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NWSL playoff race: Portland Thorns are Shield favorites but Kansas City, San Diego and more are still in it

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Mallory Pugh's stunner guides Chicago past Orlando (0:29)

Mallory Pugh scores a brilliant goal as the Chicago Red Stars claim a 1-0 win vs. Orlando Pride in the NWSL. (0:29)

Parity reigns so supreme in the National Women's Soccer League that teams can switch form faster than Lo'eau LaBonta's very epic celebration last weekend. One moment, they look like they are struggling and the next, everyone's laughing and feeling good.

Such is summer in the NWSL, when positions in the table change quickly amid unpredictable results and as a result, the playoff race typically remains a fun-but-murky mess.

LaBonta's Kansas City Current is the most in-form team in the league right now with only six weeks remaining in the regular season. An 11-game unbeaten streak -- which includes results against every other team in the NWSL except the Portland Thorns -- has Kansas City sitting in prime position to make the playoffs just one year after a last-place finish.

The six teams in the playoff positions right now are separated by only five points, and one point below that red line sits expansion club Angel City FC, with a game in hand on the teams immediately above. Remarkably, the Orlando Pride are also hanging around in the playoff race as September approaches despite some horrendous results in the spring coinciding with new head coach Amanda Cromwell being placed on administrative leave after allegations of retaliation (an issue that remains unresolved).

Realistically, eight teams are fighting for the six postseason berths, although there remains one wild card among the bottom teams due to the NWSL's persistent scheduling problems.

It's the Thorns' Shield to lose, again

The Portland Thorns' 28 points have them level with San Diego Wave FC and the Houston Dash atop the NWSL table, but the Thorns have a vastly superior goal difference and, crucially, two games in hand on both challengers.

That goal difference is driven by their 36 goals scored, seven more than the next highest-scoring team, Houston. Sophia Smith's 11 goals keep her firmly in the Golden Boot race, now one off the pace of San Diego's Alex Morgan.

Most impressive about the Thorns is the dominance and continuity they have maintained despite major changes and off-field concerns. Head coach Rhian Wilkinson filled big shoes upon Mark Parsons' exit and Wilkinson -- a former Thorns defender and Canadian international -- has her team operating with the flexibility to interchange players and systems.

Portland started the year in a 3-5-2 before shifting into more traditional four-back systems based on the opponent, and they've done so without missing a beat. They also did just fine without their international players (due to the CONCACAF W Championship) from late June into July, including 6-0 and 5-0 thrashings of Orlando and NJ/NY Gotham FC, respectively.

Christine Sinclair and Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez remain fixtures in the center of the park, and the additions of Japan international Hina Sugita and rookie Sam Coffey quickly answered any questions in midfield after Lindsey Horan went on loan to Lyon and Crystal Dunn missed most of the season to give birth to her son in May. Dunn could be back on the field before season's end, too.

Portland won the Shield last year before falling flat in the semifinals to a Chicago Red Stars team that sat in and scored two brilliant goals. This year, it once again looks like the Thorns vs. the field.

It is Wilkinson's first year in charge, but the standard in Portland is still "title or bust" and so far this season, it appears that should remain the case -- even in an ostensible transition year. A first NWSL Championship since 2017 (and third overall) for Portland feels like a real possibility.

Who could instead become a first-time Shield winner?

Kansas City has been the most consistent team over the past two months, and last season's bottom-dweller could find itself peaking at the right time. The Current continue to find ways to grind out results, the most recent example being LaBonta's 82nd-minute equalizer from the penalty spot just four minutes after going behind to Angel City FC.

Cece Kizer arrived via trade with Louisville in June and looks like the perfect strike partner for Kristen Hamilton. Kizer has five goals in her first nine games with the team, matching Hamilton and LaBonta (who scored four of those from the penalty spot).

First-year head coach Matt Potter has the group thriving in a 3-5-2 setup in a year when half the league has at least experimented with a three-back formation at one point. A surprise trip to the NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals heightened expectations prior to a four-game winless streak to start the regular season, but that blip now feels more like the expected growing pains of a team under a new coach.

A goal difference of zero highlights the Current's biggest issue: the fine margins by which they operate, which have cost them points amid the unbeaten run.

