When the season started, Portland Thorns captain Christine Sinclair of Canada said anything less than a championship would be a disappointment.
That's because last season's exit in the National Women's Soccer League semifinals — at home — was a regret that needled the Thorns over the winter and into this season.
"Losing in the semifinals here was disappointing," the Burnaby, B.C., native said. "But it's things like that that motivate you."
Last season, Portland went 12-3-5 and finished with the league's best record but fell 4-3 in the semifinals to the Western New York Flash. The Flash went on to win the NWSL championship before moving to North Carolina as the Courage in the
This year the Courage won the Supporters' Shield after finishing the regular season atop the standings at 16-7-1. The Thorns (14-5-5) finished second in the 10-team league.
The Thorns will host the third-place Orlando Pride (11-6-7) on Saturday in the first playoff semifinal, while the Courage host the Chicago Red Stars (11-7-6) on Sunday in Cary. The winners will go on to meet on Oct. 14 at Orlando City Stadium for the final.
"We're not letting what happened last year happen again," said Portland's Tobin Heath, who recently returned from injury to a loaded lineup that includes fellow U.S. national team regulars Allie Long, Meghan Klingenberg and Lindsey Horan.
The Thorns also opened the season against the Pride, with Sinclair scoring in a 2-0 victory. It was the first of a league record 10 wins at home for Portland.
But the Pride would go on to get a boost from the return of Alex Morgan, who started the season playing in France, and the chemistry she developed with Brazilian star Marta, a five-time FIFA World Player of the Year.
There was a bit of trash talking this week between Thorns coach Mark Parsons and Pride coach Tom Sermanni in advance of the semifinal.
Sermanni fired first, saying he thought referees were intimidated by the big crowds at Portland's Providence Park and
Portland, which won the inaugural league championship in 2013, has never lost to Orlando, going 3-0-1.
The Pride was hurt when it was revealed this week that Brazilian midfielder Camila is out with an ACL tear in her right knee.
The Courage won its first four games and stayed atop the table for almost the rest of the way, led by Lynn Williams — last season's league MVP — with nine goals and five assists.
"No one has ever won the NWSL Shield and won the championship in the same season," North Carolina coach Paul Riley said. "We're 0-3 against Chicago, so we're the underdog, which is great. I don't mind the underdog tag."
Chicago, paced by forward Christen Press with 11 goals, stumbled in August with three losses at home but went undefeated for its final four games. U.S. teammate Julie Ertz had four goals and three assists playing a defensive midfield position.
The NWSL is wrapping up its historic fifth season. No other professional women's soccer league in the United States has lasted as long.
Sky Blue's Sam Kerr, also a standout on the Australian national team, won the Golden Boot award with an NWSL-record 17 goals this season, including two hat tricks. Marta had 13 goals and six assists for the Pride.
This season was the first that the league has had a national broadcast deal. The Lifetime channel featured an NWSL game each Saturday as part of a deal struck with A+E Networks, which bought a stake in league and became a sponsor.
Lifetime will televise both semifinals.
Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press