NWSL’s Challenge Cup may be onto its semifinals, but the league’s 10th regular season kicks off this weekend, marking a milestone for an outfit that now boasts 12 teams. But before the fun begins, we’re looking back at the previous nine years to relive the best games in its history. There’s been no shortage of drama in the past, whether it was in upsets, shootouts, high-scoring affairs or playoff battles. For this ranking, we considered everything from game stakes, entertainment value, surprise of result, late-game heroics and more.
No. 10: A-Rod delivers Kansas City a second title
Oct. 1, 2015
The 2015 NWSL championship was a rematch of the ’14 edition, which saw FC Kansas City hang on to beat the Seattle Reign, 2–1. Seattle won the NWSL shield both years, having lost just five regular-season games combined, and featured a potent offense that entered the ’15 final having scored 46 goals in 21 games. But the Reign attack was tactically shut down in front of more than 13,000 fans at Providence Park, its best chance coming on a long-range Megan Rapinoe screamer that clanged off the left post.
An injury to Seattle defender Kendall Fletcher that brought in Elli Reed proved fateful, as Heather O’Reilly switched to the left wing and quickly took advantage of a bad touch by the substitute. O’Reilly lifted a cross into the box that found Amy Rodriguez, who nodded it past Hope Solo to convert her only chance of the match. That was all the offense Kansas City would need to win its second straight championship and send retiring star Lauren Holiday off in style.
No. 9: Portland stages semifinal comeback
Aug. 24, 2013
The first NWSL playoffs saw the Portland Thorns lift the trophy, but they wouldn’t have been able to do that were it not for their semifinal win over Kansas City that went to extra time. Playing in front of a home crowd in Overland Park, Kan., Vlatko Andonovski–coached Kansas City quickly went up 2–0 on goals by Erika Tymrak and Melissa Henderson. A Tobin Heath goal put Portland back in it before halftime, and then Tiffany Weimer evened things up on a well-developed team play in the 65th minute. It was Weimer who later delivered the pivotal assist to Allie Long, who buried the opportunity while falling down in the 103rd minute to send the Thorns to the final.
No. 8: Spirit edge Red Stars in championship thriller
Nov. 20, 2021
Perhaps there’s a bit of recency bias here, but the 2021 NWSL final delivered—not just with an on-the-field classic, but with a fresh-faced winner. Held later in the year than any other league championship game, the match promised a first-time victor and featured two resilient squads. Chicago had overcome key injuries to get there, while the Spirit had played much of the season’s second half under the shadow of organizational turmoil.
It was the Red Stars who struck first when Rachel Hill headed in a cross in the waning seconds of first-half stoppage time, but Washington tied things up when Tara McKeown won a penalty in the 67th minute and Andi Sullivan coolly buried it. The match then became just the second NWSL final to go to extra time, where defender Kelley O’Hara proved to be the unlikely hero when she got on the end of a pinpoint Trinity Rodman cross. A pair of big saves by Aubrey Kingsbury in the final minutes sealed the victory.
No. 7: Thorns, Pride put on a show on TV
July 14, 2019
NWSL had tons of momentum coming out of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, and that summer was a critical time for the league. Its partnership with A&E Networks had ended—including the Game of the Week on Lifetime—and it reached a midseason deal with ESPN to air several games on national television. The first pitted the Thorns and Pride on ESPNews, and while the Cup-winning USWNT players had not yet returned, the two teams made the affair more than worthy of a TV audience.
Orlando scuffled in with just two wins on the year, and things got worse when Portland scored in the third minute. Midge Purce later doubled things in the second half, and that’s when the fun began. Marta quickly answered with a banger of a goal to give Orlando hope, which Christine Sinclair seemingly soon quashed to make it 3–1. But a Thorns own goal then marked the fourth score in a 10-minute span, and that’s where things stood until the 90th minute. Erin Greening put away a brilliant half-volley just before stoppage to tie it, and there were mere seconds left when Gabby Seiler’s game-winning attempt was batted away by Kopmeyer. That meant the game would come down to a Portland corner kick—and Tyler Lussi driving a header into the net, sending Providence Park into pandemonium.
No. 6: Thorns top Reign in playoff edition of Cascadia Rivalry
Sept. 15, 2018
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You knew a Cascadia game had to be on here, right? The stakes for the NWSL’s biggest rivalry were never higher than they were for this 2018 playoff semifinal—the first time in 20 meetings (and still only time) that they would clash in the postseason. Both teams brought their A-games, including stellar saves by both Adrianna Franch and Lydia Williams. The Reign jumped out to an early lead when Jasmyne Spencer scored, but a Heath goal minutes before halftime swung the momentum back to the home side. While a controversial offside flag took away a Heath brace in the second half, the Thorns would still get the last laugh when Lindsey Horan headed home the game-winner in the 77th minute.
No. 5: Ratcliffe stunner hands Courage only loss
June 16, 2018
The Courage’s 2018 season was about as dominant as you’ll see in professional sports. They won 17 of their 24 regular-season games and cruised to the NWSL Shield and championship. North Carolina even won that year’s ICC tournament, including taking down European powerhouse Lyon despite the absence of several Courage stars.
But if there was one team that had North Carolina’s number that season, it was Utah. The Royals never lost to the Courage, scrapping out two draws and the only win against the juggernaut all year. It was a June night in Cary, N.C., when the memorable victory took place, and it took holding North Carolina’s high-octane offense in check for 90 minutes. The Courage, a team that routinely peppered opponents with shots, managed just four on target, and the longer the game went scoreless, the more the door creaked open for the Royals.
