After 252 games, we’ve finally arrived at the final weekend of the NWSL regular season, and there’s still a lot to figure out before playoffs begin. Though we were likely spared the maximum chaos of a multi-team title race (all Portland Thorns have to do is beat last place Gotham FC), we’re in for a hell of a ride to see who claims the final playoff spot. Or, if chaos truly reigns, spots plural.
Unfortunately, the folks who run the NWSL don’t always position the league in a way that maximizes the potential for truly riveting programming, and nothing is more case and point than the final weekend being spread out over three days.
If every team was kicking off at the same time and on the same day, who’s winning the shield, who’s hosting playoff games and who’s even going to be in the playoffs could change by the minute.
Still, this weekend should be a lot of fun, if even in a protracted way.
Here’s what’s at stake in the NWSL playoff
There are six playoff spots, and heading into the final weekend only four teams have secured a place in the postseason (Portland Thorns, OL Reign, Kansas City Current and San Diego Wave). The top two teams receive a first-round bye, which equates to a free pass to the semifinal round which will be played in their home stadium. Third and fourth will host first-round playoff games against fifth and sixth.
The team at No. 1 by the end of the weekend will also receive the NWSL Shield as the best team during the regular season (most points). That should go to Portland, who is on top by just one point, but that’s enough as long as they can get all three points from the worst team in the league, Gotham FC. If they lose, or even draw, OL Reign (No. 2) and Kansas City (No. 3) can snatch the title on the final day.
Here’s how the Shield will be determined
The Shield will either go to Portland, OL Reign or Kansas City, with Portland as the favorite.
Portland Thorns kick off against Gotham FC at 6 pm ET Saturday, which means by ~7:30 pm ET, the time Kansas City’s game kicks off, the Current will know if they’re possibly playing for the Shield in the event Portland loses or ties. OL Reign kicks off at 10 pm ET, so they’ll know both results. Even still, only two of those teams can get the first round bye and a semifinal in the backyard.
But wait, there’s more!
Things at the top could also get a bit crowded before Saturday even comes, as San Diego Wave FC face North Carolina on Friday. If San Diego claim all three points they’ll greatly increase their chance of hosting a playoff game. However, North Carolina has flown up the table by winning seven of their last nine, and sit in the final playoff spot by a point. Beating San Diego would ensure all that hard work wouldn’t go to waste and extend the Courage’s season.
Additionally, two teams, Angel City FC and the Chicago Red Stars, have not yet been eliminated from the playoffs but do not currently sit in a playoff spot. Oh and did I mention THEY PLAY EACH OTHER IN THE FINAL MATCH OF THE WHOLE DANG REGULAR SEASON. Sorry for yelling but we need this match to be a winner-take-all (and by all we mean the last playoff spot), and there’s a good chance it might.
If North Carolina draws or loses to San Diego then it’s automatically on, as Chicago could leapfrog them with a win (Angel City would only leapfrog them if the Courage lose). However, Houston, currently at No. 5, is in some shaky ground as well and could factor in.
Last year the Houston Dash traveled to Washington, DC on the final weekend of the season needing a win to make it into the playoffs. Trinity Rodman scored in the 76th minute to give the Spirit the win and send the Dash home until 2022. This year, the Spirit are already eliminated from playoff contention but can make things awfully shaky for Houston, again. If they lose to the Spirit, they could drop out of the playoffs again if the Courage and Red Stars both pick up three points.
There are approximately 90 bajillion scenarios for the shuffling of the top-4 and also the bottom-4 fighting for just two spots. While an ‘NWSL Decision Day’ with simultaneous kickoffs would be one of the most fun and nerve fraying things in women’s soccer, it should still be one hell of a weekend.