's 2015, the way Mark Parsons turned the team around when he took over midway through a dismal 2013 season, and of course, the one where they made the playoffs a year after finishing dead last.

That was 2014, and it was thanks, in large part, to a goal that Yael Averbuch scored. It wasn't the goal that got Washington into the playoffs, but it was the one that made it possible. That goal was probably the biggest in the Spirit's history until Friday night.

The Spirit didn't succumb to the same thing they had after giving up the late equalizer to the Reign two years ago. Instead, Washington hung on and forced extra time. Then, in the 111th minute, Francisca Ordega got on the end of a ball from Christine Nairn and reclaimed the lead for Washington. The goal came at the end of a well-worked series of passes between Nairn and Diana Matheson, and once Ordega put the ball past Alyssa Naeher, it also became the biggest one in Washington's history, the goal that put the Spirit through to the final.

With Washington's ticket to Houston booked, it looked like we might see another 1-2 final. The other semifinal was regular season champions Portland facing off against fourth-place finishers Western NY. No fourth-place team had ever made it to the title game, though that particular fun fact was just a footnote on the long list of reasons why it was unlikely the Flash would be able to beat the Thorns on Sunday.

Portland owned the season series with Western NY and even though the Flash's offense was the league's highest scoring, the Thorns weren't exactly lacking in the goals department. Portland also had the league's best defense in 2016, while Western NY allowed more goals than any of the other playoff teams. There was also experience - the Thorns had a ton, with a roster full of both NWSL veterans and international stars, while Western NY is much a younger and less experienced team.

It probably wasn't going to be a blowout, but Western NY couldn't possibly hang with Portland for 90 minutes in a huge game in front of a huge crowd, could they?

Turns out they could, and not just for 90 minutes, but for 120. The Flash took the lead early on a goal from Sam Mewis before rookie Makenzy Doniak doubled it in the 38th minutes. Then, the wheels started to come off for Western NY a little bit. Some defensive uncertainty allowed Christine Sinclair to cut the lead to one just before halftime.

Emily Sonnett, taking a page from Press and the Red Stars, eventually found the very late equalizer for Portland, forcing extra time in a game that will go down as one of the greatest -- and craziest -- in NWSL history.

Lynn Williams, who's already won the Golden Boot and is up for the league's MVP award, scored twice in the first extra time to make the score 4-2. Then Lindsey Horan got one back for Portland. And then, because extra time, six yellow cards, a seemingly endless number of missed calls, countless crossbars and Western NY head coach Paul Riley being ejected after making some sort of contact with the fourth official wasn't enough for one game, Abby Dahlkemper cleared a header from Horan off the line in the third minute of stoppage time at the end of the second extra time to preserve the win for Western NY.

Now, the Flash will take on Washington in Houston next Sunday in the NWSL Championship. It's somewhere Western NY has been before, though not for a while and not with a team that this one in any way resembles. The Flash played Portland in the 2013 final, losing to the Thorns and in a regular 90 minute amount of time, too. Washington has never played in a championship game before.

All that means that for the first time since 2013 we're guaranteed that a team that's never won an NWSL title is going to be lifting a trophy on Sunday night. Remember that thing you think about on opening day, the one where anything is possible and you're definitely going to win it all -- next weekend that's finally going to come true for either the Spirit or the Flash.


Washington Spirit 2 - 1 (aet) Chicago Red Stars

Portland Thorns FC 3 - 4 (aet) Western NY Flash