The game looked destined for a 0–0 draw before Utah earned a free kick in Courage territory with just 30 seconds to go in stoppage. The ball floated into the box and pinged off a defender, with North Carolina’s Jaelene Daniels about to clear it until Brittany Ratcliffe reached in with a slide tackle. Despite the play’s momentum going the other way, Ratcliffe successfully won the ball, immediately got up and launched a shot from just outside the box that sailed over the keeper and into the net. It was a spectacular goal to produce a stunning result, with a fitting play call from Tyler Terens: “Ratcliffe … great job to keep it in play—OH NO! She’s done it! Ratcliffe with a ridiculous goal in the 94th … a sensational strike that has stunned everyone here at WakeMed.”
No. 4: Flash outlast Thorns in semifinal
Oct. 2, 2016
The 2016 NWSL playoffs were truly heart-stopping, as all three games went into extra time. This semifinal featured the No. 1 seed Thorns going up against the No. 4 Flash in front of a raucous crowd of 20,086 at Providence Park. Sam Mewis got the scoring started in the 16th minute to put Western New York in front, but when Makenzy Doniak doubled that lead in the 38th minute, Sinclair answered a minute later to keep things tight heading into the break. Things stayed that way until Thorns defender Emily Sonnett found herself in the right place at the right time off a chaotic free kick, sending the Portland crowd into a frenzy.
The drama stretched to extra time, when Lynn Williams took matters into her own hands with a brace—the first in the 98th minute, the second in the 104th. But just when the game looked out of reach, Horan scored in stoppage of the first overtime period to revive the Thorns’ hopes. The match went down to the wire when Horan nearly did it again—only this time, Abby Dahklemper saved the ball just before the goal line to send the Courage to the final.
No. 3: Thorns shock Courage in Challenge Cup quarters
July 17, 2020
One of the most memorable upsets in NWSL history came at a significant time for the league. The inaugural Challenge Cup saw the NWSL become the first U.S. sports league to return during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a one-month tournament held entirely in a strict bubble in Utah. The Courage were heavy favorites, having won the last two championships and with the bulk of that core intact.
North Carolina cruised through group play to earn the top seed heading into the quarterfinals, meeting No. 8 seed Portland after a short-handed and young Thorns squad managed just three points and two goals in four games. The Thorns are historically far from an underdog in the NWSL, but that’s what they were on that day. Mark Parsons’ team withstood 24 shots from the Courage behind an otherwordly performance by third-string goalie Britt Eckerstrom—thrust into action after injuries to Franch and Bella Bixby—plus a midgame injury that sidelined Horan. Then, in the 68th minute, rookie Morgan Weaver put home a Rocky Rodriguez cross to break the deadlock. Eckerstrom continued to stand on her head as the Thorns held on over the final 22 minutes, effectively ending what turned out to be the last hurrah for that remarkable Courage core.
No. 2: Kerr’s four-goal game caps absurd comeback
Aug. 19, 2017
The days of Sam Kerr burning NWSL defenders and scoring in bunches may be over, but her legacy in the league won’t be forgotten. One of Kerr’s finest career efforts came in this 2017 NWSL barnburner between Sky Blue and the Seattle Reign—which, somehow, came not even a month after the two teams played to another exciting 5–4 result (that one in favor of the Reign).
In this one, the Reign jumped out to a 3–0 lead by halftime and looked to be cruising before Kerr took over, pouncing on a loose ball in the box in the 48th minute before striking again 20 minutes later to bring Sky Blue back in the game at 3–2. But the magic was only beginning. In the 71st minute, Kerr took on three defenders by herself before bending in a shot from outside the box, tying things up and completing a hat trick. The Reign could’ve folded after blowing their three-goal lead, but Kiersten Dallstream put in a rebound in the 85th minute to reposition Seattle for three points. Four minutes of stoppage time were added, and Sky Blue equalized almost immediately when Maya Hayes connected on a header in the box.
A roller-coaster game looked like it would finish 4–4 … until Sky Blue earned a penalty, setting up Kerr for a chance to win it with her fourth of the night. But her powerful attempt rattled off the crossbar, and as the seconds ticked away, her team won a final corner kick. Kerr didn’t miss this time, getting her head on a ball that popped up and nestled into the net for a 5–4 win. The celebration was on after one of the wildest NWSL games in history.
No. 1: Flash win dramatic championship on penalties
Oct. 9, 2016
The only NWSL championship (not counting Challenge Cup tournaments) to go to penalty kicks takes No. 1 on this list. But it’s not just about the idea of a shootout with everything on the line; it’s also the enthralling 120 minutes that preceded it when the Western New York Flash and the Washington Spirit met for the 2016 title.
Playing without coach Paul Riley, who was sent off in the Flash’s semifinal win, Western New York fell behind early after the Spirit’s Crystal Dunn beat the defense for a brilliant two-touch goal in the ninth minute. But Mewis would soon equalize on a long-range effort, and the game would stay deadlocked through the entire rest of regulation.
Almost immediately in extra time, Dunn struck again to put Washington back up one and on the cusp of a championship. And after Mewis couldn’t connect on a volley in the 116th minute to spoil a golden opportunity at another equalizer, the Flash were running out of chances. But with 30 seconds left in stoppage time and Western New York down to its last gasp, Jessica McDonald lofted a ball into the box and Lynn Williams beat two defenders and the goalkeeper to score a brilliant header. The championship went to penalty kicks, where the Flash prevailed 3–2 on the back of three huge saves by Sabrina D’Angelo. They won their first NWSL title in what would be their final season—with their roster, of course, being transferred to North Carolina, where the same core group would go on to be one of the most dominant forces in league history.
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