Route Two Soccer – Handicapping the Playoff Run-in

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The NWSL season is entering its squeaky-bum period, with five weeks to go and very little settled. North Carolina are as close to a lock as you can get at this point, with a five point lead over second place and a game in hand (against last place Washington) to boot. But outside of the Courage, the table is full of questions.

So let’s take a run through the teams still in the playoff hunt, and assess their chances for making the postseason.

Portland Thorns (34 points, GD +9)

  • Seattle Reign (away)
  • Washington Spirit (home)
  • Boston Breakers (away)
  • Orlando Pride (away)
  • Chicago Red Stars (home)

Portland have finally hit a decent vein of form. It’s taken a lot longer than expected, and their recent loss against Kansas City shows that there are still some gaps here. But the Thorns of late have looked much closer to the dominant possession-based team that we all expected. This team has a lot of attacking talent but has struggled to get everyone working together. In recent weeks Sinclair has been the fulcrum around which everyone has moved, and things have looked much better. It still remains to be seen if those improvements can be preserved as the squad returns to full strength.

With a seven point cushion on fifth place, they are close to a lock to make the playoffs. The real question is whether they can hold off Orlando and Chicago to secure a home match in the semifinals. And there’s still an outside chance that they could catch North Carolina for first place. But realistically, the final month is more about settling in for the playoffs than anything else.

Chicago Red Stars (29 points, GD +2)

  • Washington Spirit (away)
  • NC Courage (home)
  • FCKC (away)
  • Houston Dash (away)
  • Portland Thorns (away)

It seems like just a few weeks ago that Chicago were riding high—even briefly sneaking into first place. The offense was starting to click and the defense was solid. Since then, coach Rory Dames has tinkered a bit and found absolutely nothing working. The past three weeks have seen them lose three consecutive home matches, looking worse and worse each game. Some of it has been injuries. Despite a generally great bill of health on the season, they’ve picked up a few nagging injuries recently and have had trouble sorting things out. But ultimately, the Red Stars’ recent struggles are a bit part to sort out.

The talent is obviously still here, and you probably wouldn’t go wrong expecting some mean reversion. But the slide has been worrisome, turning what looked to be an easy playoff coronation into a genuine fight. They’re now tied with surging Orlando, only two points ahead of Seattle. With four away games out of their five remaining fixtures, Chicago is in a precarious position, and will need some good results soon to right the ship. They’re not yet in crisis, but anything less than three points this weekend against Washington and things really will start to get dangerous.

Tiebreakers: Chicago would win a tiebreaker against Orlando (which is why they’re currently in 3rd despite equal points and a worse goal difference) and Sky Blue, but would lose against Seattle.

Orlando Pride (29 points, GD +10)

  • FCKC (away)
  • Boston Breakers (home)
  • Seattle Reign (home)
  • Portland Thorns (home)
  • NC Courage (away)

It took them awhile, but Orlando have finally hit their stride, scoring 10 goals in their past three games while only conceding one, on their way to a fairly easy nine points. The return of Alex Morgan has been everything that Pride fans hoped it would be. She’s provided that clinical finishing and intelligent movement that was so missing in the early season, and given Marta more freedom to play a flexible role. Orlando still doesn’t really have much of a midfield, but coach Tom Sermanni has done an excellent job of finding ways around that problem. It also helps that a number of players have excelled in new roles this season. The ability to move players like Kennedy, Edmonds, and Camila in and out of the midfield has given Sermanni a great deal of tactical flexibility—allowing him to structure the team to best facilitate his world-class attackers given what opponent and game situation demand.

At this point, the big question is whether Orlando’s form is the new normal, or if this is just high tide from which things will inevitably recede a bit. The way the Pride have been playing, it’s getting harder to see them not taking a playoff spot, but there are still some reasons for caution. They have looked great, certainly, but these three big performances came against Washington, Sky Blue, and Boston—three of the weakest teams in the league. And we’re still not that far removed from them getting comprehensively outplayed by Chicago last month.

