The National Women's Soccer League is known for parity, and knockout tournaments are ripe with upset. Enter: the NWSL playoffs.
Six teams remain in contention for the NWSL Championship after the league's most dramatic playoff race to date. The top two -- OL Reign and the Portland Thorns -- earned byes to the semifinals, with the Reign winning the NWSL Shield by one point despite not finishing a single week at the top of the table before the final round of play. Teams three through five all finished even on points and had their playoff seeding decided by tiebreakers.
When teams take the field on Sunday, in the first round of the playoffs, it will also mark the NWSL's first games since the public release of former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates' report on systemic abuse in the league. Much like last year's NWSL playoffs, when abuse allegations around the league first emerged, players carry an unthinkable weight into the most important weeks of their entire seasons.
Some teams also face major injury questions heading into the postseason. Combined, all these factors create an unpredictable bracket ahead. So, let's look at why each of the six playoff teams will win the NWSL Championship on Oct. 29 -- and why each will not.
No. 1 seed
Record: 11-4-7, 40 pts.
Round 1: Bye
Key players: FW Megan Rapinoe, MF Jess Fishlock, DF Sofia Huerta
Why the Reign will win the NWSL title
Playoffs are about form, and this is the hottest team in the league right now. The Reign won four straight games and went seven unbeaten to end the regular season. Their run culminated with claiming the Shield on the final weekend of the regular season, eclipsing rivals Portland Thorns by one point after the Thorns played to a surprising 3-3 draw at last-place NJ/NY Gotham FC a few hours earlier that evening.
Form extends to individual players, too, and they are part of the club's longer story. Megan Rapinoe remains a headliner of this group -- all her seven goals and four assists in league play were tallied since the start of August. Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock (the 2021 NWSL MVP) and Lauren Barnes are the three remaining players from the Reign's inaugural season in 2013. They lost championship games in 2014 and 2015 when they were easily the best team in the league over the full season, and they were upset at home in last year's semifinal by the Washington Spirit.
If you buy into the narratives around teams of destiny, that 2021 Spirit squad -- rising above the dysfunction of the club off the field -- absolutely was one. There's an argument that this Reign team could be, too, given their long quest to win a first title, despite repeatedly coming close. Coach Laura Harvey is also back in charge, having overseen those previous Reign teams that fell short in the NWSL final.
This playoff campaign has an undeniable now-or-never feeling for this veteran Reign group, which will further motivate its core. As this latest unbeaten run showed -- with dramatic victories like the 2-1 win in Orlando, when Rapinoe scored the winner in stoppage time -- they know how to dig for results.
Rose Lavelle scored a stunning strike to help OL Reign claim a thrilling 2-2 draw against Chicago Red Stars.
Why the Reign won't win the NWSL title
History cuts both ways. Even casting aside those disappointments of 2014 and 2015, the Reign are in a very similar position as last year.
In 2021, they surged late in the season and fell just short of catching Portland to win the Shield. They took the No. 2 seed, which still afforded them a bye, and waited for the Spirit to arrive in Tacoma, Washington. Field conditions were so bad that players did not know, even a few hours before kickoff, whether the game would be postponed. Ashley Sanchez's deft chip from close range served as the game-winner for the Spirit, and that was the end of that version of the Reign, which saw Dzsenifer Marozsan and Eugenie Le Sommer return to parent club Lyon.
Harvey says she learned from that moment. For one, those conditions will not be repeated. The Reign left behind their wretched, converted baseball field in Tacoma for Lumen Field in Seattle this season. Harvey said earlier this month that the weather that entire week before the 2021 semifinal killed the team's rhythm.
Still, she and the Reign need to manage a bye week that follows an international break, meaning a full three weeks off. For a team riding momentum, a long break is not necessarily ideal even if the bye gives their core of internationals a chance to rest after those duties.
The Portland Thorns
No. 2 seed
Record: 10-3-9, 39 pts.
