NWSL Playoffs: 3 key players to watch in the semifinal matchups

After an eventful international hiatus, the NWSL postseason resumes with two spots in the Championship up for grabs this weekend. Here are three players to keep an eye on during the semifinals.

Racing Louisville FC v NJ/NY Gotham FC
Racing Louisville FC v NJ/NY Gotham FC / Ira L. Black - Corbis/GettyImages

It has been like staring at an hourglass for the past week or so waiting for the NWSL semifinals to commence. Sunday night can't come soon enough. Four teams remain with only one having ever lifted an NWSL championship in the past. The road to reach this point has been everything but straightforward. One would think that theme would follow in the final three contests of 2023.

In the last two seasons, the No. 1 seed failed to reach the championship game, having been outscored 4-0 during that span. Casey Stoney and her San Diego Wave are well-equipped to put the luck back into the hands of the Shield winners. Portland Thorns, the defending champions has its eyes set on finishing its first repeat campaign after falling short of that twice before.

Then come the underdogs, OL Reign, and NJ/NY Gotham FC. The Seattle outfit just recently won its first postseason fixture since 2015 while Gotham came out on top in its first-ever NWSL playoff match against North Carolina. Every club has a unique storyline, making these final two weekends of soccer can't miss action.

Every postseason across the world of sports has the ability to turn stars into legends. The NWSL is no different. Players have the ability to be remembered by fans for their entire lives. In 2014 and 2015, it was Amy Rodriguez. In 2018, it was Jessica McDonald. How will it be in 2023? Here are three players you should watch this weekend that could make a difference in their team's season ending, or booking a spot at Snapdragon Stadium next Saturday night.

3 players to keep an eye on in the NWSL semifinals

3. Ali Krieger

When thinking about NJ/NY Gotham FC, the first thing that usually pops into everyone's head is the offensive depth. Rightly so. Lynn Williams, and Margaret Purce on the flank with Spanish forward Esther González down the middle give nightmares to any opposing coach.

If Portland Thorns are going to be upset in front of its fans at Providence Park, the defense has to continue what it did in Cary, North Carolina. Veteran central defender Ali Krieger is at the center of it all. Though, she is finishing her career in the next few weeks, No. 11 is not going to go down quietly. What she has been able to do at nearly 40 years old at a top-flight level is quite extraordinary. Krieger has competed in all 90 minutes of Gotham's last six contests. Only Rookie of the Year frontrunner Jenna Nighswonger competed more passes than the veteran this season.

With the club's season on the line in the last match week of the season, the 39-year-old laid her body on the line. She came came up with a critical goal-line save in addition to finishing with a team-high six clearances.

The former USWNT standout is one of five defenders up for the 2023 NWSL Defender of the Year. She is going to be tasked with assuring Sophia Smith, and Morgan Weaver among others cannot beat Amanda Haught between the sticks. That's the kind of edge-of-your-seat type action we all want to see. Her legacy is already cemented, but she could very well add to it on the West Coast.

2. Jaedyn Shaw

The San Diego Wave No. 11 has not only arrived at the club level, but she announced herself on the international level against Colombia. Jaedyn Shaw has been arguably the most influential piece to Stoney's team getting over the finish line and collecting the NWSL Shield. She'll be coming in with a whole lot of confidence from the senior national team camp with eyes to carry that into the semifinal.

San Diego has unitized her mostly as the No. 10 in the middle of the park with the freedom to roam on the wings or overlap the forwards in front of her. Just watch her last goal of the regular season. Alex Morgan held up the play brilliantly, slid the ball to Shaw who used her strength, patience, and elite on-ball elusiveness to find the back of the net. Those are the kinds of things that get USWNT fans elated for what is to come.

She finished top 14 in the league in total shot-creating actions and shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. Though she has only played in just over 110 minutes of playoff soccer in the NWSL, the USWNT youngster's play style is made for this time of year. She's like a painter. The football pitch is her canvas. In the midst of producing dazzling art on the grass, the Texas native exudes jubilation.

No. 11 in SD is just getting started in her professional career. That's ludicrous to think about. The 19-year-old has been an absolute joy to watch in 2023, so there is no reason why that won't continue with the league's most coveted prize on the line.

1. Sam Coffey

No club has a better midfield three. None. Many possess standout stars, but few have three that can contribute to a combined 22 goals in the regular season. Sam Coffey and Olivia Moultrie represent part of the USWNT future while Hina Sugita makes up the present of the Japanese national team.

One of the three is up for consideration for NWSL MVP in just her second professional campaign. Coffey, the player some dub as the next defensive No. 6 for the USWNT has been the anchor of the Portland Thorns in 2023. No. 17 was the only Thorn to have recorded more than 1800 minutes in regular season play.

She wore the captain's armband. Dove in for last-ditch tackles, and most importantly, found her teammates in the most dangerous of positions. No. 17 in red and black became the first player since 2019, and the fifth since 2016 to amass eight or more assists in a single NWSL campaign. Though she didn't reach that record this time, Portland has yet to drop a single game in 2023 when Coffey has attained at least one assist.

With two more, Coffey would have tied Tobin Heath's record for most by a player in a single season. Surrounded by several legends of the game, the midfielder has learned and adapted to the league almost seamlessly. The fact that it was a whole year between her fourth and fifth caps for the senior team is a crime.

Get ready to see the former Penn State star fly all over the pitch on Sunday night. Against Gotham this season, the U.S. international piled up a game-clinching assist in October while getting on the last nerve of attackers in June with five tackles, and four blocks.

The NWSL semifinals will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network on Sunday night beginning with Portland vs. Gotham at 7:00 p.m. EST.