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In playoffs and expansion, NWSL is having a West Coast moment

San Diego's Naomi Girma and Angel City's Sydney Leroux battle for the ball during a regional rivalry game this season. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

As it has grown over the last decade, the NWSL hasn’t had much reason to associate success with any one particular part of the country. In a league still too small for conferences, clubs that excelled in the early years came from all corners, with storied organizations like North Carolina, Seattle, Portland and Chicago frequently making appearances in the postseason. Parity-based entry rules and national team allocation provided clubs with opportunities to remain competitive without always having to pitch themselves to players, who became used to their summer homes differing from their preferred places to live year-round.

But with 2023 marking the final year of the 12-team NWSL, and perhaps the last of the Challenge Cup divided into a regional group stage, the axis of the league appears to be tipping in one direction: West. Aggressive expansion in California and the onset of NWSL free agency have mixed with the historical excellence of founding clubs in the region and put the rest of the league on notice.

The 2023 postseason could also extend the most successful year for the region to date. All four of the Challenge Cup Western Division teams — Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego — will feature in the NWSL’s six-team playoffs, with at least one team from the group guaranteed to advance to the Championship (which will, of course, be played in San Diego).

Correlation and causation might be difficult to parse, but with further Western expansion on the horizon, it appears that the best NWSL coast might be the West Coast, at least for the time being.

California dreamin’

While Portland and Seattle have always been known as perennial contenders, the introduction of California clubs has seemed to ignite what was already a hotbed of soccer fandom and talent. Pulling from both the local and free agency market, the San Diego Wave have garnered unprecedented success as an expansion side, making the playoffs in their inaugural year and winning the Shield in their second.

From the beginning, San Diego was able to draw in homegrown stars like Alex Morgan and Abby Dahlkemper while also becoming a destination for other free agents looking for a fresh start. Their gritty and defensive style of play has been clear from their first season, personified in the immediate success of 2022 top draft pick Naomi Girma.

Angel City has taken a slightly longer route, having been something of a little sister on the pitch to their SoCal rivals since both clubs entered the league in 2022. But their recent surge indicates they might be beginning to catch up. Los Angeles was similarly able to appeal to L.A. natives Sydney Leroux and Christen Press, who has missed the majority of the club’s two seasons due to injury. There’s also young local talent like Alyssa Thompson, who went pro early to join her hometown team as a No. 1 draft pick.

Now under the leadership of interim manager Becki Tweed, Angel City has started to meet some of the big expectations they set for themselves, beginning with the team’s first playoff appearance in 2023.

Both clubs have had material advantages in the free agency race, including a desirable location and the strength of youth soccer in the area. But also key to their success are the dedicated fan bases they’ve cultivated in just a few years’ time. San Diego averaged over 20,000 fans a game in 2023, as only the second club to ever reach that attendance milestone (Portland, another Western team, was the first). Angel City’s season ticket holder base has been incredibly strong since their first game at BMO Stadium, and they seem at times to be held back by the capacity of their venue.

The story of the California clubs and their impressive ownership groups got fans in seats, but winning is what keeps people around. With Bay Area expansion side Bay FC entering the NWSL in 2024, California sides will continue to present a new opportunity and draw from the region’s rich women’s soccer history at both the college and professional levels.

The Portland Thorns and OL Reign have laid the foundation for NWSL fandom on the West Coast. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

Old meets new

With the two California teams’ ascension into the postseason, the 2023 playoffs present an exciting opportunity to watch new ambitions meet old expectations. OL Reign have played in two NWSL Championships, and are known as one of the steadiest clubs on the pitch in league history. But they haven’t won a playoff game since 2016, and they’ll have to get through Angel City to have a shot at a long-elusive championship title. The winner of Friday’s matchup between the Reign and Angel City will then have to take on San Diego for the honor of staying in town to play the final.

Much has been made about Seattle’s “OG” trio of Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock in the context of Rapinoe’s looming retirement. OL Reign might relish the opportunity to teach a much newer club what it takes to survive the NWSL postseason. Angel City will likewise want to render Seattle’s season a disappointment and usher in a new era for both teams.

San Diego will have their sights on winning a double after clinching the first trophy in club history, but reigning champions Portland will equally be eager to return to the final. After a quarterfinal bye, their semifinal matchup will be against one of two Eastern teams ready to crash the party in Gotham FC or the North Carolina Courage.

The only NWSL club to have earned three stars over their crest, the Thorns present something of a team in transition. They’ve weathered the prolonged sale of the club with a hyper-talented roster and a somewhat inexperienced coaching staff. They have the firepower to go back-to-back but sometimes appear to rely too much on the style of play that served them better in 2022. They have definitive wins over the Reign in 2023, but their record against the California sides is rockier.

We could see an all-Western final in November, which would feel like an accurate representation of the powerhouses in the NWSL this year. No matter what, the 2023 playoffs will be a coastal affair, and with the intention of growing to 16 teams in 2026, regional ties are beginning to form. It’s all good for the league, especially in a new era of player choice and freedom.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.