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The NWSL’s regular season matters more if we let it

Playoffs are fun, but winning the Shield deserves praise.

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Because the NWSL is a soccer league, wins, draws and losses are weighted with various point totals. Because the NWSL is a soccer league in America, there’s also an exclusive playoff tournament at the end of the regular season. The team with the highest point total when the final regular season whistle blows is awarded the NWSL Shield, while the playoff winner is named Champion.

In most soccer leagues around the world, the team with the most points at the end of a season is the champion. Since this isn’t the case in the NWSL, and two pieces of silverware are handed out, how should the league treat both to give them the weight they deserve?

Yes, one is more fun but the other is more fair 

First things first, this is America, there’s no way we’re not going to do a playoff. But this creates a problem for the way performance is measured, evaluated and tallied under soccer’s common rules. Playoffs are single elimination games, and while there’s something to applaud for performing at one’s best in single elimination situations, one-off matches in which anything can happen – particularly in soccer – is a poorer measurement system.

The regular season points system (three points for wins, one for draws, 0 for losses), with every team involved and matches both home and away is a much better measurement of teams’ overall performance against all available competition. It’s different to the way our major sports teams and leagues do it, but it is fairer. 

If the NWSL’s playoffs are viewed as the competition for the ‘true’ league champion, then the more scientific measurement can be trampled by a refereeing decision, an ill-timed subpar performance, bus-parking tactics, or a litany of other occurrences that can leave the better team on the wrong end of a scoreline.

So let’s rebrand the NWSL’s “playoffs”

Playoff style formats are not new to the soccer world, they’re just called cup competitions elsewhere. In most of these tournaments, particularly in the latter stages, there are single elimination (or two-legged home and away eliminations) that reward a trophy to the last club standing in a Final (a.k.a. Championship Game). 

Cup competitions aren’t used as a stand-in for regular season performances, but offer a bonus accomplishment worthy of exuberant celebrations and memorable moments, and we can have the best of both worlds with a bit of reframing. To do so, we need to rebrand how we think of the playoffs and treat them as what they are: a cup competition.

This is not to diminish playoffs, but place them in a more common, and sensible, category. There’s a particular lore, glory and even magic to soccer’s cup competitions. Anything can happen when the margins are as fine as win or go home, and though that dynamic is antithetical to the process of identifying the best team through a 22-match season, there’s no denying it’s also fun as hell.

History agrees. Out of eight fully completed NWSL seasons, NWSL Shield winners have only won that season’s playoffs/postseason cup competition twice (North Carolina Courage in 2018 & 2019). In 25 years of Major League Soccer, the top men’s division which also awards a shield winner and playoff/postseason cup competition champion, just seven teams have won both in the same season, with the most recent being five years ago.

Ok, but how entertaining can a regular season actually be?

We’re conditioned to believe that the intensity and demand for high-level performances required in playoff competition is the best path toward those enduring, iconic moments that Disney tells us defines champions. That’s not always true.

Last WSL season, Chelsea and Arsenal battled for the title on the final day of the regular season. And these moments aren’t rare, either. Chelsea risked losing the title to Manchester City on the final matchday the season prior as well. Disney script writers would’ve loved both endings. 

In leagues that aren’t as competitive, a points leader can run away with the title a month or so before the season ends. But that’s not the case in the NWSL and is unlikely to ever be.

Hear me out

We’re fortunate to have both sets of competitions but I think we’re missing out on maximizing specific joys offered by both. 

Right now four teams are within two points of the top spot. If the four remain this tight on the table, October 1 would see three of these teams kickoff within an hour and half of one another, all against different opposition. The potential for the title to change hands at any minute would make for a thrilling and tension-filled final matchday.

Imagine a late-minute goal being scored to leapfrog one of the teams to the top and the emotion that would bring if we valued the Shield as we should? Instead, as we view it now, that goal would just be a goal, forgotten by the time the playoffs/postseason cup competition comes around.

We can do better. In fact, we can have it all. The only thing stopping us, is us.

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