It was always Seattle. No matter what Washington did in the regular season, when the playoffs rolled around, the Spirit always found themselves matched up against the Reign. Two fourth-place finishes, in 2014 and 2015, two semifinals against Seattle, both in Seattle. The Spirit had beaten the Reign a few times over the years, but it was always in the regular season. In the postseason, it was always Seattle that came out on top.
It was always FC Kansas City, too. In 2014, it was Portland that the Blues had to go through to make it to the final. Last year, it was Chicago. That was the Red Stars' first-ever postseason appearance, and Chicago, like Washington, couldn't overcome its opponent, setting up a second consecutive title game between Seattle and FC Kansas City.
This year though, there is no Seattle, the once-mighty Reign failing to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. And there is no FC Kansas City, either; the Blues failed to clinch a postseason berth too, and for the first time ever.
But the disappointing seasons for Seattle and Kansas City have opened up a whole new playoff world. FCKC isn't going to win another trophy, Seattle's not going to lose one. Only one of the four playoffs teams -- Portland -- has won the NWSL Championship before, and only two -- the Thorns and Flash -- have even played in a title game, and all that happened way back in 2013. This year, one of the teams we'll see in the final on October 5 is one that's never been there before. This year, either Chicago or Washington, two teams that have zero postseason wins between them, will have a shot at an NWSL title.
But to get there, one is going to have to defeat the other.
History: Chicago and Washington did just play each other on the final weekend of the season, which was last weekend, and the Red Stars won 3-1. That game was in Chicago, and it was the second of this season's two meetings between the two teams. Washington won the first one, 2-0, at the SoccePlex back in July. The Red Stars, in fact, have won just one game ever at the SoccerPlex, and that was back in 2013 when the Spirit was the league's worst team. Since then, the best result Chicago's managed in the place we're pretending is D.C. is a 1-1 draw that happened more than a year ago, in July of 2015.
The Red Stars' win last weekend was a big one for both teams, though for very different reasons. For Chicago, it sealed a third place finish and kept the Red Stars from having to face the Shield winners in the semifinal. But the good news for Chicago was bad news for Washington. The Spirit needed a win in that game to claim the NWSL Shield and a top of the table finish. The loss, combined with Portland's win on Sunday, left Washington to finish in second. It's still the best-ever result for a Spirit team that was the league's worst just four years ago, but coming so close still has to sting a little bit.
Or does it? In a conference call on Wednesday, Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said the team had "achieved two of its three goals, with the third goal being the championship." The other two: making the playoffs and hosting a semifinal. No mention of winning -- or not winning -- the Shield.
Second in the table and a home playoff game are indeed both huge achievements for the Spirit, and two things that have come in Gabarra's first year back in Washington since he coached the Freedom in the WPS days. He's up for Coach of the Year for his part in Washington's rise from a fourth place team to the one that went back and forth with Portland for the top spot all season.
Key players: Arin Gilliland and Christen Press (Chicago), Estefania Banini and Christine Nairn (Washington).
Gilliland is in her second professional season, and after being called into action immediately due to World Cup callups as a rookie, she's quietly established herself as one of the best defenders in the league. Gilliland is one of the finalists for Defender of the Year. Alongside Julie Johnston, Samantha Johnson and Casey Short, and with Alyssa Naeher behind them, Chicago allowed just 20 goals this season.
Press led the Red Stars in scoring with eight goals, and is definitely Chicago's biggest offensive contributor. She's hardly the only Red Star that's capable of scoring -- eight different Red Stars have found the back of the net this season -- but Chicago is also the lowest scoring of the four playoff teams. Press and Sofia Huerta have combined for more than half of Chicago's 24 goals.
Banini is the Spirit's leading scorer, but she also just returned to the field last weekend -- and saw only limited minutes -- after missing more than a month of action due to injury. Washington's been able to spread their scoring out a little more than Chicago, and Nairn, who's a key piece of the midfield and can also score from just about anywhere, will have to step up, especially if Banini can't contribute much.
Key matchup: Everyone, honestly.
Chicago and Washington have built their teams in incredibly similar ways and it's made them incredibly similar teams. You won't find many big names on either roster, and if you do, it's because those players, with a few exceptions, have spent their entire NWSL careers in their respective cities. It's made for two pretty similar styles of play, too -- solid defenses, midfields that are both tough and technically talented, and dangerous attacks. Both have one USWNT star up top and one in defense. Both have midfielders that really should be getting call-ups, but haven't.
All that makes Friday night's match a hard one to call. The other semifinal features a stacked Thorns side facing off against a Flash team that still sort of seems like it was just made up whoever could be convinced to play in Rochester. It's a game that in many ways seems like Portland's to lose. But that's not the case with Washington-Chicago. This one is a true toss-up.
I'm terrible at predictions but let's go for it anyway: The game gets delayed by a thunderstorm, hail, locusts, or some combination of the three, because some weird thing always happens when Chicago comes to the SoccerPlex for an important game. Sunday's semifinal in Portland finishes before Friday's game. Eventually 2-1 Chicago in extra time.
Match date/time: Friday, September 30, 8 p.m ET
Venue: Maryland SoccerPlex, Boyds, Md.
TV: Fox Sports 1