Route Two Soccer: Handicapping the NWSL Playoff Race

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The NWSL regular season concludes in a little over five weeks. That’s five more weeks for teams to sort themselves. Who will host home playoffs? Who will end up on the outside looking in?

A few weeks ago, it looked like things might end up finishing with more of a whimper than a bang, but thanks to some compelling results, we’re in for a bumpy ride, with every spot in the table still up for grabs. This column will assess the chances for each of the teams still in the race.

1. Portland Thorns (36 points) 

(at Utah, North Carolina, Houston, at Reign, Washington)

The Thorns are in the pole position, with a five point lead over North Carolina. The Courage do have two games in hand, and a head-to-head clash with the Thorns still on the calendar, so the lead certainly isn’t safe. But those points already in the bank are critical, and (with a 9 point lead over the fifth place Reign) they’re probably the only team in the league that’s effectively locked up a playoff spot.

The emergence of Midge Purce as a major goal-scoring threat has been the story of the season, but the fate of the Thorns ultimately still depends more on the old guard than anyone else. Can Christine Sinclair keep defying time, can Tobin Heath find her top level more consistently, can Emilys Sonnett and Menges continue to hold down the backline? Those are the key questions for the Thorns. Keep the engine running, and the goals will keep pouring in.

The only ‘problem’ for Portland is that they’re facing a pretty tough run-in. Four of their five remaining matches are against playoff contenders. Still, the way they’ve been playing, there’s no reason to expect them to falter. It’s hard to bet against North Carolina closing the gap, but I expect Portland to barely hold them off and take home the Shield.

2. North Carolina Courage (31 points)

(at Sky Blue, at Portland, Orlando, Houston, at Utah, at Washington, Sky Blue)

When everyone is at full strength, North Carolina is the best team in the league. We saw clear evidence of that last year, and even this year’s slightly-diminished version of the squad has still shown the ability to dominate the league. Still, they’ve dug themselves into a bit of a hole, and will have to work pretty quickly to get back out if they want to top the table once again. Their run-in isn’t especially tough in terms of opponents—with games against the four bottom teams on the list. But those first five games come at a breakneck pace—spaced out over just 15 days in mid-September.

If everyone can stay fresh, and if coach Paul Riley can work his secondary players into the lineup effectively, they should come out of that period with a playoff spot locked down. And they might even have retaken first place from the Thorns. But that’s a big if. This is a team that’s played a lot of soccer in the past year, and is facing a number of minor ailments.

The strike force should be fine. The only real problem is figuring out how to get enough minutes for all the options, with Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald, and Kristen Hamilton all deserving starters. The crunch of matches will simply allow for some necessary rotation.

The midfield, however, is a bigger question mark. Over the past two dominant years, Riley has shown a clear preference for a 4222 box midfield, which relies heavily on the high work rates of Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni in the deeper positions. But Zerboni has recently seen more time as a substitute, and Denise O’Sullivan can’t cover quite the same ground as a replacement. Can Carolina continue to play the same way—in order to get as much time on the ball as possible for Crystal Dunn and Debinha—or will Riley be forced to tinker with his system?

It would be extremely surprising if North Carolina didn’t end up hosting a home playoff match. But given the issues they’ve faced trying to maintain the delicate balance of their system, you’d probably have to bet on them dropping some points between now and October. And that might put the Shield out of their reach.

3. Chicago Red Stars (29 points)

(Houston, at Orlando, at Sky Blue, Washington, Utah)

This team is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Look at their roster, and it’s hard to understand how they’re not topping the table. Watch them when everything is clicking, and it’s hard to understand how they ever lose a game to anyone. With Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato, they have arguably the best strikeforce in the league. With Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian, Dani Colaprico, and Vanessa DiBernardo, they have arguably the best midfield in the league. Their goalkeeper is the number one for the US team. Casey Short has been the best defender in the league this year.

So why are they mired in third place? How did they win five in a row, and then fall to the two worst teams in the league? I see three plausible explanations.

First, injuries. Most of this team is banged up. While that midfield quartet are incredibly impressive, they have also faced some niggling problems that keep them from playing every game. And when they do play, they’re generally not 100%. The Red Stars haven’t faced the kind of devastating injury procession suffered by the Reign, but persistent low-grade problems take their toll.

Second, tactics. With a high-octane creative midfield, and with strikers capable of linking play, this team should be regularly out-passing the opposition. But with some limited exceptions, that hasn’t really been the case. Far too often, the team slows down and reverts to the strategy of kicking long balls to Kerr and hoping for some magic. Kerr is good enough that this sometimes works, but it’s far less than Chicago ought to have on offer, given the talent they can put out there.

Third, the central defense. The Red Stars have three world class centerbacks, neither of whom have spent much time in the position. There’s a good reason for that. Ertz is also a world-class midfielder and arguably better used in that position. While Tierna Davidson has increasingly looked like a long-term fit at left back, and Casey Short is one of the world’s best right backs. But while there are good reasons for the choice, there’s no denying that Chicago have looked mighty fragile in the critical central positions. Sarah Gorden has had an excellent year there, and is a serviceable replacement. But she’s also not quite at the level of the world’s very best. And Katie Naughton has had a very tough year, after some excellent work in previous seasons. Put it all together, and you have a team that’s conceded 26 goals—third-most in the league.