Round 1: Bye
Key players: FW Sophia Smith, FW Morgan Weaver, MF Sam Coffey
Why the Thorns will win the NWSL title
Portland scored more goals than any other team in the NWSL this regular season -- after the North Carolina Courage, who did not make the playoffs, the next-closest team scored 14 fewer goals. Sophia Smith's 14-goal haul is a big reason for that, and she has a legitimate case for MVP and is one of the X-factors of the entire playoff field. The Thorns' fluidity, however, is what makes them so good.
Smith is one of 14 Thorns players to tally a goal in the 2022 regular season. Fellow forward Morgan Weaver somewhat quietly added seven goals and three assists primarily in a winger role, and attacking midfielder Hina Sugita (five goals, four assists) is one of the best new additions of the season, league-wide. Portland is a team that scores in buckets and looks defensively sound across the pitch, from a consistent back four (after a mid-season switch from a three-back) to Sam Coffey's defensive midfield work screening in front of them.
Last year, the Thorns hosted the Chicago Red Stars in the semifinals and failed to break down their opponents' low block, losing 2-0 on a pair of counterattacks. The idea that this Thorns team would be shut out is far-fetched. Portland was shut out only three times this regular season. The Thorns can score, and goals open up games -- which is also to their advantage.
Why the Thorns won't win the NWSL title
There is a blueprint for a defensively sound game plan that shuts down the Thorns, and it was provided by San Diego Wave FC on Aug. 28. The Wave went on the road to Providence Park, played their signature, defensively compact, counter-attacking soccer, and won 2-0. Nothing about the approach was surprising (right down to the Route 1 goal finished by Alex Morgan, off distribution from goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan), and that might be the most concerning context from that game for the Thorns, who struggled through August before getting back on track at the end of the season.
Guess who might be coming back to Providence Park? Portland gets the winner of Sunday's San Diego-Chicago game, meaning it will either be a 2021 semifinal rematch or the fifth rendition this year (all competitions) of Portland-San Diego. The Wave took those three points on the road in August and, in their June meeting in San Diego, erased a 2-0 deficit up to the 81st minute to draw 2-2. San Diego -- at least at full strength -- matches up well with Portland.
The other unfortunate reality here is the emotional burden that players are dealing with league-wide -- it might be felt most tangibly in Portland given the club's prominence in the Yates report and its hosting of a playoff game. Thorns defender and U.S. captain Becky Sauerbrunn said last week that all executives, including Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, who enabled abuse "should be gone." Portland supporters have called for Paulson to sell the team, a message fans have doubled down on even after he announced on Tuesday that he would step down as CEO of the club.
Smith said that she hopes fans will still show up for the game "because that's one of the positive things we have left in Portland." How fans choose to protest the organization will vary by individual, whether that's by skipping the game altogether or demonstrating within the stadium. Either way, it's going to be an emotional scene in Portland on Oct. 23 for that semifinal, and the players who have been disregarded and mistreated for so long are going to feel that the most.
San Diego Wave
No. 3 seed
Record: 10-6-6, 36 pts.
Round 1: hosts Chicago, Sunday at 10 p.m. ET
Key players: FW Alex Morgan, DF Naomi Girma, MF Emily van Egmond
Jeff Kassouf explains who he thinks should win the NWSL MVP award.
Why the Wave will win the NWSL title
Over the entire body of the season, this was the best league's best team. That's subjective, sure, and they finished third by way of a superior goal difference in a three-way tie on 36 points. San Diego, however, spent 13 weeks atop the table and only fell short of the Shield on the penultimate weekend of play. Casey Stoney put in a coach-of-the-year campaign in her first season in the league, guiding an expansion team, and the Wave established both a clear and effective identity. They defend well and score in transition, a tried-and-true recipe for success in the NWSL. Alex Morgan set the pace with 15 goals, earning her league top-scorer honors and perhaps the MVP award in her best club season yet.
Defensively, San Diego has been excellent throughout most of the season even as personnel changed. The Wave's 21 goals against are only bettered by the Reign (19) and they've done so with Kailen Sheridan stopping shots (including saving three of six penalties faced) and stellar performances from center-back Naomi Girma, who isn't just the best rookie in the league, but put in the best season of any center-back.
Overlooked in the successes of Morgan, Girma and Sheridan is the consistency of defensive midfielder Emily van Egmond, who played almost every minute of the season even while juggling duties with Australia and the significant travel that comes with those duties.
