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NWSL Race to the Shield: San Diego Wave clinch playoff berth

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San Diego's Alex Morgan celebrates her goal against the Portland Thorns FC with defender Christen Westphal. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

With just two games left in the regular season, the race for the NWSL Shield is coming down to the wire.

Just five points separate first-place San Diego and sixth-place OL Reign — and mathematically, no team has been eliminated from the playoffs yet. That means that the final two weekends of the regular season will be a race to the finish line. The top six teams in the standings at the end of the regular season will make the playoffs.

OL Reign have dropped off in recent weeks, which leaves them just barely hanging on to the final playoff spot with 28 points. The San Diego Wave, meanwhile, have jumped back into the top spot of the league rankings.

Stock up: San Diego Wave

Once again, San Diego is trending upward, back atop the NWSL standings courtesy of Saturday’s 2-0 win against second-place Portland. Star forward Alex Morgan got her first goal in four months, a good sign for the Wave as they became the first (and, so far, only) team to clinch a spot in the playoffs.

“All-around, it was a huge performance from every single one of us,” midfielder Danielle Colaprico said after the game.

And now, San Diego is setting its sights on its next goal: the NWSL Shield. The Wave are playing in just their second season since joining the league as an expansion franchise, but they have won four of their last five matches.

“I can’t speak highly enough of my squad tonight,” San Diego head coach Casey Stoney said. “I think they bought in, they were engaged, they were focused. They worked so hard, and I thought they deserved the win tonight.

“Now it’s about that mentality next week, because yes we clinched playoffs, great, but what can we now achieve? That’s the standard that we’ve set tonight and really, really proud of them.”

Stock down: OL Reign

OL Reign managed to hold onto their playoff spot by their fingernails Sunday in a 1-1 draw with the North Carolina Courage. But the reigning NWSL Shield winners have managed just four points in their last five games, and they aren’t coming up with the wins needed to secure a playoff spot, let alone the prize for the best team of the regular season.

With several teams, including the Houston Dash and Angel City FC, hot on their heels, OL Reign is going to have to find a spark if they want to send off retiring star Megan Rapinoe with an NWSL championship. But the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars likely will provide tough challenges to close out season.

Potential sleeper: Nobody

Recent run of play makes it difficult to find a potential sleeper for the Shield. While many teams are in the mix for the playoffs, several of the teams in postseason position are just trying to hold onto their spots.

Gotham FC are in third place, but they have won just one game in their last five — but that is better than fourth-place North Carolina, which has won zero. While the Spirit won this weekend, they went winless in the four games before that. Angel City FC have not lost in five games, but clinching the Shield is a mathematical impossibility. Even winning their last two matches would bring them to just 31 points – less than the Wave’s 33.

At this point, the NWSL Shield looks like San Diego’s to lose.

NWSL standings (Oct. 2, 2023)

  1. San Diego Wave, 33 points
  2. Portland Thorns, 32
  3. Gotham FC, 30
  4. North Carolina Courage, 29
  5. Washington Spirit, 29
  6. OL Reign, 28
  7. Houston Dash, 26
  8. Orlando Pride, 25
  9. Angel City, 25
  10. Racing Louisville, 24
  11. Chicago Red Stars, 24
  12. Kansas City Current, 22