The most competitive National Women's Soccer League regular season to date is in the books and now comes the encore: the playoffs.
Six teams will compete in the single-elimination postseason tournament, and while the San Diego Wave and Portland Thorns have byes as first- and second-place finishers respectively, their home-field advantage is ostensibly mitigated by the NWSL's ongoing scheduling strife. The Wave and Thorns must wait three weeks to return to action due to an international break that is sandwiched into the playoff schedule.
OL Reign hosts Los Angeles-based Angel City FC on Friday in Seattle for the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup, while third-place finisher North Carolina Courage hosts No. 6 seed NJ/NY Gotham FC on Sunday. The winner of the game in Seattle takes on NWSL Shield-winners San Diego in the semifinals, while the Thorns will host either North Carolina or Gotham.
The NWSL Championship will be played on Saturday, Nov. 11 at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego.
Nothing is given in the NWSL, a mantra underscored by a season of unpredictable results and the tightest table to date from top to bottom. The parity only intensifies in the playoffs, where knockout soccer requires a team only to be better over 90 (or 120) minutes, not over the course of a season.
Each team is uniquely positioned to make a run, and each has flaws, too. Here is why each team will -- or won't -- win the NWSL Championship, in order of regular-season finish with their W-D-L records.
San Diego Wave FC (11-4-7, 37 pts.)
Why the Wave will win: In a season marked by inconsistency across the league, the Wave managed to stick to its identity as a team capable of shaping games without the ball and hurting teams in transition. Center-back Naomi Girma is the best defender in the league and 18-year-old Jaedyn Shaw has played at MVP levels for stretches of the season as a playmaker capable of playing an incisive final pass.
The Wave also leads the league in attendance and know that a semifinal victory at Snapdragon Stadium (where they have struggled at times this year, to be fair) means playing for another trophy on home soil on Nov. 11. The coaching and the talent are there to get the job done.
Why the Wave won't win: San Diego will host either OL Reign or Angel City FC in the semifinal. The Wave's record against those two teams combined this season is one win, one draw, and six losses in all competitions.
Oh, and that one victory came over Angel City in April, when the LA side was struggling under previous management. Angel City has only lost once in 14 games under interim coach Becki Tweed, a streak that began with a win in San Diego in June. No matter the winner of the first-round game, San Diego will have to overcome one of its bogey teams.
Portland Thorns (10-5-7, 35 pts.)
Why the Thorns will win: This is effectively the same Portland team that won the 2022 NWSL Championship, just with a different coach. Like this year, the Thorns blew the NWSL Shield on the final day of the season in 2022, raising doubts about them for the playoffs. They quickly squashed those and lifted another trophy.
Forward and 2023 NWSL Golden Boot winner Sophia Smith, who won the league MVP award last season, recently returned from a minor injury, which is a boost to the team's attack. Center-back Becky Sauerbrunn is also back on the field after a significant injury layoff. Holding midfielder Sam Coffey leads the league in assists. Player for player, Portland continues to look like the most talented team in the league.
Why the Thorns won't win: The problem in Portland is that despite all the talent, the plans have sometimes looked unclear. Multiple times this season, Thorns players and head coach Mike Norris have expressed bewilderment after a bad loss. They've struggled to explain why the team didn't show up on the day, why the defensive errors happened the way that they did, or why they couldn't find a pathway to their star forward.
That was on display on Sunday after the Thorns' 5-1 loss to Angel City. The performance was the opposite of "vintage Thorns soccer," to borrow from the team's vernacular, and more reminiscent of 2019, when the Thorns stumbled into the playoffs and knew they needed to address larger changes in order to truly move forward.
North Carolina Courage (9-6-7, 33 pts.)
Why the Courage will win: North Carolina is the most possession-based team in the NWSL by a significant margin and thus, the Courage dictates the flow of many of their games. For the most part, that has meant purposeful possession that has produced results, including a stretch during the summer when North Carolina won five straight games and seven of eight in all competitions.
Denise O'Sullivan remains the team's engine in midfield, while Malia Berkely helps set the tone of keeping the ball from the center-back position. Teenager Manaka Matsukubo has also been a revelation in attack since joining the team this summer.
Jeff Kassouf debates who will win the NWSL MVP out of Alex Morgan, Sophia Smith, Naomi Girma and Kerolin Nicoli.
