On Friday night, OL Reign will host over 31,000 fans at Lumen Field to celebrate the final regular season home match of Seattle and USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe’s career. The whole evening will serve as an emotional tribute to Rapinoe’s impact on the sport of soccer in Seattle.

But the game against the Washington Spirit will also be crucial for the Reign’s postseason chances, as they battle for a spot with two games remaining in an incredibly tight playoff race. Just one point separates the Reign from the Spirit, and a loss could hinder the team’s ability to send Rapinoe off in style.

It seems impossible to imagine that Rapinoe wouldn’t see at least one playoff game in her final year, but the Reign sit on the precipice of losing ground in the wild postseason chase. Seattle currently has 28 points, tied with the Orlando Pride for sixth, and they only have a hold on the final playoff spot due to a goal differential advantage. If things don’t go according to plan, this could be Rapinoe’s final time playing at home.

The Reign are a hyper-talented squad, with a clear understanding of each other and their intended style of play. But if they want Rapinoe to have as many games as possible in her farewell tour, the matchup against Washington could prove season-defining.

A question of approach

Since July 1, the Reign have won just one of their last seven regular season games, slipping to sixth in the NWSL standings. Their goal differential margin is slim, with 28 goals scored to 26 goals conceded, and they’ve struggled to come back when their opponent scores first. Some of the tightness in the table is outside of Seattle’s control. This is one of the most competitive NWSL seasons of all time, but the difficulty they’ve had closing games out will put even more pressure on the squad as the postseason approaches.

The Reign are known as a team that can pass around their opponent, holding onto the ball to smother the other team’s attack while looking for a carefully placed opening at the other end of the pitch. They haven’t lost that identity in recent months, but they’ve also been leaning into a conservative game plan almost to a fault.

The team’s struggles were clear during their 2-0 loss to the Portland Thorns on Sept. 16. Head coach Laura Harvey lined the team up to be sturdy through their spine, without a ton of speed in the frontline to get in behind Portland’s defense. When the Thorns struck first, courtesy of two quick goals by Hina Sugita and Morgan Weaver in the first half, the Reign looked ill-equipped to respond, generating only three shots on target despite owning the possession battle.

A question of personnel

As steady as the trio of Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock have been over the years, slight upheaval in the Reign’s personnel approach could also be contributing to their uneasy status in the playoff race. After starting goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce departed for Manchester United last month, the Reign have been starting rookie Claudia Dickey in her place.

Dickey has naturally experienced some growing pains in the new role that have affected the team’s defensive prowess, particularly on set pieces. Harvey has also been drifting from her Shield-winning established center-back pairing of Sam Hiatt and Alana Cook, sitting Hiatt in favor of a combination of Barnes and Phoebe McClernon. With the way the Reign frequently look to build into games from a neutral game-state, the personnel fluctuation on the team’s backline could threaten to undermine Harvey’s approach. Any changes won’t happen immediately, either: Cook, the defense’s mainstay, will be unavailable on Friday due to a red-card suspension.

Rapinoe has carried many minutes in the home stretch of her career, playing no less than 80 minutes a game during the regular season since the start of September. Her dead-ball delivery has regained its lightness of touch — she assisted the Reign’s goal against North Carolina this past weekend — but Harvey will also at times leave game-changers like Elyse Bennett and Tziarra King on the bench for long stretches, even as the team is chasing a result. The team is also missing the playmaking abilities of Rose Lavelle, who remains out with an injury.

The path ahead

Of course, all is not lost for the Reign, who could clinch the playoffs with ease in their final two matches. Moving Emily Sonnett to defensive midfield has been a revelation for the club, and the combination of Jordyn Huitema and Bethany Balcer on attacking set pieces has been difficult for other teams to contain.

And despite the changes along the backline, the Reign are very difficult to beat when they show their mental toughness. Going down to 10 players in their most recent game against North Carolina, the team’s veterans remained calm and committed to holding the Courage from taking all three points in a 1-1 draw. That ethos could be the most important thing carrying them forward.

The Reign’s roster also has the ability to switch tempo and execute a defensive press at a moment’s notice, making their current run of form less relevant to the games ahead. If the team utilizes its depth chart and the defense holds steady, the Reign have all the opportunities in the world to make sure the Rapinoe celebration continues deep into autumn.

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

In three short weeks, the 2022 NWSL regular season will be over.

Every team has played at least 17 of their 22 scheduled games. While two teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention, none have punched their tickets to the postseason, which begins with the quarterfinals on Oct. 15. The four teams remaining will meet in the semifinals on Oct. 22, a week before the championship game on Oct. 29 in Washington, D.C.

Six of the 10 teams still in contention will earn a spot in the playoffs, and the top two seeds will get a bye to the semis. Overall, the top and bottom six in the standings have remained consistent throughout the regular season. But the NWSL is notorious for chaos, so as always, anything can happen.

Here is where we think teams currently stand in the playoff race.