Why the Wave won't win the NWSL title
Injuries. Form is one thing, and San Diego's is fine, even if the Wave are not as red-hot as the Reign. The bigger problem is the uncertainty around key players up the spine of the team.
Morgan missed the team's last two league games with what the Wave only described as a left knee injury, and she did not join the U.S. for its two games in Europe against England and Spain. Stoney had previously described Morgan's absence as precautionary, but it's unclear exactly how healthy the star striker is. Make no mistake: San Diego needs her. Morgan scored 15 of the team's 32 goals.
Add to that what was expected to be a longer-term injury to center-back Abby Dahlkemper sustained in late September, and an ankle injury to central midfielder Taylor Kornieck, and the biggest question is whether San Diego will be able to field the same team that was so good throughout the regular season. Kornieck also missed the U.S.' trip to Europe and the Wave's season finale after a nasty ankle roll a few weeks ago.
No. 4 seed
Record: 10-6-6, 36 pts.
Round 1: hosts Kansas City, Sunday at 5 p.m. ET
Key players: FW Maria Sanchez, FW Ebony Salmon, DF Katie Naughton
Why the Dash will win the NWSL title
For starters, the Dash are finally here. Eight years after playing their inaugural NWSL season, they are finally in the playoffs, ending a drought that mercilessly continued last year when they dropped three straight games to end the season and miss the playoffs by a point, failing to score in any of those games.
This year, they have more offensive firepower, an ironic statement considering the unexpected midseason departure to Aston Villa of longtime captain Rachel Daly. Ebony Salmon is clinical in front of goal, and her nine goals in 12 games since joining Houston mid-season speak to her talent. Nichelle Prince also put in one of her best seasons yet and showed further versatility in various roles.
Maria Sanchez is the game-changer, and her presence on this team for the entire season is the major difference from 2021. Sanchez joined the Dash in June 2021 for one of the shortest loans possible, then committed to Houston full-time ahead of the 2022 season. Her four assists lead the team, and her ability to influence the game from wide areas is a major advantage for Houston. If she can get isolated in 1-v-1 opportunities, the Dash will find success.
Why the Dash won't win the NWSL title
The total battle on the flanks. The Dash face Kansas City to open playoffs, and Kansas City's 3-5-2 gets the most out of wing-backs Hailie Mace and Kate Del Fava -- and they are likely to put significant pressure on Houston's full-backs. The Dash's defense hasn't been bad this season, but it has been stretched at times, and Kansas City managed to previously achieve that upper hand both in the regular season and Challenge Cup, winning three of four previous meetings this year. If Sanchez is forced to cover defensively as Kansas City gets forward, it will limit her influence in the attack.
There remains a question about the best central midfield combination for Houston, too. Sophie Schmidt and Marisa Viggiano have been constants, but the third player around them has rotated even recently, such that Kansas City's center attacking midfielder, Claire Lavogez and Lo'eau LaBonta, have the edge right now.
Kansas City Current
No. 5 seed
Record: 10-6-6, 36 pts.
Round 1: at Houston, Sunday at 5 p.m. ET
Key players: MF Lo'eau LaBonta, MF Claire Lavogez, DF Elizabeth Ball
Why the Current will win the NWSL title
Kansas City rattled off a 13-game unbeaten run throughout the summer that included every team except the Thorns, who the Current drew 1-1 after the streak was snapped with an ugly, 4-0 loss in Chicago.
Lo'eau LaBonta put in her best season yet and arguably had the best season of any attacking midfielder in the league, and Claire Lavogez complements her perfectly. Lavogez was one of the best NWSL acquisitions from the summer transfer window. Cece Kizer's arrival also marked one of the best trades of the season. Kizer's seven goals are tied with LaBonta for most on the team, and she pairs with Kristen Hamilton in such a way that there is no obvious answer to marking one or the other out of a game. Together, they've all created a balanced attack.
Elizabeth Ball also anchors a back three that is typically hard to beat, and Kansas City's wing-backs have been the best in the league in that particular system (which is similarly played by Chicago, in a 3-4-3, and previously by Portland).
