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The Case For And Against Every NWSL Team’s Playoff Hopes

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2019 is a surprisingly close race

SOCCER: AUG 03 NWSL - Sky Blue FC at Portland Thorns FC

The 2019 NWSL season is hitting the home stretch— and the playoff race is surprisingly competitive. Only seven points separate first place from fifth. Six teams out of nine have a realistic chance of getting to the postseason. While it’s reasonable to look at the table as it is right now and make educated guesses about who’s going to be in the playoff mix, it would be a mistake to count anyone out at this stage. (Well, almost anyone.)

Here’s the case for and against every NWSL team making the playoffs.

North Carolina Courage

For: Dude, it’s North Carolina. They’re maybe not quite as dominant as they were last season, when they lost exactly one (1) game, but they’re at the top of the table for a reason. Not only will they make the playoffs, they’re almost certainly favorites to win back-to-back championships.

Against: At press time, they’re only seven points clear of fifth place (currently occupied by Washington). It’s mathematically possible that the Courage could drop a bunch of points and find themselves below the red line come late September. It probably won’t happen, but on paper, it’s not impossible.

Portland Thorns

For: Not unlike North Carolina, playoff qualification for Portland seems like an inevitability. They have one of the stronger squads in the league. Their defense is holding together. Lindsey Horan is still Lindsey Horan. And Christine Sinclair is a literal legend. They’ve got more than enough in the tank.

Against: All that said, the Thorns aren’t invulnerable. As their 1-0 loss to Reign FC last night in midweek action and their 1-1 draw against Sky Blue last weekend demonstrated, some solid defending and goalkeeping combined with a bit of luck can be enough to take points off of Portland. They’ll still near shoe-ins for playoff qualification, but good teams have fallen apart for much less.

Chicago Red Stars

For: It would be easy to look at the Red Stars and not see further than their USWNT contingent and Sam Kerr. But Chicago’s real strength is their depth. While they did have a rocky summer during the World Cup, they’ve managed to pull it together for the home stretch. As Claire Watkins wrote last weekend, the fact that Chicago were able to put in such a confident, mature performance against Utah without their US internationals speaks to how well this team is built.

Against: The thing is, Chicago also has this weird habit of grossly underperforming at inopportune times. The same team that beat North Carolina twice this season also took an L at home against Sky Blue just last month. The Red Stars usually get hot around this time of year, but it’s not totally wild to imagine a scenario in which they implode down the stretch and end up finishing in sixth place.

Reign FC

For: RFC recovered well from a difficult start to the season, when they posted three draws and a loss from their first four games. They’ve only lost three games all season and they’ve won five of their last seven. Most of their recent wins were low-scoring, grind-it-out affairs. The hero of many of their games this summer has been goalkeeper Casey Murphy. It’s not the best recipe for success, but it’s working; if the season ended today, Reign FC would be in the playoffs. If they can just hold it together...

Against: The problem is that they can’t just keep relying on defense and goalkeeping. They’re currently the only team in the top six with a negative goal differential. Their top goalscorer, Jess Fishlock, only has three tallies this season. This would all be worrying even if everybody was healthy. As it is, RFC have an astonishing ten players on the injury report— including several heavy hitters like Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe. Despite their current position above the red line, they probably don’t have enough in the tank to stay there.

Washington Spirit

For: Washington have been a bit of a surprise package this season. For one magical moment this summer, the Spirit were top of the table and looking like they could really go the distance. Their goalscoring isn’t great at the moment— Ashley Hatch and Jordan DiBiasi are leading the pack with four goals each— but they’ve been pretty good about not conceding. Washington owe that to Audrey Bledsoe, who, with 55 saves and six clean sheets, is probably the best goalkeeper in the league at the moment. They’re in fifth place right now and five points out of the playoff spots, but they have a surprisingly good chance at breaking into the postseason this year.

Against: Unless they continue their current form, which dismal. Washington have lost four of their last five games, and the fifth was a win against Sky Blue. The big question is whether their hot streak from earlier this summer was a fluke or if they’re actually capable of getting results consistently. The next three games— home vs Chicago, away at Portland, home vs Utah— could very well make or break their season.

Utah Royals

For: Utah are currently tied with fifth-place Washington on points. They honestly should be a little higher up in the table, but their seven-game winless streak really knocked them off course. That winless streak was finally broken last night with a dominating 3-0 win over Sky Blue. That game illustrated the two biggest arguments for why Utah could make the playoffs— Amy Rodriguez and Christen Press. If they can stay hot down the stretch, Utah could definitely force their way over the red line.

Against: That winless streak, however, also demonstrated why they might not qualify. Of those seven games, four saw Utah fail to score at all. Sky Blue managed to keep a clean sheet against them. That’s bad. And it speaks to what is perhaps the core issue with this team— they’ve got the right pieces, but it hasn’t really added up to results and convincing performances. This is a team that is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Making the playoffs will require proving a lot of people wrong— which feels strange, given the squad and manager.

Houston Dash

For: We’re now at the part of the table where teams will have to rely more on luck than their own strength. Houston do have enough talent— notably, Rachel Daly and Kristie Mewis and, when she’s actually deployed as an attacker, Sofia Huerta— to at least stay in the playoff conversation. At seven points adrift of a playoff spot, the Dash definitely have a steep hill to climb if they want to have a shot at the postseason. If they can get hot now, and stay hot for the next month and a half, they’ve got a chance.

Against: Realistically, however, they probably don’t have it in them. They’ve won two whole games from their last ten, and there is little indication that their form is going to change quickly enough for it to matter. The club is almost certainly looking toward the offseason at this point. Never say never, but it would be a bit of a surprise if the Dash suddenly became contenders.

Orlando Pride

For: Hoo boy. On paper, Orlando should be contenders. Maybe if they remember that, and they win all their remaining games, AND enough teams ahead of them in the table drop points, they might be able to get close to the red line.

Against: But c’mon, their season is over. I am truly baffled how you can have both Alex Morgan and Marta in this squad and still be this terrible, but, credit to Orlando, they found a way.

Sky Blue FC

For: Yeah, I got nothing. Sorry friends. Please enjoy your big game at Red Bull Arena. Find your joy wherever you can.

Against: Literally everything.