- The Portland Thorns and the Kansas City Current will square off in the NWSL Championship on Sunday
- How did these two teams make the Championship game? Let’s talk about that
The NWSL semifinals did not disappoint.
In the first game of the weekend, the Portland Thorns and the San Diego Wave fought to the final moments of second half stoppage time to decide a winner. In the second game, the Kansas City Current scored a go-ahead goal early in the first half and never looked back as they blanked the 2022 NWSL Shield-winning OL Reign on the road.
Though both Portland and Kansas City put together impressive seasons on the way to the NWSL Championship, there was no guarantee that they’d end up in the final match of the year. So what made each team so successful this season? Let’s talk about that.
When we talk about Portland, we have to highlight how much success they’ve had in the attacking third. Excluding own goals, the Thorns put away 47 goals in 22 games, which comes out to a 2.1 goals per game average. That’s more than any other team in 2022.
Of course, that’s not surprising when we consider their attacking personnel.
MVP candidate Sophia Smith scored 14 of the Thorns’ goals in the regular season and directly contributed to 17 total after adding three assists. She’s lethal on the dribble and works hard on both sides of the ball. Fourteen different players added to the Thorns’ goal tally in the regular season, though, and 17 different players recorded assists on the way to the playoffs. Altogether, it’s clear that the entire Portland squad shared attacking responsibilities, even if Smith has shouldered much of the goal-scoring. Case in point: Crystal Dunn scored the game-winning goal from distance in Portland’s semifinal after making her way back from maternity leave in just five months.
Moving back a bit into Portland’s midfield, that’s probably where there were the most question marks ahead of the regular season. Longtime Thorns player and USWNT veteran Lindsey Horan signed with French side Olympique Lyonnais ahead of the 2022 season, and 2021 MVP finalist Angela Salem announced her retirement in the offseason. Lucky for the Thorns, Sam Coffey’s midfield dominance shored up the middle of the park for the Thorns and quelled those concerns.
Coffey had the best goals added per 96’ of all defensive midfielders who logged at least half of the regular season (0.06 g+ per 96’), and ranked first in dribbling goals added of midfielders in this group (0.04 dribbling g+ per 96’). Stats aside, Coffey’s ability to be a playmaker for the Thorns and dictate the tempo of the midfield was clearly key to Portland’s success. It’s almost hard to believe that this is Coffey’s rookie season.
Rounding out this discussion with the Portland defense, they need to be given credit for the Thorns’ mind-boggling +25 GD on the season. Excluding own-goals, Portland allowed the third-fewest goals in the regular season (23). Much of that can be chalked up to Bella Bixby’s league-leading nine shutouts (tied with OL Reign’s Phallon Tullis-Joyce).
Bixby had the second-best goals minus expected goals value in the league (-0.18 per 96’), which was best of all goalkeepers who made the postseason. She also had the second best shot-stopping goals added value of all goalkeepers (0.19 per 96’), only behind Racing Louisville’s Katie Lund in both categories. Her numbers match up with the eye-test, too, considering she was pulling off saves like this in the Thorns’ semifinal.
KANSAS CITY CURRENT
Seeing the Thorns’ name on the NWSL Championship docket is probably not surprising given their persistent status as a powerhouse in this league. The Current’s name in the headlines might be turning some heads, though. After finishing the 2021 season in dead last, the Current have been on the rise in 2022. Kansas City put together a record-breaking campaign, and went unbeaten through 13 games as they vied for the NWSL Shield in their second year of existence. Talk about exceeding expectations.
Even so, some of their regular season numbers don’t exactly jump off the page.
The Current’s goals-for and goals-against values are roughly around the league’s average, at 29 and 27 goals, respectively. They relied on penalty-kick goals to secure points more than once before the playoffs, considering they were awarded–and converted–the most penalties of all teams this season.
Their +2 goal differential was the smallest positive differential of all teams, and it was also smaller than a couple of teams that finished below them in the NWSL standings (looking at you, Chicago and North Carolina). All this to say that the Current were operating on fine margins all season. Kansas City recorded six draws across their 22 games, and of the remaining 16 games that had winners, 12 of them were decided by only a single goal.
All a team needs to win a soccer game is one goal, though, especially if AD Franch is between the posts. So far in the playoffs, Franch has made 11 saves and boasts a 92% save percentage. She’s the only keeper in the 2022 postseason to concede zero goals, and with her most recent clean sheet against the OL Reign, she tied the record for most shutouts in the NWSL playoffs (3) while breaking the NWSL postseason saves record.
Those goalkeeper stats are ridiculous, but Franch is also a key player in the Current’s attack apparently, as she started five possessions that ended in a goal during Kansas City’s regular season.
Some of those goals were probably scored by Kansas City’s attacking trio of Lo’eau LaBonta, Cece Kizer, and Kristen Hamilton. The three of them have combined for 69% of the Current’s goals this season and make up half of the Current’s unique scorers list. Hailie Mace (4), Elyse Bennett (3), and Claire Lavogez (2) were the other goal scorers for Kansas City this season.
Of the Current’s six goal scorers, Lo’eau LaBonta has been having her best season to date. I’ve written about LaBonta’s brilliance repeatedly since the summer, so I’ll just summarize all of those pieces here: Lo’eau LaBonta is very good at soccer. Here’s video proof:
Unfortunately for the Current, Lavogez suffered a torn ACL in their first-round match-up with the Houston Dash, and Cece Kizer exited the Current’s semifinal match over the weekend with a possible concussion. That means LaBonta and co. will have to step up big time to bring a trophy to Kansas City. I have no doubt that Kansas City’s cast of characters will do just that, especially considering the Current have shown no signs of slowing down in the playoffs.
It’s impossible to tell who will come away with the NWSL Championship trophy on Saturday, but I can guarantee that Portland and Kansas City will put on a very good show. And when that happens, we all win.
Data courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.