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Christen Press: NWSL playoff format ‘needs to be changed’

Alex Morgan and the No. 1 seed San Diego Wave lost in the NWSL semifinals to OL Reign. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL playoff format needs an overhaul, Christen Press and Tobin Heath argued on the latest episode of “The RE-CAP Show.”

Press and Heath broke down the format on their podcast, which they brought back for the NWSL playoffs. In 2021, the NWSL expanded the postseason to six teams, giving the top two seeds a bye into the semifinal round.

“It is bizarre and lopsided,” Press said.

With the top seeds getting a bye – and, this year, with an international break in between rounds – they face a two- or three-week break between their regular-season finales and their first playoff games. In this year’s playoffs, the No. 1 seed San Diego Wave and the No. 2 seed Portland Thorns both lost in the semifinals, while No. 4 seed OL Reign and No. 6 seed Gotham FC advanced to the championship match. And while both missed the 2023 season with injuries, both have been tracking the postseason.

“There’s a lot to be said for form and staying in form, and playing games and being in a little bit of flow versus just sitting on your hands waiting for your most important match of your season,” Press continued.

For Heath, the argument showed in two players: Sophia Smith and Rose Lavelle. Both players are coming off injuries. But Smith had to leave Portland to play with the USWNT during the international break, while Lavelle stayed behind and trained with OL Reign. And Lavelle got some minutes in her team’s quarterfinal game, which helped her ramp up for the semifinal round.

“And who knows, everybody is at a different form in their recovery,” Heath said. “But it just shows how disruptive it is to these players to have an international break for the top players.

“And then also the bye — like for Portland, they had lost. They had played their last game of the season, lost in a crazy loss to Angel City and then their first game of their playoff they play and they lose.”

Heath extended the argument to the NWSL calendar as a whole, which runs into FIFA’s international windows in September and October during the most important stretches of the league season.

“Imagine if it’s the NBA, and all of a sudden Team USA Basketball says, ‘Oh, you just won. Before you go to the final series, you’re going to come over and play with a different team for a couple of weeks, and then go back and try to win a championship with your team,’” Heath said. “It’s just unheard of. It would never happen. It’s disruptive. It shows that the best team isn’t going to be the most likely team to win a championship. It’s very hard to do.”

As Just Women’s Sports writer Claire Watkins pointed out ahead of the playoffs, quarterfinalists have made deep runs since the NWSL expanded its postseason format. Since 2021, five of the six finalists have played in the quarterfinal round, which Press calls “proof enough” that the format needs changing.

“So NWSL organizers, if you’re listening to this, I think we could use a little refresh of the playoff format,” she said.

Heath agreed, adding: “We just need to go to a European calendar. Period, full stop. It’s going to be disruption to the max until we’ve become legit.”

@justwomenssports It’s time for the #NWSL quarterfinals, a round that as produced three out of the last four finalists since the league changed their playoff format. San Diego and Portland are sitting on playoff byes wondering the age old question: is rest better, or momentum? #soccer #woso ♬ original sound - Just Women’s Sports