Granted, they have clawed back from deficits, like on Friday against Angel City and from 2-0 down against Orlando to draw 2-2 on July 31. The Current have also conceded equalizers in the 90th minute or later on two occasions throughout the streak. Results like those can be the difference between winning the Shield and going on the road for a playoff game.

San Diego Wave FC remains impressive in its debut season as an expansion team and got back on track Saturday with an important, come-from-behind home victory over Houston. Head coach Casey Stoney has the Wave playing with one of the clearest identities in the NWSL despite the club's lack of history.

Morgan's league-leading 12 goals are a big reason for the success, but so too is the defensive effort. Rookie and No. 1 draft pick Naomi Girma already looks like a seasoned pro at the back, and a midfield anchored by Emily van Egmond and Taylor Kornieck is difficult to break down in exactly the way observers expected a Stoney-coached team to line up.

San Diego was grossly outplayed in a 2-1 home loss to Kansas City on Aug. 7, which was followed by a surprising 1-0 home loss to Orlando. Saturday's victory over Houston appeared to right the ship, and the fact that the Wave remain legitimately in the Shield conversation this late in the season as an expansion side is a testament to their success already.

Houston is equally interesting for entirely different reasons. The Dash looked awful in the NWSL Challenge Cup prior to the regular season. Then-head coach James Clarkson was placed on administrative leave (which, like in Orlando, remains an unresolved issue) and Sarah Lowdon took over as acting coach, getting the team on course. Juan Carlos Amorόs is now the interim head coach until season's end, with Lowdon stepping back to first assistant.

If all that movement seems like it should be a recipe for disaster, it hasn't been so far. Ebony Salmon scored a hat trick in Amorόs' first game in charge, a 4-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars, and Houston went unbeaten in five games to start the Amorόs era before Saturday's loss to San Diego.

Salmon's midseason arrival via trade with Louisville is the bigger addition. The English striker has eight goals in eight games for Houston after largely being stuck on the bench with her former team this season. Rachel Daly's sudden transfer to Aston Villa this month -- ending a six-plus year tenure in Houston, most recently as captain -- makes Salmon's arrival even more important.

Houston has never qualified for the playoffs in seven previous regular seasons and infamously choked down the stretch last season, losing their final three games when a single point would have seen them advance to the postseason. Even on 28 points and sitting third via tiebreaker, Houston's history hangs over the current group. Angel City has two games in hand and sits six points behind the Dash -- and the two teams square off on Sept. 11.

The teams around the red line

OL Reign once again look like a team mildly under-performing given the abundance of talent and experience both on the roster and on the sidelines. The Reign currently sit in fifth with 24 points.

Last year, the ousting of then-head coach Farid Benstiti, and the eventual return of Laura Harvey (with guidance from longtime assistant Sam Laity in the interim), proved to be a turning point. The Reign were packed with international talent, including Eugenie Le Sommer and Dzsenifer Marozsán, and middling in the middle of the table. Then they won seven of their final 10 games and finished two points behind Portland, nearly stealing the Shield from their rivals.

Harvey's group will need another run like that to secure a home playoff game in another competitive top half of the table, and there is again an expectation to advance beyond the semifinals and win an elusive first league title. The addition of Tobin Heath to an already veteran-heavy group adds to the thinking that the Reign need to win this year.

Chicago is the more worrisome team. The Red Stars, led by Mallory Pugh's continued red-hot form that carried over from last season, looked like one of the best teams early in the regular season. Injuries have not helped, but they've lost four of their last five, with the only victory coming over last-place Gotham FC.

Chicago's 1-0 loss to Angel City on August 14 has the LA-based club only one point behind Chicago and, as with every other team above it except Portland, Angel City has a game in hand. The Red Stars then got thrashed 4-0 by North Carolina on Saturday. They also conceded four goals to Houston recently.

A likely possibility is that teams have figured out this version of Chicago, which heading into the season was a team of mystery after the exit of disgraced coach Rory Dames and a new head coach not even being in place at the start of preseason.

First-year coach Chris Petrucelli remains committed to the 3-4-3 even despite a pretty thin depth chart in the back, which was weakened by Tierna Davidson tearing her ACL early in the year. The back three has looked great at times in one-on-one battles, but a lot has been asked of it collectively. And while there are some promising young attacking players, right now the scoring burden largely falls on Pugh, who has not scored in three games since returning from international duty and was absent from the team for a month while helping the U.S. win the CONCACAF W Championship.

