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NWSL 2022 playoffs: Who will earn the final two spots?

Maria Sánchez and the Houston Dash face a win-and-in scenario this weekend. (Erik Williams/USA TODAY Sports)

Four teams. Two playoff spots. One game each. The last week of the 2022 NWSL regular season is coming down to the wire, with the final games taking place Friday through Sunday.

The Houston Dash, North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars and Angel City FC are all within four points of each other and have 90 minutes to keep their postseason hopes alive.

Below, we break down what all four clubs need out of the weekend’s matches to join the Portland Thorns, OL Reign, Kansas City Current and San Diego Wave in the playoffs beginning Oct. 15. Wins are three points, draws are one, and in the case of a tie, the league will turn to goal differential to determine who gets the final spots.

Houston Dash — 33 points, 9-6-6, 7 +/-

To clinch playoff spot: Win/draw; or North Carolina loss; or Chicago loss/draw

Next match: at Washington Spirit (11th place, 3-8-10)

The Dash have the most straightforward path to earning their first playoff berth in franchise history. It’s worth remembering that Houston tied Washington 2-2 in their previous meeting this season, and the Spirit are always capable of matching the intensity of their opponents. But Washington is also in the mist of a two-game losing streak, while the Dash are 1-1-1 in September and know they could clinch a berth and $1,250 in playoff competition bonuses for each player with a win or a draw on Saturday. Houston is carrying momentum and confidence into the final stretch.

Debinha has been on a scoring tear for the Courage in their push for the playoffs. (Jaylynn Nash/USA TODAY Sports)

North Carolina Courage — 31 points, 9-8-4, 13 +/-

To clinch playoff spot: Win; or Chicago and Angel City draw

Next match: at San Diego Wave FC

It’s easy to count the Courage out because they spent so much of the regular season at the bottom of the standings after winning the Challenge Cup in May. To see the current version of this North Carolina team in the playoffs, however, wouldn’t be surprising. Five of the Courage’s nine wins this season have come in September, and they’re now tied with the first-place Portland Thorns with 46 goals scored.

The Wave, who defeated the Courage 1-0 in their previous meeting, won’t make it easy for them to achieve what seemed so unlikely two months ago. Despite already clinching a playoff spot, No. 4 San Diego is coming into this match just as hungry because a top-two ranking would earn them a bye to the semifinals.

The Red Stars meet fellow playoff contender Angel City in their regular season finale. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

Chicago Red Stars — 30 points, 8-7-6, 4 +/-

To clinch playoff spot:Win AND a North Carolina loss or draw

Next match: vs. Angel City FC

The Red Stars have been in the top six of the standings for so much of the season that it feels like a playoff spot should be theirs. But right now, their chances appear slim. They’ll have a hard time catching up with No. 5 Houston (33 points), because even if the Reds Stars win and the Dash lose, Chicago would have to open the floodgates to exceed Houston’s goal differential of seven in the case of a tiebreaker. The sixth playoff spot is more within reach, but they’ll have to surpass the Courage (31 points) to get there.

Angel City, the Red Stars’ opponent on Sunday, beat the defending NWSL finalists 1-0 in their last matchup. The biggest difference this time is that Chicago gets to host. Angel City has more wins than losses when playing in front of large crowds at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles, but on the road they’ve lost four games and won just three. The Red Stars need to take advantage of that discrepancy.

Claire Emslie has scored three goals for Angel City, including the game-winner against San Diego in July. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

Angel City FC — 29 points, 8-8-5, -2 +/-

To clinch playoff spot: Win AND a North Carolina loss

Next match: at Chicago Red Stars

Angel City making the postseason in their first year as an expansion club would be exciting. Though seventh in the standings for most of the season, they’ve proven it’s not just a pipe dream after defeating or tying every team above them in the standings at least once, except for OL Reign.

The challenge right now is getting over their discouraging performance against Racing Louisville FC on Sunday. Angel City fell 3-1, handing the 10th-ranked team their second win in 16 games. If North Carolina loses to San Diego, the final playoff spot comes down to Angel City’s match against Chicago. Neither side can afford even a draw. It’s going to be a battlefield.


Last two in: Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars

The Dash will claim the fifth playoff spot with a draw against the Spirit, the team with the most ties this season (10). Chicago will rise to sixth with a win over Angel City after North Carolina’s lethal attack fails to break down San Diego’s strong defense.

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