NWSL playoff race has never been so close: what’s at stake, who should win


The final round of regular-season games is upon the National Women’s Soccer League, and there is almost nothing set about the playoff picture. Some of the most ridiculous potential scenarios that were at least mathematically possible a week ago (a six-way tie for first?) can no longer happen, but much still needs to be decided in the league’s most competitive season yet.

Unfortunately, it will not play out in six simultaneous matches on a “Decision Day” like in MLS and most leagues around the world. Instead, the four-team fight for the final two playoff spots will be a three-day chess match in which the first move affects everything that follows.

Meanwhile, three teams — the Portland Thorns, OL Reign and the Kansas City Current — are still in the hunt for the NWSL Shield, awarded to the team that finishes the regular season on top of that table. The Shield comes with a $10,000-per player bonus, which is significant for a league with a $35,000 minimum salary.

Six of 12 teams in the decade-old league make the playoffs, with the top two earning byes to the semifinals. Seed No. 3 will host No. 6 and No. 4 will host No. 5 in the first round, which takes place on Oct. 16 after an international break. The semifinals are the following weekend, followed by the NWSL Championship on Oct. 29 at Audi Field in Washington, D.C.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake this weekend, day by day, as well as outcome predictions from FiveThirtyEight simulations.


Friday, Sept. 30

North Carolina Courage at San Diego Wave

San Diego’s scenario: Already clinched playoff berth; playing for positioning

North Carolina’s scenario: Will clinch playoff berth with a win; with a draw or loss needs help with any other result

What’s old is new again: the North Carolina Courage will dictate how the entire weekend plays out.

It’s a win-and-in game for the Courage, who spent 12 straight weeks of the season in last place — a combination of poor results and scheduling problems that left them with several games in hand. Luckily for the Courage, those makeup games came right as they abandoned their yearslong commitment to the 4-2-2-2 box formation for a more stable 4-2-3-1.

They’ve climbed six spots in the table over the past five weeks and now control their own playoff fate. The highest they can finish is fifth, so they will be on the road in the first round if they make the postseason.

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A draw in this game would eliminate Angel City FC from playoff contention by all logic, even if not mathematically. The Courage would be three points clear of Angel City in that scenario and they would maintain a plus-13 goal difference, the first tiebreaker. Angel City’s goal difference is minus-2. They would then be rooting for Angel City on Sunday, when the Los Angeles side visits Chicago. A Red Stars win would be enough, in that scenario, to eliminate North Carolina.

If the Courage lose in San Diego on Friday, their only path in is for Sunday’s Red Stars-Angel City FC game to end in a draw. Either of those teams would leapfrog North Carolina with a victory in that scenario.

The San Diego Wave, meanwhile, backed their way into the playoffs on Saturday with a 2-2 draw in Orlando, a gutsy two-goal comeback with Alex Morgan on the sidelines as a precaution (knee). Down 2-0 at halftime, the Wave were staring at the prospect of heading into Friday’s finale against the red-hot Courage knowing that a loss, combined with other results, could boot them from the playoffs altogether. Abby Dahlkemper left Saturday’s game early due to an injury that head coach Casey Stoney later said could be serious, and Taylor Kornieck rolled her ankle in the final minutes, after scoring the equalizer.

If San Diego wins and OL Reign and Kansas City both lose or draw, the Wave would climb to second, which would earn them a bye to the semifinals and an extra week off, something that could benefit them if injuries are a concern. They currently sit fourth, which is good enough for a home playoff game in the first round but could fall to fifth if they lose Friday and the Houston Dash beat the Washington Spirit on Saturday.

The Wave spent 13 weeks atop the table, an incredible feat as an expansion team, but the draw in Orlando put the Shield out of reach. Portland has a superior goal difference by plus-14.

FiveThirtyEight predicts: 47% chance North Carolina wins (24% draw)

North Carolina is arguably the most in-form team in the league right now, and the Wave enter this game with some injury question marks. Momentum is with the Courage.


Saturday, Oct. 1

Portland Thorns at NJ/NY Gotham

Portland’s scenario: Already clinched playoff berth; can win Shield with victory; also fighting for bye to semifinals

Gotham’s scenario: Already eliminated from postseason

The Shield is the Portland Thorns‘ to lose, as it has been since August. Portland leads its Seattle rival OL Reign by one point, and the Thorns wrap up the season away to Gotham FC, the league’s worst team by some measure. Gotham enters the game on a league-record 12-game losing streak and has not scored a goal in 488 minutes.