Chicago also has a grueling final stretch of the season if they're to hang on to that last playoff spot. After Saturday's road game at Racing Louisville (a gritty but young and inconsistent team), the Red Stars go to Seattle to play the Reign, then host Kansas City and Houston before visiting Portland to round out September. All those teams are above the Red Stars in the standings.

Chicago's final game of the year? Home against Angel City in a game that could decide the final playoff berth.

Surprise challengers and a real wild card

Angel City has overcome a series of major absences -- the greatest of which was Christen Press' season-ending ACL tear in early June -- to grind out results against the odds. Angel City has climbed from a 27% chance of making the playoffs in early July to 41% chance, per FiveThirtyEight.

Four of Angel City's last seven games this season are against teams in the bottom half of the table, which is good news for the first-year club that has hit its stride off the field. Consistency of lineups and personnel -- some of it by necessity -- has been key to the grind, with Japan international Jun Endo providing strong link-up play and the midseason addition of versatile attacker Claire Emslie providing a spark alongside Savannah McCaskill.

If Angel City can qualify for the playoffs in year one, the team's July 9 victory over new rivals San Diego will have been the catalyst. Emslie, in her club debut, scored the eventual game-winner two minutes after her team was reduced to 10 players, and Angel City held off San Diego's furious search for an equalizer in front of 22,000 fans in LA to snatch three points.

Angel City has only once put together a winning streak this season, but Freya Coombe's side has done enough to be in the playoff hunt, which is as much as any expansion team can ask for (except San Diego, apparently).

Orlando is two points behind sixth-place Chicago thanks to a seven-game unbeaten streak that started after an embarrassing 6-0 loss away to Portland. That the Pride are even in the conversation is an accomplishment given their immense roster turnover -- Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger were all traded over the past nine months -- and coaching uncertainty.

The Pride face the Reign twice in addition to Portland, San Diego, North Carolina and Louisville to end the season. Holding this form seems unlikely, particularly against more talented teams, but last year's title run from the Washington Spirit under then interim boss Kris Ward (who was fired on Monday amid the team's 15-game winless streak) at least provides an example that it can be done.

Still, the Pride feel closer to the pack of Washington, NJ/NY Gotham FC and Racing Louisville, which are realistically out of the playoff picture, than they do to the playoff teams.

The wild card is the 10th-place North Carolina Courage, the most unpredictable team in the NWSL's recent history. A 4-0 victory over Chicago on Saturday finally pulled the Courage off the bottom of the table, where they had sat basically from the start of the regular season. The catch is that they've only 13 games so far this season, three fewer than most teams and four fewer than Houston and San Diego. North Carolina's maximum number of possible points makes the playoffs seem at least possible, a theory also supported by FiveThiryEight's simulated season, which gives them a 33% shot.

Beginning Wednesday, the Courage will play nine games in 38 days to finish their regular-season schedule, squeezing in multiple make-up matches caused by various issues. The next few days, featuring games against Portland and Kansas City, could tell a lot about whether a miracle run up the table will happen.

If the Courage are to secure a playoff berth, they will need a modicum of consistency, something they have lacked all year. A week before their 4-0 win, they blew three different leads in a 4-3 loss at home against Kansas City which left head coach Sean Nahas somber as he lamented the team "bleeding goals." Prior to that, the Courage played a pair of 3-3 draws against the Spirit and Thorns. North Carolina is nothing if not entertaining, but that might not be a recipe for the postseason.

Predictions: which teams should you bet on?

The Thorns will distance themselves in the Shield race thanks to their games in hand, and the Reign will make another run at the No. 2 seed to host a playoff game at Lumen Field for the first time.

San Diego and Kansas City will host first-round playoff games, while Houston holds on to qualify for the first time and Angel City pips Chicago for the final playoff berth. These results would set up the NWSL's dream: Angel City at San Diego in the first round of the playoffs. Houston and Kansas City also get to further develop a budding rivalry, with winners advancing to games in the Pacific Northwest.

From there? History says anything is possible, and that's why the playoffs will always be integral to the NWSL's structure: after a long regular season of chaotic results come knockout games in which just about anything can happen.