Bye clinchers

Portland Thorns FC

31 points, four games left (8-3-7)

The Thorns have been one of the NWSL’s most consistently dominant teams this year. A few uncharacteristic results at the end of August briefly knocked them off their rhythm. Now, they’re just one point behind the first-place Current in the race for the 2022 NWSL Shield. Boasting the best goal differential in the NWSL at +19 and the fewest losses, Portland’s strength and depth in all areas of the park could launch them back to the top by the end of September.

Kansas City Current

32 points, four games left (9-4-5)

The playoffs are inevitable for Kansas City, currently on a 13-game unbeaten streak and in first place on the NWSL table. Three of the Current’s four remaining opponents — the Chicago Red Stars, Washington Spirit and Racing Louisville — are in the bottom half of the league, putting Kansas City in a good position to close out the regular season on a strong note and win the Shield. They’ll need to win it outright since the Thorns and Wave, each just one point off the lead, have the tiebreaker advantage in goal differential — Portland’s +19 and San Diego’s +10 to Kansas City’s +2.


San Diego Wave FC

31 points, three games left (9-6-4)

Outside of a couple of weeks in the summer, the Wave have hung around the top of the standings for the entire season and are likely to be a top-three team by the end. Their fortress of a backline has helped goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan allow a league-low 15 goals this season. First-year head coach Casey Stoney has fostered an environment in which players aren’t faulted for making mistakes and can take risks to fulfill their potential. That includes star striker Alex Morgan, who leads the league with 15 goals in just 16 games.

OL Reign

28 points, four games left (7-4-7)

OL Reign have been holding onto a playoff spot for most of the season — while not a top-three team, they haven’t dropped below sixth. Their creative attack and roster depth make it hard to believe they’d fall outside of playoff contention at this point in the year. Their defense has posted six shutouts and allowed a league-low 18 goals. With 2021 Coach of the Year Laura Harvey in charge, the Reign will find a way.

Houston Dash

30 points, three games left (8-5-6)

The Dash are comfortably in fourth place with 30 points and should feel confident going into their final three matches of the regular season. In their previous meetings against their remaining opponents, the Dash defeated the Red Stars and OL Reign and tied the Spirit. Houston has been a goal-scoring machine all season, with 32 total, and continuously plays with the grit of a playoff-caliber team.

Sixth-spot contenders

Chicago Red Stars

27 points, four games left (7-5-6)

In the top half of the standings for most of the season, the Red Stars, on paper, are the most likely of the middle-of-the-pack teams to clinch a playoff spot. Angel City, with one fewer game played, is just one point behind Chicago and will be hungry to make the playoffs in the club’s first NWSL season. Turning the page on a shaky summer, the Red Stars have a tough four-game slate ahead of them, all against teams they didn’t beat in previous meetings.

Angel City FC

26 points, five games left (7-5-5)

No. 7 Angel City serves as a good example of just how tight this year’s playoff race is — the expansion club has two fewer wins and one more loss than the top-ranked Current. ACFC has had a tough time breaking out of the bottom six this year, but currently riding a five-game undefeated streak, they have momentum on their side as they try to finish the job.

North Carolina Courage

22 points, five games left (6-7-4)

With their transitional play and goal-scoring prowess, the Courage have the ability to shock everyone in the final weeks of the regular season. Their inconsistency on the scoresheet, however, makes it nearly impossible to predict which team will show up. The 2022 Challenge Cup champions either dominate games or they don’t. In a best-case scenario, their recent 5-1 win over Racing Louisville kickstarts a run to the postseason, for which they’ll need at least two more wins to be considered a serious contender.


Orlando Pride

21 points, four games left (5-7-6)

The Pride’s odds of making the postseason are becoming slimmer by the week. While a win over Louisville in their next match is highly possible, they have three challenging games from there against North Carolina, San Diego and OL Reign to close out regular season. To claim the No. 6 spot, Orlando needs at least two wins and a draw as well as other results to fall into place. That is easier said than done, since the Pride haven’t won more than two consecutive games this season.

Washington Spirit

16 points, four games left (2-6-10)

On the bright side, the Spirit just won their first match since May 1 in a thrilling overtime contest with San Diego. On the other side, the reigning NWSL champions hadn’t won since May 1, and now they need a miracle to continue playing into October. Outside of winning all four of their remaining games to finish the regular season with 28 points, they need a lot of help. The sixth-place Stars would have to lose their last four matches, and Angel City would only be allowed a tie in their final five games. North Carolina and Orlando would also have to falter in the last few weeks.

See you next year

Racing Louisville FC

14 points, four games left (2-8-8)

Racing Louisville is officially out of playoff contention. Even if they win their final four games, their 26 total points wouldn’t be enough to pass No. 6 Chicago (27 points) and No. 7 Angel City (26 points). For the second year in a row, the 2021 expansion team will finish near the bottom of the table.

NJ/NY Gotham FC

12 points, four games left (4-14-0)

With their 1-0 loss to the Current on Sunday, Gotham FC was officially eliminated from playoff contention, closing the chapter on a season that started with much promise and ended in a coaching change and disappointment. With 12 points and four games left, Gotham can only hope to end the regular season with 24 points before looking ahead to next year.

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