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NWSL playoff race: Locks, contenders and on the outside looking in

Crystal Dunn and the Thorns are in position to clinch one of two quarterfinal byes in the NWSL playoffs. (Amy Kontras/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

In three short weeks, the 2022 NWSL regular season will be over.

Every team has played at least 17 of their 22 scheduled games. While two teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention, none have punched their tickets to the postseason, which begins with the quarterfinals on Oct. 15. The four teams remaining will meet in the semifinals on Oct. 22, a week before the championship game on Oct. 29 in Washington, D.C.

Six of the 10 teams still in contention will earn a spot in the playoffs, and the top two seeds will get a bye to the semis. Overall, the top and bottom six in the standings have remained consistent throughout the regular season. But the NWSL is notorious for chaos, so as always, anything can happen.

Here is where we think teams currently stand in the playoff race.

Bye clinchers

Portland Thorns FC

31 points, four games left (8-3-7)

The Thorns have been one of the NWSL’s most consistently dominant teams this year. A few uncharacteristic results at the end of August briefly knocked them off their rhythm. Now, they’re just one point behind the first-place Current in the race for the 2022 NWSL Shield. Boasting the best goal differential in the NWSL at +19 and the fewest losses, Portland’s strength and depth in all areas of the park could launch them back to the top by the end of September.

Kansas City Current

32 points, four games left (9-4-5)

The playoffs are inevitable for Kansas City, currently on a 13-game unbeaten streak and in first place on the NWSL table. Three of the Current’s four remaining opponents — the Chicago Red Stars, Washington Spirit and Racing Louisville — are in the bottom half of the league, putting Kansas City in a good position to close out the regular season on a strong note and win the Shield. They’ll need to win it outright since the Thorns and Wave, each just one point off the lead, have the tiebreaker advantage in goal differential — Portland’s +19 and San Diego’s +10 to Kansas City’s +2.


San Diego Wave FC

31 points, three games left (9-6-4)

Outside of a couple of weeks in the summer, the Wave have hung around the top of the standings for the entire season and are likely to be a top-three team by the end. Their fortress of a backline has helped goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan allow a league-low 15 goals this season. First-year head coach Casey Stoney has fostered an environment in which players aren’t faulted for making mistakes and can take risks to fulfill their potential. That includes star striker Alex Morgan, who leads the league with 15 goals in just 16 games.

OL Reign

28 points, four games left (7-4-7)

OL Reign have been holding onto a playoff spot for most of the season — while not a top-three team, they haven’t dropped below sixth. Their creative attack and roster depth make it hard to believe they’d fall outside of playoff contention at this point in the year. Their defense has posted six shutouts and allowed a league-low 18 goals. With 2021 Coach of the Year Laura Harvey in charge, the Reign will find a way.

Houston Dash

30 points, three games left (8-5-6)

The Dash are comfortably in fourth place with 30 points and should feel confident going into their final three matches of the regular season. In their previous meetings against their remaining opponents, the Dash defeated the Red Stars and OL Reign and tied the Spirit. Houston has been a goal-scoring machine all season, with 32 total, and continuously plays with the grit of a playoff-caliber team.

Sixth-spot contenders

Chicago Red Stars

27 points, four games left (7-5-6)

In the top half of the standings for most of the season, the Red Stars, on paper, are the most likely of the middle-of-the-pack teams to clinch a playoff spot. Angel City, with one fewer game played, is just one point behind Chicago and will be hungry to make the playoffs in the club’s first NWSL season. Turning the page on a shaky summer, the Red Stars have a tough four-game slate ahead of them, all against teams they didn’t beat in previous meetings.

Angel City FC

26 points, five games left (7-5-5)

No. 7 Angel City serves as a good example of just how tight this year’s playoff race is — the expansion club has two fewer wins and one more loss than the top-ranked Current. ACFC has had a tough time breaking out of the bottom six this year, but currently riding a five-game undefeated streak, they have momentum on their side as they try to finish the job.

North Carolina Courage

22 points, five games left (6-7-4)

With their transitional play and goal-scoring prowess, the Courage have the ability to shock everyone in the final weeks of the regular season. Their inconsistency on the scoresheet, however, makes it nearly impossible to predict which team will show up. The 2022 Challenge Cup champions either dominate games or they don’t. In a best-case scenario, their recent 5-1 win over Racing Louisville kickstarts a run to the postseason, for which they’ll need at least two more wins to be considered a serious contender.


Orlando Pride

21 points, four games left (5-7-6)

The Pride’s odds of making the postseason are becoming slimmer by the week. While a win over Louisville in their next match is highly possible, they have three challenging games from there against North Carolina, San Diego and OL Reign to close out regular season. To claim the No. 6 spot, Orlando needs at least two wins and a draw as well as other results to fall into place. That is easier said than done, since the Pride haven’t won more than two consecutive games this season.

Washington Spirit

16 points, four games left (2-6-10)

On the bright side, the Spirit just won their first match since May 1 in a thrilling overtime contest with San Diego. On the other side, the reigning NWSL champions hadn’t won since May 1, and now they need a miracle to continue playing into October. Outside of winning all four of their remaining games to finish the regular season with 28 points, they need a lot of help. The sixth-place Stars would have to lose their last four matches, and Angel City would only be allowed a tie in their final five games. North Carolina and Orlando would also have to falter in the last few weeks.

See you next year

Racing Louisville FC

14 points, four games left (2-8-8)

Racing Louisville is officially out of playoff contention. Even if they win their final four games, their 26 total points wouldn’t be enough to pass No. 6 Chicago (27 points) and No. 7 Angel City (26 points). For the second year in a row, the 2021 expansion team will finish near the bottom of the table.

NJ/NY Gotham FC

12 points, four games left (4-14-0)

With their 1-0 loss to the Current on Sunday, Gotham FC was officially eliminated from playoff contention, closing the chapter on a season that started with much promise and ended in a coaching change and disappointment. With 12 points and four games left, Gotham can only hope to end the regular season with 24 points before looking ahead to next year.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.