At stake for the Thorns is a second straight Shield and third overall, this time under new head coach Rhian Wilkinson. They can still win the Shield with a loss or draw if both Kansas City and the Reign each drop points — and the Thorns’ vastly superior goal difference means they will own the first tiebreaker on either challenger. Because of that, a draw will be enough to book a top-two finish and bye to the semifinals (Kansas City’s maximum is 39 points, but Portland will have a better goal difference). Portland cannot fall lower than third, and the only way that happens is with a loss at Gotham and victories for both the Reign and Current.

The Thorns kick off 90 minutes before Kansas City (at Racing Louisville) and four hours before the Reign host Orlando on Saturday, so if Portland drops points, it’s a waiting game for the Shield. Gotham hasn’t offered much resistance all season and lost 5-0 in Portland on July 16, but they’ve been in a similar position before, in 2018 (then known as Sky Blue). That year, the team entered the final weekend (of a 24-game season) without a win and staring down the futile mark of being the first NWSL team to go winless in a season. But somehow, some way, Sky Blue defeated the Orlando Pride, 1-0 in its final game.

This Portland team is light-years better than that Orlando squad, and Gotham is yet to draw a game this season, posting 17 losses.

FiveThirtyEight predicts: 67% chance Portland wins (21% draw)

Cut and dry here: first vs. worst. Crazier things have happened, but the Thorns should take care of business.


Houston Dash at Washington Spirit

Houston’s scenario: Needs a draw or win to clinch playoff berth; a loss might still be enough

Washington’s scenario: Already eliminated from postseason

Talk about déjà vu for the Houston Dash. They have never made the playoffs since entering the league in 2014.

Last season was supposed to bring an end to that misery after the Dash won the 2020 Challenge Cup, a tournament created because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The messaging from players was that they were not the same old Dash, an acknowledgement of past failures. But Houston lost all three of its final games in 2021 without scoring, missing the playoffs when a single point would have been enough. The final blow was a road game in Washington, D.C., on the final day of the season. Six minutes after deciding to sit in for a scoreless draw, the Dash conceded to Trinity Rodman and had to chase the game. They lost 1-0.

Once again, the Dash will end the season in D.C., where — if North Carolina wins the night prior — another loss would make them sit and sweat the next day’s result. Win or draw, and the Dash are in. Houston’s goal difference is plus-7 right now and they sit three points clear of the Red Stars, who have a plus-4 goal difference. If Houston loses, Chicago needs to win and make up the goal difference (which in this scenario would not be greater than plus-2).

If level on points and goal difference, the next tiebreaker is total wins, which would be the same (nine) in this scenario, so then comes total goals scored. Houston has a one-goal advantage in that department heading into the weekend. The fourth tiebreaker is head-to-head, and Houston defeated Chicago in both meetings this season.

The Washington Spirit, who won the 2021 NWSL Championship behind a remarkable late-season run on the field to the backdrop of ownership dysfunction and turmoil off the field, have been out of the playoff picture for a while. Washington has been incredibly inconsistent but has taken points off playoff contenders, including a thrilling 4-3 win over San Diego in early September.

FiveThirtyEight predicts: 44% chance Washington wins (26% draw)

It’s been difficult to know which Spirit team will show up on a given day, and unaccounted for in any prediction is the variable of the starting lineup. Washington might hand starting opportunities to underutilized players to evaluate them, which could help Houston.


Kansas City Current at Racing Louisville

Kansas City’s scenario: Already clinched playoff berth; still playing for Shield and semifinal bye

Louisville’s scenario: Already eliminated from postseason

The Kansas City Current still have a shot at completing the worst-to-first journey. Even if that does not happen (a long shot considering the matchups the Thorns and Reign have), securing a playoff spot this season is an absolute success for a Current franchise gaining momentum on and off the field.

The Current operate under fine margins: they went 13 games unbeaten throughout the summer but still only have a goal difference of plus-1, the worst among any remaining playoff contender other than eighth-place Angel City. That means they must defeat Racing Louisville to have a shot at a top-two finish and bye to the semifinals since the Reign will hold a superior goal difference (currently nine better).

Right now, Kansas City sits third, good enough for a home playoff game in the first round. The only path to the Shield is a win combined with a Thorns loss and a Reign loss or tie. If the Current lose, they could fall as low as fifth if Houston wins and the Wave win or draw. A San Diego draw and Dash victory, combined with a Kansas City loss, would put all three teams on 36 points. That is where Kansas City’s goal difference would be the deciding factor between third and a home playoff game or fifth and a game on the road.

Louisville enters the finale after a 3-1 win in Los Angeles on Saturday, a result that put a wrench in Angel City’s playoff hopes. Will Racing sour Kansas City’s push for a semifinal berth, or even a home playoff game?

FiveThirtyEight predicts: 40% chance Kansas City wins (27% draw)

Hot-and-cold Louisville meets the consistent Current. Kansas City’s attack is clicking, and defending remains a problem that Racing needs to address in the offseason.


