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Race to NWSL Play-offs: San Diego victory sets the stage

Two weeks remain in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season and the play-off race remains highly competitive, with only one team across the entire league being left out of contention.

A mere six-point margin separates the team in last place from the one holding the final playoff spot, making this season the most tightly contested in NWSL history.

Prior to the matches this past weekend, a total of 729 potential playoff outcomes loomed on the horizon. However, following San Diego Wave FC’s triumphant victory over Portland Thorns FC, San Diego became the first and the only team to secure their playoff berth, leaving ten teams vying for the remaining five coveted spots.

As 11 out of the 12 teams in the NWSL set their sights on reaching the play-offs with the ultimate goal of clinching the championship, the race for the NWSL Shield is also in full swing – the NWSL Shield is an annual accolade presented to the NWSL team with the best regular-season record.

It’s worth noting that historically, only one team that has claimed the NWSL Shield has also managed to secure the championship in the same year.

Since the inception of the NWSL, in 2012, there have been eight different teams that have claimed either the NWSL championship or the Shield; Previous winners include: 

Western New York Flash (2013) – Lost championship to Portland Thorns FC.

Seattle Reign FC (2014) – Lost championship to FC Kansas City.

Seattle Reign FC (2015) – Lost championship to FC Kansas City.

Portland Thorns FC (2016) – Lost semifinal to Western New York Flash.

North Carolina Courage (2017) – Lost championship to Portland Thorns FC. .

North Carolina Courage (2018) – Won championship against Portland Thorns FC.

North Carolina Courage (2019) – Won championship against Chicago Red Stars.

Season cancelled in 2020 due to COVID.

Portland Thorns FC (2021) – Lost semifinal to Chicago Red Stars.

OL Reign (2022) – Lost semifinal to Kansas City Current.

Throughout the NWSL’s evolution, the competition for the championship has intensified. This year, in particular, marks the closest race yet, with only 13 points separating the top and bottom of the table. The battle for one of the last five playoff spots remains fierce as the regular season draws to a close.

Here’s a breakdown of what each team must achieve to secure a spot in the first round of the play-offs, listed in order of their current standings:

  1. San Diego Wave FC

Thirty-three points have solidified San Diego’s place at the league’s top, ensuring a secure spot in the NWSL play-offs. Remarkably, this achievement comes in only their second season as a club, following their expansion into the league in 2022.

This remarkable early success can be attributed to a combination of crucial factors. The appointment of former U.S. Women’s team coach Jill Ellis as their President has undoubtedly positively impacted the team’s performance. Additionally, the presence of current U.S. Women’s National team stars like Alex Morgan leading the attack, alongside the emergence of star rookie Naomi Girma, has added a significant boost to their roster.

What they still need to do: Absolutely nothing. The upcoming matches against North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville FC hold little significance for the Wave if their sole aim is just to make play-offs. Nevertheless, a victory or draw in both fixtures would cement their position at the top and grant them the coveted first-place finish, earning them a first-round bye in playoffs and a spot straight into the semi-finals.

  1. Portland Thorns

After a challenging 2-0 defeat to San Diego last weekend, the Portland Thorns fell short of securing their play-off berth. However, they remain strong contenders with 32 points on the board. Adding to their strength, they lead the league in goals scored with 40, and their star forward – Sophia Smith – tops the NWSL Golden Boot race despite battling a mild MCL sprain in her right knee shortly after the FIFA World Cup.

What they still need to do: The reigning NWSL champions need either a victory or two draws in their final two regular-season matches. Their upcoming fixtures pit them against current third-place Gotham FC and Angel City in the coming weeks.

Credit: Ira L. Black/Getty Images
  1. NY/NJ Gotham FC

NY/NJ Gotham FC, who finished last in the 2022 season, have made significant squad changes, paving the way for their successful 2023 campaign. They currently find themselves just two points shy of second place, mirroring Portland’s position as they aim to secure their playoff spot this weekend. Despite a recent 2-0 loss to the Houston Dash, they maintain their third-place position, with only a one-point lead over the North Carolina Courage.

What they need to do: Gotham aims to clinch a guaranteed playoff spot by winning on the road against the Portland Thorns this weekend. A loss would require them to secure a victory against the last-placed team, Kansas City Current. Two draws would also be sufficient to secure their place in the play-offs.

  1. North Carolina Courage

North Carolina Courage’s recent 1-1 draw against the now sixth-placed OL Reign allowed them to retain their fourth-place position. They are tied with the Washington Spirit in points, but their advantage in goal differential gives them a slight edge, as they stand just one point away from potentially missing out on a play-off berth.

What they need to do: The Courage must either secure victories in their upcoming matches against San Diego and the Washington Spirit, or secure one win and one tie. A loss would significantly diminish their prospects of clinching the final playoff spot.

  1. Washington Spirit

Washington Spirit’s recent 2-1 victory, which eliminated the Kansas City Current from playoff contention, pushed Washington ahead of OL Reign in the standings over the past weekend. Despite this achievement, Washington Spirit still finds themselves on the cusp of the top four due to goal difference, setting the stage for two crucial matches in the near future.

