The National Women’s Soccer League wrapped up its regular season on Sunday and the playoff field is set. With reigning champions FC Kansas City eliminated, there will be a new champion in NWSL this year. Here is a look at who’s into the playoffs and who is out. (All photos by isiphotos.com)
The Portland Thorns were aggressive this offseason, and it was clear nothing short of the top of the table would do. The Thorns fired their coach, Paul Riley, and brought in Mark Parsons. They shed more than half their roster and brought in heavy-hitters, like France’s Amandine Henry, U.S. national team midfielder Lindsay Horan and others. The result? A team that has been consistently strong all season long, even for a stretch of games during the Olympics when national team players were away. This team is stacked with quality, but built with the right mentality in mind, and unlike previous Thorns teams, this one is bursting with chemistry. For the first time, they’ve won the NWSL Shield, which goes to the team with the best regular-season record.
Second playoff seed: Washington Spirit (12-5-3, 39 pts)
When Mark Parsons went to Portland, that meant the Spirit needed a new coach, and they found one in Jim Gabarra. The former Sky Blue FC coach benefitted from some of the roster-building that Parsons had done, but this has been a very different Spirit team. For one, USWNT star Crystal Dunn hasn’t scored the bulk of their goals, as was the case last year. Instead goals are coming from all over the field. They’ve had 11 goal-scorers this year, which makes the Spirit one of the most diverse attacks in the NWSL. They’re hard to pin down and they nearly managed to win the NWSL Shield, but will have to settle with the second playoff seed, which allows them to host a playoff match.
Third playoff seed: Chicago Red Stars (9-5-6, 33 pts)
There’s a good margin between the top two teams of the NWSL regular season and the Chicago Red Stars, but the third-place team has been solid all season long. Losing forward Stephanie McCaffrey for as long as they have has hurt, but Christen Press and Sofia Huerta have done a pretty good job of working together. That’s bolstered by a solid defense that has allowed the third fewest goals in the league.
Fourth playoff seed: Western New York Flash (9-6-5, 32 pts)
While Paul Riley never seemed to be the right fit in Portland, he has been able to rejuvenate a Western New York team that finished in a poor seventh place last year. The Flash went through a lot of roster shuffling, much of it before Riley was named head coach, but bringing in Jessica McDonald and Lianne Sanderson were two of their biggest attacking moves to pay dividends. The team has relied on its speed, both to score goals and apply pressure, and it has made it a slog for other teams to try and get past them.
The rest of the bunch: there's always next year
Only four teams in the 10-team NWSL make the playoffs, and the crop of outsiders is probably not what most would have predicted at the start of the season. The Seattle Reign, who won back-to-back NWSL Shields in 2014 and 2015 missed the playoffs by five points and sit in fifth place. The league champions from 2014 and 2015, FC Kansas City, are also out after a very bad offseason. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not necessarily surprising to see the Boston Breakers miss playoffs, but what is surprising is how bad they still are. New coach Matt Beard has only had this season to try to turn things around, but three wins over the course of a 20-game season is actually worse than last year, when they won four games all season. The Houston Dash, with all the resources of the Dynamo organization, continue to struggle and have gone three straight years without making the playoffs, which is sort of mystifying.
On tap: Playoffs next weekend on FS1
The semifinals will air on FS1 next weekend as the top two seeds host the lower two seeds. That means No. 2 Washington hosts No. 3 Chicago on Friday at 8 p.m. ET, and No. 1 Portland hosts No. 4 Western New York on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET. In Portland, Riley’s return to his former club should be a particularly interesting battle, while both Washington and Chicago will be battling to make their first-ever NWSL final. (The winners of each match will then face each other in the championship at 5 p.m. ET, Oct. 9, on FS1.)