Yes, I know. You probably have plans this weekend. The Olympics are starting and the biathalon is probably on at 9:30 or whatever. But you really should watch the W-League playoffs. Five Thorns players will be playing against the top opposition in Australia (Ashleigh Sykes and reported new signing Ellie Carpenter having just missed out in fifth place with Canberra).
Oz.com, which has been carrying all the televised W-League games so far, has a month-long free trial which will cover anyone who wants to watch the two semifinal games next weekend and the final on the 17th. Go and watch some quality soccer and get to know some Thorns just a little bit better.
It’s a four-team playoff, just like the NWSL—first vs fourth and second vs third. Sydney FC host the Newcastle Jets in the first semi-final on Friday at 9:45 PM PST, while Brisbane Roar host Melbourne City in the second on Saturday at 9:00 PM PST. The winners go onto the final on the 17th.
Sydney FC vs. Newcastle Jets
Sydney FC started the season shambolically. They lost their first three games and spent the first five weeks of the season on the bottom of the ladder. The rest of the season has seen them go on a nine-match unbeaten run and finish the season in second. Then a couple of things changed: Emily Sonnett, away for much of the early part of the season with the USWNT, rejoined. Caitlin Foord signed from Vegalta Sendai Ladies once the season in Japan wrapped up. But it was their depth and experienced players who stepped up to the plate, helping their wealth of new signings settle in after so much turnover in the offseason.
Now that everyone has finally gelled, Sydney have the most dangerous-looking front line in the league. Lisa De Vanna, who Americans will remember from her bicycle kick for Sky Blue in the first NWSL season, is still terrorizing defenses and beating players for speed at 33. Foord, joining the Thorns next season, is the closest thing to her successor for the Matildas, fast with the ball at her feet driving at defenders, but also very good at linking and building up play. Foord can deliver a scary cross from all ranges, a skill probably picked up during her many years at right back.
With Princess Ibini, the young winger who recently got her first senior international call-up, Sydney have a creative, quick and technical front line who like to stretch the play wide and bring each other into play. They generate a ton of quality shots—56% of the team’s shots over the course of the season have been on target, the highest of any team in the W-League.
On defense, Emily Sonnett is feeling the hype: her coach Ante Juric called her the best player in the league a few weeks ago, and Sarah Walsh, former Matilda and current W-League co-commentator, had similarly high praise, calling her the league’s most complete player. She has the capacity to run the show from the backline, picking out passes to the forwards while still attending to her defensive duties. It’s one of the things she said she joined the W-League to improve on, and with a strong defensive partner in Caitlin Cooper, Sonnett will get forward to join the attack if the opportunity presents itself. Orlando Pride keeper Aubrey Bledsoe is behind them in goal. Despite not looking particularly convincing when handling the ball, she boasts 83% of shots saved, the highest in the W-League.
Former Australian international Kylie Ledbrook, who retired in 2013 to start a family, rejoined Sydney this year due in part to the improved pay in the W-League. She’s been a massive influence in midfield alongside Matilda Chloe Logarzo, who has scored a couple of screamers in recent games. It’s earned her the nickname Golarzo (which, yes, does sound like “golazo” in an Australian accent).
Hey @emilysonnett can we agree on no fouls from behind this time? pic.twitter.com/lprPa1sNix— Katie Stengel (@ksteng12) February 8, 2018
The Newcastle Jets have been up and down almost all season.
The Jets go into the playoffs in the worst form of any of the top four. They’ve only won two of their last five games. It’s hard to predict which Newcastle will show up: the team that lost to bottom of the ladder Adelaide, or the team that destroyed Canberra United 6-1 to knock them out of playoff contention. Britt Eckerstrom has been great at stopping shots and closing players down this season, but still needs improvement organizing her box during set pieces, a weakness in the team that was exposed brutally in their 3-0 loss to Melbourne City in their final regular-season game.
Sydney last played Newcastle five weeks ago in round 10 and played them to a 2-2 draw. Sydney rushed out ahead with two early goals, both assisted by Caitlin Foord. The second assist was particularly impressive: Foord drove down the right, jumping over Tori Huster, before delivering a cross directly onto Princess Ibini’s head. Newcastle clawed their way back into the game after earning a penalty and scoring a late header, and held on at the end with some impressive saves from Eckerstrom, but they will need to be better to steal a win against Sydney on Saturday.
Brisbane Roar v. Melbourne City
The Brisbane Roar finished top of the W-League table for their play over the course of the season, and everyone agrees they’ve earned it. They’ve been the most consistent team in the league. That consistency is built on the back of the W-League’s best defense.
Led by Matilda Clare Polkinghorne, Brisbane’s defense have let in just 12 goals in 12 games, four less than any other team. New Orlando Pride signing Carson Pickett has played at left back and center back, and looks dangerous going forward. In goal, Mackenzie Arnold has been making her case to unseat Lydia Williams for the Matildas, stopping shots effectively and coming out to sweep on the rare occasion that Polkinghorne is caught out of position.
Brisbane’s midfield are no slackers, either. Tameka Butt, Katrina Gorry and Celeste Boureille are tenacious off the ball and tidy on it. Gorry will run the offense from deep, Butt makes forward runs, and Boureille cleans up behind them, winning loose balls and recycling them quickly into attack. Boureille earned her first professional goal this season and has looked impressive.
There are questions about their ability to finish—they’ve only scored 21 goals all season, second-worst among the top six. Raso is their most consistently dangerous player up top, providing an important outlet on the wing, but has only scored four goals all season, and only two from open play. Allira Toby, Brisbane’s leading scorer, can fade in and out of games and rarely plays the full 90. Emily Gielnik, who joined the team partway through the season, has significantly improved their forward line, and will play on the wing opposite Raso—they switch sides often.
Everyone needs a team to root against. Conveniently for Thorns fans, the one team in the playoffs without any Thorns players in it also happens to be stuffed to the gills with Seattle Reign players, with Steph Catley’s recent transfer taking their total to six. Melbourne City have won every single W-League grand final since the women’s team were introduced in 2015, winning the playoffs last season after sneaking in from fourth spot.
Jess Fishlock, who was player/manager at City last season, runs the midfield with her trademark high-energy game alongside Japanese international Yukari Kinga. Alanna Kennedy is a steady presence at center back alongside Lauren Barnes. Lydia Williams, who started the season looking shaky and letting in unnecessary goals by giving the ball away when playing out, has improved as City have reorganized their play around her strengths. She now distributes the ball less and is allowed to just make save after excellent save.
Larissa Crummer is a handful up front, and Jodie Taylor, who joined City very late in the season, recently got off the mark with her first W-League goal of the season in the final game against Newcastle, and will want to impress ahead of her move to Seattle. It’s a team that’s stacked with talent, but whether they can put all their pieces together against the top competition has yet to be proven.
Brisbane faced Melbourne City last just two weeks ago, and the two played out to a scoreless draw, their two high-pressing midfields canceling each other out. Both sides will want to do better in the semifinal. Boureille needs to prove she can impose herself on a game against top quality competition, and Raso will want to have something on the box score to show for all her hard work. Neither will want to let down Mel Andreatta; the passionate Brisbane manager masterminded their Premier’s Plate victory this season, just a year after the team missed the playoffs.
How to watch:
Sydney FC vs Newcastle Jets FC
Where: Leichhardt Oval, Sydney
When: Friday, February 9, 9:45 PM PST
Brisbane Roar vs Melbourne City
Where: Perry Park, Brisbane
When: Saturday, February 10, 9:00 PM PST