It's like one of those near-impossible corn mazes. The stalks are tall. The clues are few and far between. Just when you think you have found a way out, you are forced to regroup. That's been the National Women's Soccer League down the stretch. Only two teams have discovered an exit to this season's maze into the postseason.
Eight clubs are still in contention for four playoff berths. Seven of them still have an over 20 percent chance of capturing a spot in the top six. The culmination of this absurd 2023 regular season in the NWSL is nearing its conclusion. To make matters even more enticing for fans, every week 22 contest will be played at the same time on the same Sunday evening. Here is a look at where every team stands with only 90 minutes of football left for each side.
Last NWSL regular season power rankings:
1. Portland Thorns
All has returned to normal for Mike Norris' Portland Thorns. In addition to having one hand on the NWSL Shield, Sophia Smith is back in the team. The USWNT star did not start but competed in the final seven minutes plus stoppage time in the 1-0 triumph over NJ/NY Gotham FC last weekend.
The midfield three of Hina Sugita, Olivia Moultrie, and Sam Coffey did it all for the Thorns at home against the East Coast side. Sugita and Coffey combined for the lone goal of the contest while Moultrie collected the second-highest pass accuracy on the team. If this is the league's top seed, it is going to be difficult to see anyone coming into Providence Park and earning a result. The last fixture at Angel City is not exactly straightforward, but with that top-two finish already wrapped up, rest could be the strategy.
2. San Diego Wave
Despite falling to second in the table, the draw at North Carolina means that the Wave are unbeaten in five out of their last six in the league. That's the kind of form you need to be in at this point in the campaign, especially defensively. Led by Abby Dahlkemper, and Naomi Girma as the two anchors of the back four, Casey Stoney's side has held a clean sheet in three of the last four league games.
San Diego's offense was as non-existent as one could get in a 90-minute match last weekend. A lot of that can be attributed to the match being across the country in addition to having postseason football already locked up. Despite this being the club's second campaign in the top flight, the Wave are not unfamiliar with the playoffs. It knows what it is like to fall short, and it knows what a team must do in order to prevail in postseason play.
3. NJ/NY Gotham FC
The fact that NJ/NY Gotham FC is on the brink of being a top-three club has to be one of the stories of 2023. The club conceded 46 goals last year. That's over two per contest. Now, with a revamped roster, and a new head coach, Gotham is considered one of the favorites to lift the title.
Though the northeast outfit has dropped points in its last two fixtures, it's hard to argue with the talent level. Up top, Juan Carlos Amoros has Lynn Williams, Margaret Purce, World Cup winner Esther Gonzalez, Ifeoma Onumonu, and Katie Stengel. I can keep going if you want. Though it'll have to play in the quarterfinals, the amount of big game players should make it much easier.
If you're only going to watch one week 22 contest, Gotham vs. Kansas City Current has to be it. The club is slated to celebrate the career of legendary defender Ali Krieger in her last regular season NWSL contest. Similar to Megan Rapinoe, as a fan we should all take time to appreciate the impact a player like Krieger had on the game of football.
4. North Carolina Courage
Since hoisting its second consecutive Challenge Cup title, Sean Nahas' North Carolina Courage are yet to finish on the winning side of a league contest. The club's experience this season in winning a knockout stage competition may be a massive advantage if postseason soccer is secured.
Kailen Sheridan and Madison Pogarch teamed up to keep the Courage out of the net in front of a record crowd of over 10,000 at WakeMed Soccer Park. The environment was something else. The crowd just could not will its team to all three points against another top-six foe. With 10 goals on the campaign, NC superstar Kerolin heads into the contest against the Washington Spirit just one behind Sophia Smith in the Golden Boot race.
5. Angel City FC
After falling to Orlando on the road in week 20, it was paramount that Becki Tweed's team not leave any points on the board against Houston. The interplay between Katie Johnson, Alyssa Thompson, and Savannah McCaskill made sure that became a reality. It was classic NWSL. The match was destined for a draw, then madness ensued in stoppage time.
USWNT forward Thompson was the obvious standout last weekend. No. 21 came on in the 65'. She scored three minutes later and contributed the hockey assist in the game-winner. Tweed's team may have the toughest test in front of it in order to collect a ticket to the playoffs. The last time ACFC took on the defending champions at BMO Stadium, McCaskill struck for two in a one-goal Challenge Cup triumph.
