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Why NWSL’s first Decision Day could be a league-defining moment

Alex Morgan and San Diego will compete with Becky Sauerbrunn and Portland for the NWSL Shield this weekend. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

On Sunday, the NWSL will hold its first-ever Decision Day, where the final six matches of the regular season will be played simultaneously. With eight teams vying for four remaining playoff spots, the timing for the move couldn’t be better.

It might be tricky to follow six games at once, but here are a few reasons why this weekend’s NWSL match day might be one of the most exciting in league history.

Superstars at the top

In the last few weeks, the biggest game-changers have been some of the biggest stars in the league, where hype and quality are coinciding. The USWNT’s Trinity Rodman grabbed all three points for the Spirit in a crucial 2-1 win in September, while Alex Morgan broke out of her scoring drought to give San Diego a top-of-the-table win over Portland. Megan Rapinoe continues to register assists in the waning days of her professional career, and Alyssa Thompson kept Angel City’s playoff hopes alive this past weekend with a key equalizer off the bench.

But Decision Day will likely come down to the other side of the pitch, as teams with quality defenses lock down opponents desperate to score. This should favor Naomi Girma and the Wave backline, which has been excellent again this season. The Thorns are bolstered by the return of Becky Sauerbrunn and arguably the best defensive midfielder in the league in Sam Coffey. Two-time World Cup champion Ali Krieger is thriving for Gotham before she heads off into retirement, while Sarah Gorden holds down Angel City’s backline.

Unsung heroes are at the heart of every league, but in a World Cup year, it’s no surprise that the league’s stars are stepping up when it counts. With playoff glory on the line, expect no different on Sunday.

Historic levels of parity

The NWSL’s parity has been praised as one of its greatest strengths, and its case for the most competitive league in the world has never been stronger. Eight teams still have a shot at the four remaining playoff spots, with every match looking like a must-win. Going into the final weekend, 10 teams are still in competitive positioning; whereas in 2022, the season ended with a three-team race for the sixth and final playoff spot (ultimately earned by Chicago).

Other indicators of next-level parity as compared to 2022 are the point totals at the bottom of the NWSL table. Gotham FC finished last season with just 13 points in 24 games and were barely beaten out by Washington, who finished with 19 points. This season, the Kansas City Current and Chicago Red Stars are the only two teams already eliminated from playoff contention, but both teams will far exceed last year’s basement dwellers in two fewer games. No. 12 Chicago suffered major blowouts for a rough minus-19 goal differential, but also earned seven wins to sit on 24 points in 21 games. Kansas City similarly struggled, but will go into the final weekend on 25 points.

You can also see the parity reflected in individual totals, as represented by the NWSL Golden Boot race. Reigning MVP Sophia Smith has produced a ridiculous goal per 90 rate, registering 11 goals (10 non-penalty) and five assists in just 16 appearances. Despite missing a number of matches due to international duty and injury, Smith can only lose the scoring title if Kerolin scores a brace or Debinha or Ashley Hatch notch a hat trick.

Parity is a blessing and a curse, and will likely deliver on Decision Day. No team has an easy match ahead of them, even the two teams playing against sides that have already been eliminated. One dropped result could mean a squad above the playoff line gets leapfrogged in real time.

Save the date

It’s then naturally fitting that each of these games will be played at the same time, as difficult as it might be for fans to catch all of the action. In 2022, Portland’s final draw with Gotham FC gave OL Reign an opening to snatch the Shield. But Portland’s draw came earlier in the weekend, so the Reign knew exactly what they needed to do before their match even began.

A Decision Day format reserves all suspense for the same 90 minutes, adding to the drama of a close race to the finish. The Thorns are again in pole position for the Shield, but should they drop points against Angel City, they won’t know the outcome of challenger San Diego’s game until theirs is finished. This energy will carry into the live playoff table, as teams push for results to give themselves a shot at the postseason.

Most teams know they need a win to have a chance at advancing — with matchups like Washington vs. North Carolina and Orlando vs. Houston, some results will be obvious even without knowledge of other games. For viewers wanting more contextualized information, CBS Sports will be broadcasting the league’s first-ever whiparound show on Sunday, giving fans the programming depth they’ve long been craving.

The frantic race to the finish will drive momentum toward the championship game. Now all that’s left is for the action to live up to the moment.

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