The Pride have two more ‘easy’ games coming up—though anyone who’s watched KC recently might question that designation, before they close out the year with matches against playoff contenders. If they can earn four or six points from these next two weekends, that will put them in good position. But if they slip up against KC or Boston, they could very easily find that final playoff spot slipping just out of their grasp.

Tiebreakers: Orland would win a tiebreaker against Sky Blue and lose against Chicago. They’re currently tied with Seattle, so that game will be even more important than it would normally – a ‘seven pointer’ rather than a ‘six pointer.’

Seattle Reign (27 points, GD +6)

  • Portland Thorns (home)
  • Houston Dash (away)
  • Orlando Pride (away)
  • FCKC (home)
  • Washington Spirit (away)

Oh, Seattle. You could be 3rd in the table right now, in poll position to reach the playoffs. But you fell victim to one of the classic blunders: never go in against Sam Kerr when death is on the line. So instead you’re in fifth place, needing to make up some ground, with time running out and Megan Rapinoe still unavailable.

Still, things aren’t all grim for Seattle. Even without Rapinoe, they’ve been playing well, with the players settling into the team’s new rhythm—lots of movement, lots of dangerous runs, and one intense Welsh dragon keeping it all together in the middle. Beyond that, they have a reasonably friendly run-in. This weekend’s match against Portland will be tough, certainly, but after that they’ve got some slightly less threatening matches. And while they do need to play Orlando, that is also a huge opportunity to take points from one of their main competitors. That game is actually even more important than it seems, because Seattle and Orlando are currently tied in head-to-head, which means if Seattle can win it will effectively a ‘seven pointer’ rather than just a ‘six pointer,’ since it will give them the points as well as the advantage in the tiebreaker. All of which means Seattle’s season is still very much in their own hands. It’s just a matter of executing. And staying away from any Australians.

Tiebreakers: Seattle would win a tiebreaker against Chicago. They’re tied in head to head against Sky Blue, so it would revert to goal difference, where Seattle is way ahead. The tiebreaker with Orlando is still up in the air.

Sky Blue (26 points, GD -7)

  • Boston Breakers (home)
  • FCKC (away)
  • Washington Spirit (home)
  • NC Courage (home)
  • Boston Breakers (away)

Halfway through their match on Saturday night, Sky Blue’s season was effectively over. Then, they executed an astonishing comeback to earn the three points and resuscitate their chances. It’s still a difficult lift, given their defensive frailty and other issues. I wrote about Sky Blue at length last week so won’t belabor the point much here. This team really has no business making the playoffs, but they’re only three points out, and you would have to be nuts to bet against Sam Kerr right now. Beyond that, they have (by a pretty big margin) the easiest run-in of the teams in the playoff hunt, with three home matches, two games against Boston, another against Washington, and one against KC. There are no gimme games in this league, and all of those teams could easily beat Sky Blue. But the opportunity is there, if they can hold it together and seize it.

Tiebreakers: Sky Blue would lose the tiebreaker against all the teams. Technically they’re tied with Seattle in head-to-head games, but there’s no chance of them recovering from the gap in goal difference.

Still alive with a hope and a prayer: FCKC and Houston

FC Kansas City and Houston are both sitting on 23 points, which puts them six points out of a playoff spot. With only 15 points left on the table, it’s very hard to see either doing enough to make up that difference (and leapfrog) all the teams in between. But it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. KC, in particular, seems to have finally settled in a bit (three straight wins, including results over Portland and Chicago), and their run-in is basically all against the other teams in the playoff hunt—and four of those games are at home, too. Pick up 12 points from those games and they really could make it.

I certainly wouldn’t be on it, but there’s plenty of quality in both of these teams. So it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on them.

Predicting the final table

With everything so close, it’s hard to draw clear distinctions. But for the sake of argument, I’ll make a guess. Accounting for quality, form, and schedule, I see the final results shaking out as follows:

  1. North Carolina
  2. Portland
  3. Orlando
  4. Chicago
  5. Sky Blue
  6. Seattle
  7. FCKC
  8. Houston
  9. Boston
  10. Washington

Agree? Disagree? Let us know your predicted final table in the comments.