PORTLAND, Ore. – The National Women’s Soccer League walks the same path as the rest of the United States sports landscape in having playoffs, a custom that deviates from much of the soccer world. But for the players about to experience NWSL Playoff soccer for the first time when Portland Thorns FC hosts Seattle Reign FC (12pm PT, Lifetime | TICKETS | Presented by Tillamook Yogurt) – players like Andressinha, Ellie Carpenter, Ana Crnogorčević, and Midge Purce – this won’t be the first time they’ve faced a winner-take-all scenario.
“I was in Frankfurt, and at the end of the season, you have a Champions League final, or you have a (German) Cup final,” Crnogorčević explains, having joined Portland from her long-time Bundesliga club this spring. The Switzerland international was part of FFC Frankfurt’s European titlist three years ago, a team that defeated Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League final.
Still, for Crnogorčević, the leadup to her first NWSL playoff game has taken on a distinct feel.
“This is a special week,” she admits, following the team’s first full training session of the week. “It feels special. It’s also a week where the team gets closer … You need each other.”
It’s a element that also stands out to Carpenter, who has played in Olympics and Asian Football Confederation championships with Australia. But “for club, I haven't made a semi or a final,” she says.
“[The NWSL playoffs are] different because we played a whole season together. All the hard work and sacrifice we’ve put in, and it’s coming down to these last two games. It makes it even more special that we could have two more home games, in a row.
“That’s an amazing thing that we can give to our fans,” she says. “They’re going to be a really big part of how we play, with 21,000 people in the stands.”
That, above all else, is why Saturday may be different. While players like Crnogorčević and Carpenter have played must-win games at the highest levels, those matches often see smaller crowds. Fourteen of the 26 games at the 2016 Summer Olympics failed to match the 21,144 in attendance at Friday’s regular-season Thorns-Reign game, and while only 34 of the 56 games at the prior year’s World Cup eclipsed Providence Park’s capacity, crowds at major tournaments tend to show split allegiances, or perhaps a majority of neutrals.
Though there will surely be Reign fans in Goose Hollow on Saturday, the predominant element at Providence Park at Saturday will be aligned with the Rose City Riveters, who will be supporting the Thorns.
“I’m so excited,” Purce said, four days before the first playoff game of her professional career. “This is incredible, to me. And the fact that we’re here, at home, and we secured that? I think this is insane. I’m just trying to soak it all in.”
Purce’s excitement is shared throughout the team, but the impact of that feeling on the week’s preparations is something different. Player for player, Thorns said Tuesday’s training session was like any other practice head coach Mark Parsons led throughout the season. And within that session, the day’s tasks overshadowed the specter of the coming playoff.
“There’s for sure a bit of a buzz this morning in our locker room …,” Purce confesses. “That feels good, but other than that, practice was similar to the practices we had. We’ve been working on the same things that we’ve been working on and perfecting and polishing.”
Perhaps it helps that the team has considered itself in playoff mode for some time. Although Tuesday’s practice may have felt like another day at the park, those days have, over the last months of the season, been defined by an implicit urgency. There was a time this summer when Portland’s playoff fate was in doubt, and even after that, the push for home field advantage came into focus. Though the team is preparing for a season-defining game on Saturday, so many matches through the season’s final rounds felt like make-or-break moments.
“For us, every game was so important, because we needed the points,” Crnogorčević explains. “We dropped some points at the beginning of the season, and it was clear: we need three points; we need three points; we need three points. Since July, it was clear. You always had to prepare to be at your best.”
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by midfielder Celeste Boureille, who is on the verge of starting in the playoffs for the first time. Asked if this week’s preparations are different from the knockout round experiences in her past – her NCAA tournament games at Cal-Berkeley, or her semifinal appearance this offseason with the W-League’s Brisbane Roar – Boureille confessed the comparisons hadn’t crossed her mind.
“I feel like I haven’t really thought of it like that, when you say that,” she says. “But at the same time, every game this season has been so important. Last weekend felt like it was a playoff game, because we wanted to host so badly.
“Going into it this weekend, I’m just going to keep the mentality that we’ve had, all these games. We have to win. No matter what. No, I haven’t really thought about it any differently.”
Perhaps, for the team, the turnaround from Friday is too quick to get too caught up in playoff talk. Even the first timers are able to compartmentalize the postseason, knowing it’s there while remembering what’s made the team successful. And even in the eyes of those who haven’t been here before, translating that success to the playoffs will hinge on staying true to what’s worked.
“That’s the key to performing in these big games, even though I haven’t performed in a big game similar to this one,” Purce says. “I’m just trying to keep it business as usual, normal as usual. You know what you need to do. Handle your responsibilities. The rest should fall into place.”