6. Washington Spirit
Trinity Rodman was inches away. In stoppage time at Lumen Field, Claudia Dickey kept the USWNT forward from stealing two points from just nine yards out. The Spirit had two shots on goal for the first 88 minutes of the contest. That looked to be the moment Washington would break the Reign's hearts.
It was a chance you could bet on Rodman to convert considering she came up clutch for her team against Kansas City at home in week 20. Mark Parson's side now has to head back home needing a result against North Carolina who in the most recent matchup against the Spirit put up six in the Challenge Cup. The front four and the experience of Parsons in games like these will be critical against the Courage.
7. Orlando Pride
Seb Hines' side would have moved into the driver's seat if only it could have hung onto a two-goal advantage in the Derby City. Now, the Pride travel back home for an encounter with another hungry team hoping to jump over the line.
The postseason chances for Orlando took a massive hit of over 20 percent with the result. The last time Hines' crew took on Houston, the first half went as poorly as it could have. The Pride not only have to get out in front this time, it must be able to hold down the fort in the back. If it is unable to, next week will be about vacation planning rather than game planning.
8. Racing Louisville FC
If you want to know how to define the word grit, re-watch Racing Louisville last weekend against the Pride. Down by two goals after 21 minutes, Racing's chances of putting itself in the conversation on Decision Day were slim to none.
From the moment that Nadia Nadim converted her penalty kick before halftime, the belief had been reignited. The next 45 minutes were magical. You could see what it meant to the entire team and Kim Bjorkegren. Louisville still has a pulse. First, it'll have to do its job for this dream to come to fruition. Help is going to be needed, but with a higher goal differential than the three clubs in front of them heading into week 22, the path is there.
9. OL Reign
What was not to love about OL Reign's celebration of Megan Rapinoe? The Seattle outfit showed everyone how to do it. The club and fanbase honored her in the best way possible through a pre-game ceremony, a heartfelt video, and a historic environment to cap it off.
Over 34,000 fans showed up to Lumen Field to break the NWSL attendance record to see one of the league's greatest players compete in her last regular season fixture in Seattle. Laura Harvey's team could not deliver for the USWNT legend, leaving it still a mystery if she will get one last chance at an NWSL championship. Though the Reign have an over 70 percent chance at picking up a playoff spot, the last impressive league victory came all the way back in June. Scrapping by the Pride with 10 players a few weeks ago was its last three points.
10. Houston Dash
When the whistle for halftime blew, Houston Dash was tied on points with OL Reign for sixth position in the table. Sarah Lowdon's team could feel it. Everyone had counted it out last month. The offense was on track to finish with the fewest goals by a team in the league since 2019.
Two straight victories put the Dash back into the picture. It all vanished when Thompson stepped between the lines. Mathematically, the Texas outfit is still in it. By a thread though. It needs a win in Orlando and a whole lot of help to turn this 3.2 percent into 100 percent at the end of Sunday night.
11. Kansas City Current
With back-to-back postseason appearances out of the picture after week 20, Kansas City Current let off some steam at home. In front of the biggest crowd at Children's Mercy Park this season, the 2023 Challenge Cup semifinalists scored four or more goals against the Red Stars for the second time during this campaign.
Nobody recorded multiple goals on Saturday, meaning six different Current players found the scoresheet. It was a memorable night for rookie Alexa Spaanstra who captured her first NWSL goal of her career. If I were the league, I would be terrified of this team in 2024. The ambition of this front office will not let it finish near the bottom again.
12. Chicago Red Stars
Poor Chicago. Not only was it the most negatively affected by the first-ever NWSL free agency, it lost Mallory Swanson before the season even got going. Saturday night in Kansas City was a good summary of what the Red Stars went through in 2023.
Chris Petrucelli's side has scored the same amount of goals as the Courage. The only problem has been the defensive third. For the second time in less than two months, Chicago's opponent netted five or more goals. Converting three chances is always nice, but letting Cece Kizer roam free is not from the perspective of the Red Stars. It has been such an interesting year for the club, to say the least. With a healthy Mallory Swanson and the belief of a new ownership group, the potential for a 2024 turnaround is there.
Decision Day in the NWSL will take place on Sunday, October 15 with all six contests starting at 5:00 p.m. EST on Paramount+.