Why the Current won't win the NWSL title
One glaring absence is Desiree Scott, the team captain who was sent off in the regular-season finale for yellow cards four minutes apart. It's a huge blow to a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, and one that operates on fine margins. The 3-5-2, and the personnel within it, largely have not changed much through the year, and nine of 10 victories from the regular season were by one goal. Kansas City finished with a goal difference of zero. Each piece matters.
Scott's role as the defensive midfielder in that system -- as the player screening in front of the back three -- is essential. There is a reason she is known as "The Destroyer." Without her, Houston -- the Current's first playoff opponent -- could find more opportunities to find Salmon in space.
Alex Loera has been the backup defensive midfielder in Scott's absences this season, and that will likely continue against Houston. There is no replacing Scott, however, and Loera's shift to the No. 6 role also disrupts the chemistry of the back three. She has not started a game in that position since July, when Scott was at World Cup qualifying with Canada. Scott's absence will be felt.
Chicago Red Stars
No. 6 seed
Record: 9-7-6, 33 pts.
Round 1: at San Diego, Sunday at 10 p.m. ET
Key players: FW Mallory Pugh, MF Vanessa DiBernardo, DF Tatumn Milazzo
Why the Red Stars will win the NWSL title
Chicago might be the most difficult team to read of the playoff bunch, and those inconsistencies led to the Red Stars fighting their way to the sixth and final playoff berth on the final day of the regular season.
In simple and obvious terms, this is the Mallory Pugh show. No player meant more to her team this season than Pugh, whose 17 goal involvements (11 goals, six assists) accounted for exactly half of Chicago's goals. She changes games with moments of individual brilliance, and she keeps reminding everyone of that, like she did with a stunning brace in a 4-0 win over Kansas City on Sept. 14 (when she also provided service on the other two goals). If Chicago is to make a run in these playoffs, it will be on Pugh's back.
Yuki Nagasato deserves credit in the attack, too, and her supporting role to Pugh and its similarities to Nagasato's role supporting Sam Kerr in her 18-goal season in 2019 should not go unnoticed. Nor should the central midfield work of Vanessa DiBernardo and Danielle Colaprico, two longtime Chicago players who have gone through the club's heartbreaks on and off the field. They are the anchors to (and engines for) this system.
Additionally, a contextual note rather than a reason the Red Stars might win: Chicago is another club at the center of the Yates report and like with Portland, the weight of that could understandably affect performances. Red Stars players collectively issued a statement on Monday calling for principal owner Arnim Whisler to sell the team. Once again, there are similarities to the 2021 Spirit, the team that beat Chicago in last year's final. That Washington team spent the playoffs calling for then-owner Steve Baldwin to sell the team. The players rallied around themselves in that moment. Perhaps Chicago can do the same this year.
Mal Pugh turned on the 𝙣𝙞𝙩𝙧𝙤 ⚡ to speed things up!— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) September 15, 2022
What. A. Goal. 🤯@MalPugh | #CHIvKC pic.twitter.com/oP7YsUdZo0
Why the Red Stars won't win the NWSL title
Outside of Pugh, the goal scoring really dries up. Ella Stevens is the next-leading scorer with four goals, and among the Red Stars' top six scorers are three defenders who get forward on set pieces. Shut down Pugh and you can shut down the Red Stars. That is much easier said than done, of course, and Chicago proved the theory wrong last year, picking up that huge 2-0 win in the semifinal in Portland without Pugh, who was in COVID-19 protocols.
San Diego swept the season series this year and will like its odds of matching up player-for-player with Chicago's three-back, assuming Morgan is healthy. Seventeen-year-old Jaedyn Shaw scored the game-winner in her debut in July at Soldier Field, a 1-0 win for San Diego over Chicago.
Tatumn Milazzo and Zoe Morse have been great on Chicago's back line this year, but they'll have to deal with defending the Wave's attack and also trying to play out of San Diego's effective (and selective) high press, with the Wave at home at Snapdragon Stadium. That will be a dangerous balance if they choose to play out on the ground and San Diego brings the pressure.