Orlando Pride at OL Reign

Reign’s scenario: Already clinched playoff berth; can win Shield with win and Portland loss or draw

Orlando’s scenario: Already eliminated from postseason

The Reign won back-to-back Shields in 2014 and 2015 but lost to FC Kansas City in the NWSL Championship both years. Just like last year, when the Reign ultimately finished second to Portland, a late-season surge means they could still steal the Shield from Thorns. But given the history of the Reign, and core of aging veterans who have been through the ups and downs without winning a title, the clear objective here is NWSL Championship or bust.

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Rose Lavelle scored a stunning strike to help OL Reign claim a thrilling 2-2 draw against Chicago Red Stars.

Lumen Field in Seattle will host a playoff game because OL Reign cannot finish worse than fourth. That worst-case scenario would require them to lose to the Orlando Pride in addition to victories for San Diego and Kansas City. The idea isn’t that outlandish given the trouble Orlando has caused for several teams this year, including the draw with San Diego on Saturday that effectively ended the Wave’s quest for the Shield.

The Reign need to keep getting the most from their stars. Megan Rapinoe is on fire since returning from the CONCACAF W Championship, and Rose Lavelle is enjoying her best, most consistent season as a professional. The Reign are unbeaten in six league games since an Aug. 7 loss to Houston, and just took nine points from a three-game road trip packed into eight days. Form is in their favor heading into the postseason.

FiveThirtyEight predicts: 71% chance Reign wins (20% draw)

The Reign are the biggest favorites of any game this weekend, and for good reason given the team’s form, experience and shot at a Shield or top-two finish on the line at Lumen Field.


Sunday, Oct. 2

Angel City FC at Chicago Red Stars

Chicago’s scenario: Must win combined with a North Carolina loss and/or Dash loss by certain goal differentials

Angel City’s scenario: Must win combined with a North Carolina loss

This is where the NWSL’s lack of foresight in scheduling this season is — as it is most years — a problem. The Chicago Red Stars and Angel City sit seventh and eighth, respectively, heading into the weekend, but are the only two teams playing on Sunday. There is a realistic scenario in which they are both eliminated before Sunday.

Angel City’s options are simpler but more difficult after imploding against Racing Louisville last weekend, when a win would have put them in sixth place.

North Carolina must lose in San Diego on Friday for Angel City to realistically stay alive. A draw for the Courage would put them three points clear of Angel City with a goal difference of plus-15 on Angel City. A North Carolina draw in San Diego would still make Sunday’s Chicago-Angel City game a win-and-in for the Red Stars, who could jump one point ahead of the Courage in that scenario (or two clear if North Carolina loses).

If the Courage win in San Diego on Friday, the Red Stars’ hopes of an eighth straight postseason berth (and a third straight NWSL Championship appearance) remain alive for another day. They would then need Houston to lose at Washington and make up the goal difference in victory and/or score more goals than Houston in the process. Since the Dash own the fourth tiebreaker on Chicago (head-to-head points), the Red Stars, in that scenario, must either surpass Houston’s current goal-difference advantage or tie Houston’s goal-difference mark while scoring more total goals on the season. Confused yet?

Let’s spell that out in a hypothetical scenario: North Carolina wins in San Diego on Friday, eliminating Angel City. Houston then loses 3-2 in Washington, bringing the Dash’s goal difference down to plus-6 and total goals scored to 36. Chicago would then need a three-goal victory over Angel City on Sunday to make the playoffs on the goal-difference tiebreaker.

Say the Dash only lose 1-0, reducing their goal difference to plus-6. If Chicago then defeats Angel City 2-0 on Sunday, both teams would be at plus-6 goal difference, but Chicago would now have scored 34 goals — one more than Houston on the season and enough to qualify for the playoffs on the third tiebreaker. In this scenario — which is more possible than it might sound because of the complexity — both the first and third tiebreakers are in play depending on the results. The second tiebreaker would be a wash, and the fourth tiebreaker favors Houston.

If the Red Stars (and Angel City) can get to Sunday still alive in the race, they have the advantage of knowing the exact scenarios required to qualify.

The NWSL is lucky that there is no scenario that could see both teams go through on a draw, or there would be some serious questions about competition integrity. Instead, the league known for parity is primed for what could be its craziest regular-season finale yet.

FiveThirtyEight predicts: 58% chance Chicago wins (25% draw)

The Red Stars will be without defender Zoe Morse, who had played every minute of the season up until her sending off in second-half stoppage time on Sunday, and wing-back Bianca St. Georges, who was also sent off for flipping two middle fingers to the assistant referee. Those are significant losses for a team already short on defenders. Chicago might be more of a favorite on paper than anything else, but the X-factor here is Mallory Pugh, who has carried Chicago all season.



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