What they need to do: To secure their spot in the play-offs, Washington Spirit must win in both upcoming matches against OL Reign and the North Carolina Courage. However, a victory and a draw will also suffice to secure their place in the play-offs.

  1. OL Reign

Megan Rapinoe, the recently former U.S. Women’s National Team star, is determined to lead her team to the play-offs in her farewell professional season. The 2022 NWSL Shield winners showcased a robust start to the season; but as the FIFA World Cup drew nearer, their performance began to waver, placing them in the last playoff spot.

What they need to do: To secure their play-off berth and give Megan Rapinoe a memorable farewell, OL Reign must secure at least one victory in their remaining two matches against Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars. Two draws would also be sufficient to propel them into the play-offs.

Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
  1. Orlando Pride

A recent 1-0 victory against Angel City FC has tied Orlando Pride with OL Reign in terms of points. Currently holding a -1-goal differential, Orlando sits just below the final play-off spot. With the presence of women’s football icon Brazil attacker Marta, Orlando Pride are determined to help her conclude her final few seasons as a professional on a high-note.

What they need to do: This weekend, Orlando Pride hit the road once more as they face Racing Louisville FC, who are also in contention for a playoff spot. Pride cannot afford to lose either of their upcoming games to secure a play-off berth. They must secure at least one victory and one tie to advance. Otherwise, their pursuit of the 2023 NWSL Championship will come to an end.

  1. Houston Dash

Houston Dash, who secured a fourth-place finish last season, have spent most of this year dwelling near the bottom of the standings, gradually clawing toward the middle of the table. However, their recent 2-0 victory against Gotham propelled them from 10th to 8th in the rankings this past weekend, narrowly surpassing Angel City and Racing Louisville.

What they need to do: To clinch a play-off spot, Houston Dash need to secure a victory in either of their upcoming games. They are set to face Angel City this weekend, a team trailing them by just one point. If they end up with a tie or a loss against Angel City, they must secure a win in their last match against Orlando Pride to maintain hopes of making it to the lower-end of the playoff bracket.

  1. Angel City FC

Angel City recently saw their 11-game undefeated streak come to an end this past Monday with a 1-0 loss at home against Orlando Pride. Despite this setback, Angel City, a team that arguably boasts the largest following in the NWSL, still holds a slender chance of securing their first NWSL play-off berth in only their second season as a club.

What they need to do: To secure a spot in the play-offs, Angel City must secure at least one victory in their upcoming matches against the Houston Dash and the reigning NWSL champions, the Portland Thorns. A win this weekend would position them favorably in the race for one of the five available play-off spots.

Credit: Katherine Lotze/Getty Images
  1. Racing Louisville FC

Racing Louisville find themselves just four points away from a play-off berth but currently occupy the tail end of the standings, hovering precariously close to falling out of play-off contention. Their recent 1-0 loss to the Chicago Red Stars caused them to slide down two positions in the table. Given their 9th-place finish last season, questions arise about whether Louisville are destined for a repeat performance.

What they need to do: They face two difficult opponents in their next two matches, both of which are must-win situations. Louisville must secure victories in both upcoming games to entertain the possibility of making the play-offs. Even then, their play-off chances hinge on the outcomes of matches involving other teams, making it a challenging but not impossible proposition.

  1. Chicago Red Stars

Chicago Red Star’s recent victory against Racing Louisville enabled them to climb out of the last-place position, keeping them in the play-off race. It’s startling that the Red Star and U.S. Women’s National Team starting goalkeeper – Alyssa Naeher – allowed 41 goals to slip past her; the highest number of goals against by a significant margin. Last season, the Red Stars, who just got a new owner, only secured the final play-off spot by a narrow one-point margin. Could they potentially repeat that feat this year?

What they need to do: To make the play-offs, they need to secure two victories in their upcoming matches against the current last-place team, the Kansas City Current and OL Reign. In this scenario, goal differential and the outcomes of other games will be crucial factors determining the Red Stars’ playoff fate. 

  1. Kansas City Current

Washington Spirit recently eliminated the Kansas City Current from play-off contention this past weekend, securing a 2-1 victory. Despite having made the play-offs and finishing in fifth place last season, the Current’s hopes of a late-season resurgence were dashed despite a win against San Diego two weeks ago.

What they need to do: A victory against Chicago this coming weekend would eliminate the Red Stars from play-off contention, placing them alongside Kansas City at the bottom of the table. Depending on the outcome of Gotham’s match against the Portland Thorns, Kansas City can knock out another team from the playoffs in their final game of the 2023 season.

This upcoming weekend will be a deciding factor for many different teams. No matter who, every match counts, and every point earned could be the difference between making the play-offs or falling short.

The NWSL has never been more thrilling, and as we approach the climax of the regular season, fans are in for an unforgettable ride. 

The final two weeks will undoubtedly deliver moments of joy and heartbreak as teams fight for a chance to make history and lift the coveted championship trophy. The stakes are high, the competition is fierce, and the NWSL’s 2023 season is shaping to be one of the most memorable in its history.

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