Can Chicago fix these problems? I really have no idea. It wouldn’t surprise me if they reel off another run of wins to shoot up the table. And it also wouldn’t surprise me if they struggle enough to put playoff qualification in doubt. But they only have five games left, which doesn’t leave them a lot of margin for error.

4. Utah Royals (28 points)

(Portland, at Houston, at Reign, North Carolina, at Chicago, Houston)

It’s been a tale of two halves for Utah this year. Of the eight games with Christen Press, they’ve won five and drawn two, accounting for 17 of their 28 total points. In ten games without her, they’ve only managed 11 points. Basically, without Press they’re a contender for the bottom of the table. With her, they’re a contender for the Shield. That’s just how good she’s been this year.

Fortunately for Utah, Press appears to be healthy and ready to go for the final month. That’s going to be crucial for a team with only six goal-scorers on the whole season. They’ll need Press and Amy Rodriguez to continue working together well, and will also need some of the secondary attackers to provide a bit more.

The other key for Utah is their defensive core. The Royals have the best defense in the league, even in a year when Rachel Corsie hasn’t looked her best and Becky Sauerbrunn is starting to wear down a bit. That’s a testament to the organization instilled by coach Laura Harvey, and to the tireless efforts of Desiree Scott patrolling the midfield.

Utah have a tough schedule, with matches against the other four top playoff challengers, but in some sense that’s an advantage. At a minimum, it puts their chances in their own hands. Win a few of those games, and they’ll not only get the points they need, they’ll deny critical points to their competitors.

5. Reign FC (27 points)

(Orlando, at Washington, Utah, Sky Blue, Portland, at Orlando)

It’s astonishing that the Reign are still hanging around the playoff race given the absurd injury list they’ve suffered this year. Coach Vlatko Andonovski deserves a lot of credit for holding this team together with bubble gum and some bits of string, for aggressively working the transfer market to bring in replacements, and for getting the absolute most from a series of useful-but-limited players.

The big question mark here is Megan Rapinoe. If she can come back, and play like she did in 2018, that might well be enough to muscle the Reign into the playoffs. But if she can’t return, or if she struggles to work back to form, it’s hard to tell where the goals are going to come from.

The Reign have—out of necessity—adopted a bunch of tactical innovations this year. The most recent iteration came against North Carolina, with the Reign choosing a 4321 Christmas tree formation. It was an interesting idea, but more a matter of desperation than desirability. In this formation, Rosie White and Bethany Balcer operated as the two attacking mids. And while they did their best, it’s simply not a position where either is likely to find much success. It made for a toothless attack, and a defensive core that worked hard but were never going to be able to withstand the relentless pressure.

Will we see further innovations as the Reign move on to face some weaker opponents? Most likely. Will it be enough to secure some critical victories? It’s very hard to say. Far be it for me to bet against Vlatko, but it will most likely take some additional wizardry for them to sneak one of those final playoff spots.

Keep a close eye on that September 18 match against Utah. These could easily end up being the two teams vying for that final playoff spot, and the head-to-head record is dead-even right now. A win their could be the key to a Reign playoff appearance. Anything less, and they might end up on the outside looking in.

6. Washington Spirit (25 points)

(Reign, at Chicago, at Houston, North Carolina, at Orlando, at Portland)

Washington sit three points out of the playoff spots, trailing two teams. With six games left, that’s plenty of time to make up the gap. But it’s going to be mighty tough to implement in practice. The Spirit have a very tough run-in, with away matches against Portland and Chicago, in addition to games against the Reign and North Carolina. They’ll probably need to get at least six points from those four games if they’ll have any hope of making the playoffs, and that’s a big ask.

At the same time, this is a team that’s managed to stick around in the playoff race all season despite getting a mere combined eight appearances from Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh. If they can get their young playmakers back, and see them work with fellow young standout Andi Sullivan, there’s no reason to think the Spirit can’t hang offensively with anyone in the league.

The big question, then, is whether the defense can continue to hold together. It’s astonishing that they’ve held up as well as they have—given a backline filled with rookies in a league where even very talented young defenders have generally struggled to adapt. If Sam Staab and Paige Nielsen can continue to hold the line, and if Aubrey Bledsoe can continue her excellent form, the Spirit might just be able to give themselves a chance to sneak that final playoff spot.

I wouldn’t bet on it, and they really don’t have much margin for error. But it’s a great sign that they’re still within shouting distance at this point.

The rest

In seventh place, the Houston Dash aren’t technically out of the running. But they have an exceptionally tough set of remaining fixtures (with five of the six matches against teams currently in the playoff spots), and would probably need at least four wins from those matches. Given their current form, it’s far more likely that they’ll get further away from the playoff spots than that they’ll close the gap.

Meanwhile, after the horrible race to the bottom between Sky Blue and Washington last year, it’s nice to see the two trailing teams playing some decent soccer. Orlando and Sky Blue could each easily play spoiler to some of the playoff hopefuls, and (given that tough Houston run-in) could conceivably shoot for 7th place. Given how horribly they both started the season, that’s real progress.

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