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NWSL playoffs: What to know heading into the first round

Houston Dash players run back to midfield after a goal during the 2022 season. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

And just like that, after five chaotic months of regular-season action, it’s time for the NWSL playoffs.

The 2022 postseason kicks off Sunday, starting with the Houston Dash hosting the Kansas City Current at 5 p.m. ET at PNC Stadium in front of the largest crowd in Dash history – more than 14,000 fans. The Chicago Red Stars and San Diego Wave follow at 10 p.m. ET at San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium.

The winner of the first game plays this season’s Shield winners, OL Reign, in the semifinal round on Oct. 23, while the winner of the second plays the No. 2 Portland Thorns on the same day.

With five of the six playoff teams finishing the regular season within four points of each other, anything can happen on the road to the championship. While we wait in the calm before the storm, here’s a quick look at each quarterfinal matchup.

(Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

No. 4 Houston Dash vs. No. 5 Kansas City Current

Dash (10-6-6, GD: +8)

  • This is Houston’s first playoff appearance in franchise history.
  • The Dash rank second in the league, behind just the Reign, in possessions won in the final third.
  • Houston scored two goals or more in nine of their 10 wins during regular season.

Current (10-6-6, GD: 0)

  • This is Kansas City’s first playoff appearance, and the first by a Kansas City club since FC Kansas City made the postseason in 2015.
  • The Current went on a 13-game undefeated streak this season after not recording a win in their first five matches.
  • The Current rank first in the NWSL in penalties awarded (seven).

Evenly matched with identical records in the regular season, the Dash and the Current are about to play an unpredictable game.

Each team had a win in their two previous meetings this season, with Houston taking a 2-0 result the first time around and Kansas City getting revenge with a 2-1 victory. The Current won both games the teams played against each other in the 2022 Challenge Cup.

The Current have built a strong attack led by Lo’eau Labonta, Cece Kizer and Hailie Mace, and they are backed by one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the league in AD Franch.

But will they stick to their 3-5-2 formation against Houston’s potent offense? The Dash are arguably more lethal than the Current, with Ebony Salmon, María Sánchez and Nichelle Prince leading the way.

Kansas City’s three-defender lineup could run into trouble against a scoring machine like Houston, who rank second among the playoff teams in goals (35). And the Current will be without defensive midfielder Desiree Scott, who received two yellow cards in Kansas City’s last game against Racing Louisville and therefore has to sit out the first-round match.

Prediction: Kansas City. The odds may not feel like they’re in the Current’s favor. But they didn’t feel like that at the beginning of the season either, when Kansas City went without a win in its first five games — then proceeded to record a 13-game unbeaten streak.

(Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports)

No. 3 San Diego Wave FC vs. No. 6 Chicago Red Stars

Wave (10-6-6, GD: +11)

  • San Diego is the first NWSL expansion team to reach the playoffs in its first season.
  • The Wave rank first in the league in clean sheets with nine.
  • The Wave get to host the match at their home field, Snapdragon Stadium, where they broke the NWSL single-game attendance record in September with a sold-out crowd of 32,000 fans.

Red Stars (9-7-6, GD: +6)

  • This marks Chicago’s seventh straight year in the playoffs.
  • The Red Stars rank third in the league in possession with an average of 52 percent.
  • Their longest unbeaten streak this season was nine games.

San Diego has more reason for confidence going into this match. The Wave came out on top in both of their games against the Red Stars during regular season, winning 2-1 and 1-0. In addition to a strong starting lineup, the Wave have game changers off the bench who can and have made a direct impact on the scoresheet.

Still, the Red Stars have developed a chemistry that could push through San Diego’s steady defense, especially with their deadly weapon Mallory Pugh. Her abilities, from goal scoring to dribbling to tackling, enable her to dictate games better than any player in the NWSL.

Prediction: San Diego. The Wave won both their previous games against the Red Stars and will win a third at home in front of an electric Snapdragon Stadium audience.