All of the national team players who competed in the Olympics are back and the National Women’s Soccer League has a full slate of games kicking off Wednesday night. There are just three weeks left in the regular season, which means every match has important playoff implications now. FOX Sports will kick off its 2016 coverage as FC Kansas City takes on the Chicago Red Stars at 8 p.m. ET on FS1 tonight while other games will be online. Here is a look at the major talking points to know heading into tonight’s slate of games.
USA TODAY SportsRich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Reigning champs FC Kansas City could miss the playoffs
They are back-to-back champions over the past two seasons, but they had the worst 2016 offseason of just about any team in the NWSL. Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Holiday, their two best players, both left to have children (and it was also revealed this week that Holiday has an operable brain tumor). Sydney Leroux was set to join FC Kansas City for 2016, but also took the season off to start a family. That’s three big losses of talent without even getting into injuries and trades that further disrupted the roster. With the Holiday-Rodriguez tandem and the proactive attacking style of coach Vlatko Andonovski, Kansas City looked like it could become a long-term favorite, but 2016 has not been Kansas City's year. If they don’t win against Chicago tonight, they are out of the playoffs and even if they do win, they are hanging on by a thread.
Getty ImagesSteve Dykes
The Portland Thorns could clinch first-ever home playoff game
It’s not so much a matter of opinion as it has grown into an objective fact: The Portland Thorns have the best home atmosphere and the largest, most intense fanbase of any team in the NWSL. They are averaging nearly 17,000 fans per game this season, a number a few MLS teams would sure like to have (sorry, FC Dallas). So, it’s a bit of a shame that the Portland Thorns have yet to host a playoff game, an advantage that is awarded to the top two-finishers of the regular season. They won the championship back in 2013, but they did it all on the road. They look like a title contender this year, but they would surely like to compete in front of their dedicated supporters. They can clinch a home playoff spot tonight if they beat the Houston Dash, and the Boston Breakers win vs. the WNY Flash, and FC Kansas City wins vs. the Chicago Red Stars. A lot has to happen and it may be a longshot, but it's certainly possible.
Getty ImagesBrett Carlsen
Overshadowed by controversy, the Seattle Reign are surprisingly average
The Seattle Reign have been stuck with their share of inadvertent controversy this year. Hope Solo, the team’s No. 1 goalkeeper, was suspended by U.S. Soccer and she has opted to take a leave of absence from the NWSL. Megan Rapinoe joined Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests, entering what has already been a politically charged debate. But these issues just take away from a legitimately stunning turn of events on the pitch: the Reign, the utterly dominant NWSL Shield winners of the past two seasons, aren’t even in playoff position with three weeks left of the 2016 regular season. Their biggest producers, like Scotland’s Kim Little and American Beverly Yanez, have had quieter seasons and Rapinoe has been out injured up until a week and a half ago. They sit just below the last playoff spot but will be eliminated from the playoffs tonight if they lose to the Washington Spirit, and the WNY Flash win vs. the Boston Breakers, and the Chicago Red Stars get any result vs. FC Kansas City.
Getty ImagesCraig Mitchelldyer
Move over, Seattle -- the Washington Spirit look close to the Shield
The NWSL is a league full of parity and any team can win any given game. But the Seattle Reign have had two back-to-back seasons where the race for the NWSL Shield wasn’t even close and Seattle were obviously going to be awarded the trophy for the best regular season. But with Seattle’s stumbles, it’s a fight at the top of the table between the Washington Spirit and the Portland Thorns. The Spirit go into Wednesday’s games in first place, four points ahead of Portland. If Washington wins vs. Seattle tonight and Portland loses to the Houston Dash, the Spirit will clinch the NWSL Shield. With Crystal Dunn leading the way, nabbing a team-high five assists, the D.C. team is looking close.
The Washington Post/Getty ImagesThe Washington Post
Who will play the spoiler?
Only four teams of the 10-team NWSL will make the playoffs and most teams can be expected to miss the postseason. But the Boston Breakers have the distinction of being the first to be eliminated after coming in last place last year and second-to-last the year before. Meanwhile, the Orlando Pride were also eliminated over the weekend, which isn’t too surprising as a first-year expansion team. Still, the regular season rolls on and the results against the lame duck, non-playoff teams will have serious implications for the other teams still in the fight. What happens with the Breakers vs. the fourth-place Flash tonight will single-handedly determine if the Houston Dash and FC Kansas City can fight another day.