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NWSL power rankings: Reign, Courage lead the way into regular season

OL Reign Sofia Huerta fends off San Diego's Tayler Hansen during the Challenge Cup group stage. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup group stage concluded on Sunday, sending four teams to the semifinals next Wednesday. Now that each team has played six matches, it’s time to look at where teams stand as the regular season kicks off with a matchup between Angel City FC and the North Carolina Courage on Friday night.

While the Challenge Cup was an opportunity for early evaluation, teams’ performances don’t necessarily reflect the full picture. Some coaches used the preseason tournament to experiment with different formations and attacking styles. Others focused on helping rookies adjust to the speed of the professional environment. The teams that turned over much of their roster in the offseason need time to build chemistry. During the regular season, however, the only motive is to win.

After the chaos of the Challenge Cup, here is where every team stands in the Just Women’s Sports NWSL preseason power rankings.

1. OL Reign

They’re good on paper, and they’re even better on the pitch. With the most wins of any team in the tournament, the second-most goals and the fewest goals conceded, the Reign are roaring. They’re one of a few teams with no weak link in their lineup, boasting strong depth along their backline and a Bethany Balcer-led attack that’s thriving even without 10-year veteran Megan Rapinoe and Tziarra King. Adding to the dominance are three of the best center midfielders in the world — Jess Fishlock, Quinn and Rose Lavelle — who are responsible for the Reign’s creative combination plays into the attacking third.

Playing in the West Division, the Reign have arguably had an easier run to the Challenge Cup semifinal because of the 2022 expansion teams, but beating longtime NWSL conqueror Portland in their second meeting says a lot about this team’s standing.

2. North Carolina Courage

The Courage going undefeated in the group stage of the Challenge Cup was perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament. Finishing in sixth place last season before losing a herd of stars (including Lynn Williams, Sam Mewis and Amy Rodriguez) and signing six rookies from December’s draft, North Carolina appeared to be heading for a slight rebuild. They shut that theory down pretty quickly, racking up three wins and three ties in the tournament.

While Abby Erceg continues to be one of the strongest defenders in the NWSL, Kerolin Nicoli has been a game-changing addition up front, consistently creating dangerous chances with her 1v1 play. With veterans Meredith Speck and Denise O’Sullivan holding the team to a high standard, the Courage appear poised to extend the club’s long history of success in the league.

3. Washington Spirit

The Spirit ended the Challenge Cup with the fewest amount of wins of the three undefeated teams, but with the longest unbeaten streak. Outside of two forfeits in September due to COVID-19 protocols, the 2021 NWSL champions haven’t lost since Aug. 7. They’re still working on coming out of the gate with more intensity, but once their front trio of Ashley Hatch, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez get in a groove, they are very difficult for teams to stop. In their group stage finale Saturday, the Spirit displayed some impressive team defense to salvage a draw with the Courage while playing without starters Andi Sullivan and Sam Staab.

4. Kansas City Current

The Central Division was perhaps the most competitive and unpredictable, with two clubs — the Houston Dash and Racing Louisville FC — tying at six points apiece. Kansas City was the outlier, earning 13 points to pull ahead of the second-place Red Stars by five, thanks in large part to the team’s depth. The Current were projected to improve this year after acquiring U.S. national team players Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams from North Carolina, but both were out of the Challenge Cup due to injury. Kansas City proceeded to dominate anyway behind the frontline duo of veteran Kristen Hamilton and rookie Elyse Bennett.

5. Portland Thorns

For the second time in just a few months, Portland has failed to advance in an NWSL competition because of an underdog. In November, the No. 4 Chicago Red Stars upset the Thorns in the NWSL semifinals. On Sunday, last-place Angel City blanked them 1-0 for their first win as a franchise. Granted, the Thorns were missing their head coach and five players in that game due to COVID-19 protocol. That match aside, Portland had a solid showing across the tournament with a handful of players stepping up in the absence of stars.

6. NJ/NY Gotham FC

Next to the Courage, Gotham FC was the second-biggest surprise of the Challenge Cup, and for the opposite reason. After adding Olympic bronze medalist Kristie Mewis and World Cup champions Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, the 2021 Challenge Cup finalists appeared primed for success. But, despite being the oldest team in the NWSL by average age, they haven’t built chemistry as quickly as some might have thought for an experienced team. They also were tested early, competing in one of the toughest divisions with North Carolina and Washington.

7. Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars have recently been without many key players due to injuries and trades, and unable to live up to the standard they set in the fall when they reached the NWSL championship game. They did, however, maintain a decent 2-2-2 record in the Challenge Cup. Defender Bianca St. Georges has become an important player on the backline, building on her breakout 2020 Challenge Cup before a quiet 2021. Mallory Pugh, before she suffered a concussion, was essential to the Red Stars remaining in the top half of the Central Division, netting four goals to place her among the top goal-scorers of the tournament.

8. Racing Louisville FC

Racing Louisville’s only two losses in the Challenge Cup unusually came against the Houston Dash, the last-place tema in the Central Division. Louisville has a group of hard-working subs who were able to turn around the team’s energy on several occasions, most notably in their 2-1 loss to Houston on Sunday despite the final score. As Louisville’s new players become more acquainted with the team, and the defense cleans up its technical errors, the team has what it takes to be a strong contender in the league this season.

9. San Diego Wave FC

The Wave, perhaps surprisingly, have come out as the stronger of the two 2022 expansion teams. The club has a bright future thanks to its promising rookie class, including center back Naomi Girma, game-changing substitute Amirah Ali and forward Kelsey Turbow, who has been key to the Wave controlling the center of the park. Sofia Jakobsson, a Swedish national team player competing in the NWSL for the first time in her career, has brought a fire to San Diego’s attack. With a number of individual talents, the Wave need more time to gel, but their competitive start bodes well for the regular season.

10. Houston Dash

The Dash finished the tournament as the only team with no draws. The inconsistency of their results — two wins and three losses — makes more sense when considering they used the Challenge Cup to experiment with new systems. In their most recent win over Racing Louisville, the Dash played three attacking midfielders, allowing them to press and capitalize on small mistakes in Louisville’s defensive third. María Sánchez had a standout tournament, solidifying her spot on the attack as the Dash adjust to losing midfielder Kristie Mewis to Gotham. They’ll have more adjusting to do at the start of the regular season after head coach James Clarkson was suspended based on initial findings in the NWSL and NWSLPA’s joint investigation into workplace conduct.

11. Angel City FC

Angel City is beginning to find their stride, especially after outplaying the Thorns in their first-ever win on Sunday. They scored in every game except one, a 3-0 loss to Portland, despite having 56.1 percent of the possession in that game. Overall, the Challenge Cup was a bit of a learning curve for Angel City as the club faced two of the strongest teams in the league, the Reign and the Thorns, two times each. A quickly developing team, ACFC has the potential to climb in the standings during the regular season.

12. Orlando Pride

The Pride are in for a ride this season, with nearly half the roster new to the club and head coach Amanda Cromwell embarking on her first professional season at the helm. They were tested through the second half of the Challenge Cup after Marta, their star attacker, was ruled out with a season-ending injury. The tournament, as a result, gave them a chance to adjust the lineup before jumping into regular season. Even with Marta on the pitch, it could take a couple of years for Orlando to contend for trophies.

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