The High Five: A New Idea For The NWSL Postseason


Everyone loves a good story. It’s what compels us to sit up and listen or watch. But the NWSL failed to do that this postseason. And part of that is the fact that they are a young league, but the other part of that is because their playoff structure is so simple that it is boring. Top four teams. Three games. Two weeks. Blah.

So why not spice it up a bit? Draw things out a tad bit longer, but get more action in as well? The league shouldn’t make too many changes, because it is young and it doesn’t want to bite off more than it can chew. That’s how leagues fold, and no one wants that. But I would like to put forth the argument that the NWSL hasn’t bitten off enough. They can do better when it comes to the postseason. Here’s what I would suggest:

The top five teams go beyond the regular season. The forth and fifth ranked teams play a mid-week wildcard game immediately following the end of the season. The winner of that game plays the number one ranked team on the weekend, while the second and third ranked teams play each other. Then, the winners of those matches play a best of 9 points Final (potential three game series) the following week. Here’s how it would have looked on a timeline for this season:

– Sunday, Oct. 1: End of Regular Season

– Wednesday, Oct. 4: Wildcard game – Chicago(4) v. Seattle(5) in Chicago

– Saturday, Oct. 7: Semifinals – Portland(2) v. Orlando(3) in Portland

– Sunday, Oct. 8: Semifinals – NC(1) v. Wildcard Winner in NC.

– Saturday, Oct. 14: Finals Game 1 at higher ranked teams’ field

– Wednesday Oct. 18: Finals Game 2 at lower ranked teams’ field

– Sunday Oct. 22: Finals Game 3 at higher ranked teams’ field (if needed based on points accumulated)

So yeah, this looks a bit strange. I’ll admit it. But this structure brings a few really great things to the table. It creates a sense or urgency, it takes fan bases into account, and it extends out the postseason just enough to craft some really interesting story lines. Here’s how:

Sense of Urgency

Major League Baseball added the wildcard games in 2012 as a way to extend the postseason, get more fan participation, and gross more money. And since then it has turned into this mentality of ‘win and we’re in’ and ‘do-or-die.’ And as the New York Yankees can attest this year, it has created a lot of fun not just for the players but for the fans as well. It urges the fans to attend, because their team is just on the cusp of making the playoffs. And in this scenario, if you are that fifth seeded team, you are riding that underdog mentality. Everything comes down to 90 minutes. And sure, we have that with the current setup going straight to the semifinals, but what if there was this game in between where players are playing on short rest and the emotions are heightened because of that? What if Seattle pulled off the upset? Could they have gone on and beat North Carolina? I bet Laura Harvey would believe that they could. But the sense of urgency in this structure isn’t just limited to the wildcard game.

The Finals set up as a potential three game series with a best of nine points can absolutely create a phenomenal and urgent game two. Because imagine that your team is going into game two with no points – you couldn’t even pull out a draw in the last match. This match, you need at least a draw to advance to the third game. If not, your season is done, but there was potentially something left on the table – there was a third game…and all you needed was a tie. Because of this, the style of play could change. And the tactic of home field advantage could come into play more. It might be better to play conservatively than risk losing it all if you could have another 90 minutes in a few more days to make it work better and win off of a goal differential. It also might mean you get to go home to your own fans too.

Root For The Home Team

Something that I hate to see: a league final not sell out. What did I see this year? A half-packed Orlando City Stadium. And yes, it was nicely advertised. But there is absolutely no reason that a random Orlando tourist could just walk up to the ticket box ten minutes before kickoff and be able to watch a Championship. That is just plain unacceptable. And we can’t blame North Carolina or Portland fans for not having a larger turnout. That is a long way to travel, especially for Portland, and on short notice.

But if we had a potential three game series that moved between the two teams’ home fields then you have a better chance of selling out the stadium. You have a better atmosphere for the players and for the fans watching at home. Which means the NWSL sells more tickets, and more merchandise, and there is a greater impact on the league as a whole.

It also provides the two teams an edge going into their home game for the Final, because no matter what, they will at least play one match at home. And any player would rather play home than away – that’s obvious. But there are also those players that love to silence the stands. And this structure plays to their strengths as well.

Give It Time To Craft A Story

I started this article by saying that the NWSL playoffs didn’t tell a good story this year, and they didn’t. The most exciting game there was with regards to gamesmanship, social media, and overall hype was the Orlando/Portland match, but that wasn’t because of the NWSL. That was because Portland said they wouldn’t mind visiting Epcot, and Orlando put a Pride scarf on a rather important log. To be fair, the NWSL tried to make the games seem more intense than they were with their pregame videos about each team and what it would mean to them moving forward, and it made me fall asleep. Every team wants to win a Championship, so let’s make the journey a little more grueling, a little more fun, and a little more unpredictable.

With the five team structure so many great stories could be crafted from it, and every team’s story could build upon the last match that was played. Take the fifth ranked Wildcard team. Let’s say they survive and move to the Semifinals. Then they have to play the number one ranked team. They have to become a giant slayer. And to top it all off, they have to play at the number one ranked team’s home field. But somehow they pull it off. Their fans are going crazy and the story line keeps getting deeper because now they are going to a best of three series. And even if they drop the first match, they are going home to their fans to get a little bit more momentum to maybe give them that final push to make it to game three. And of course they do. And now you have the team that no one thought could make it anywhere playing in a 90 minute duel to the death. They know they are the David to the other team’s Goliath, but they still believe. Do you?

Yeah, that would be a story, wouldn’t it? You might tune in for that one, even if you aren’t a fan of that team.

So that’s my pitch. That is what I would like to watch unfold before me. Five teams. One Wildcard game. Two semifinal matches. And a Finals Series. So, I guess at the end of the day that just translates to me being a simple kind of sports fan. Because all I really want is just a packed house, a chance to watch a little more of the sport I love, and a good story that demands my attention. The question is, does the NWSL?

Follow us on Twitter