Why the Courage won't win: If Kerolin is out, it's probably all over. The team's star playmaker, whose 10 goals this season was second only to Smith's 11, left Sunday's regular-season finale with a non-contact knee injury. Those are never encouraging words to hear and would suggest that Kerolin either won't be available or won't be her best self. Her 10 goals account for over one-third of North Carolina's total tallies.
The Courage also stumbled down the stretch. North Carolina went six straight regular-season games without a win before Sunday's 1-0 victory over a Washington Spirit team that had star forward Trinity Rodman sent off only 23 minutes into the match.
OL Reign (9-5-8, 32 pts.)
Why the Reign will win: Megan Rapinoe's two goals on Sunday to secure the Reign another home playoff game suggest that the two-time World Cup champion still has a few more moments of magic in her before she retires this season. Reign head coach Laura Harvey has also vaguely suggested that midfielder Rose Lavelle could be available on Friday amid her latest battle with injuries. The Seattle side is at its best with Lavelle in the No. 10 role.
If the Reign can jump on top of Angel City early and dictate the tempo of play, it could be a long night for the visitors at Lumen Field. Midfielder Jess Fishlock, one of the Reign's original players, continues to be an omnipresent force in the middle of the park.
Why the Reign won't win: There's a bit of, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me many times, what's going on here?" The Reign are perennial contenders but have never won the NWSL Championship, despite three NWSL Shields. They've fallen short of expectations in numerous playoffs, including last year, their latest Shield triumph. They've also been the home team in several of those cases.
Previous years don't have a bearing on the matchup at hand on Friday, granted, but there is a certain weight of the moment knowing that it is the last shot for this group to deliver a title for Rapinoe.
Angel City also won the most recent matchup between the teams in August by not allowing the Reign to find a rhythm in their attack to serve crosses. Angel City attempted more crosses in the regular season than any team, even the typically cross-happy Reign. The Reign might just get a dose of their own medicine against Angel City.
Angel City FC (8-7-7, 31 pts.)
Why Angel City will win: Simply put, this is the hottest team in the league right now and the playoffs are all about momentum at the right time. Angel City has lost only once in 11 regular-season games since Tweed took over. The 5-1 win over Portland on Sunday was the team's "most complete" performance of the season, Tweed said, and it was easily the biggest result in the team's brief history.
From Savannah McCaskill's playmaking in the No. 10 role to MA Vignola getting on the scoresheet as a fullback and the double-pivot of Amandine Henry and Madison Hammond holding down midfield, Angel City is clicking in all the right ways. This is the last team anyone wants to face right now.
Why Angel City won't win: Angel City likes to push its fullbacks into the attack and play with an aggressive front line that often looks like a four-front. That leaves space in wide areas for the Reign to attack in transition, and the last thing a team should do against the Reign is allow them time and space out wide.
Rapinoe and (if healthy) Sofia Huerta can punish any team for that kind of overcommitment. They did exactly that at Lumen Field in May, when they handily defeated Angel City, 4-1 as Rapinoe roamed free on the flank and wreaked havoc. That was a struggling Angel City team at the time, but the Reign no doubt will see that as a blueprint.
NJ/NY Gotham FC (8-7-7, 31 pts.)
Why Gotham will win: Gotham's fluid movement off the ball makes it difficult for opponents to maintain their shape -- and disciplined shape is a cornerstone of North Carolina's approach. The Gotham front line of Lynn Williams, Esther González, and Midge Purce is already dangerous before Yazmeen Ryan adds late runs from an attacking midfield position.
Gotham's attacking quartet is exceptional individually and will challenge North Carolina's otherwise sound defensive unit. Those dangers were on display in September, when the Courage and Gotham played one of the most exciting games of the NWSL season, a 3-3 draw in North Carolina. Gotham came back from 3-1 down to equalize late. The advantage goes to Gotham if this game becomes a shootout (especially if Kerolin is absent).
Why Gotham won't win: Inconsistency nearly cost Gotham a playoff spot altogether on Decision Day as the team held on for a 2-2 draw with the already eliminated Kansas City Current. Gotham's fluid play can also be its undoing as a high-risk-high-reward tactic.
Veteran defender Ali Krieger - who, like Rapinoe, is seeking an NWSL title before her impending retirement -- has been forced to pull off heroics in the back a bit too frequently, including in Sunday's match against Kansas City. Gotham's aggression in attack will mean more space to operate in midfield for 19-year-old Courage phenom Manaka.