The stakes are high as the NWSL enters the penultimate week of the regular season.
By Bekki Morgan
Finally, in the penultimate week of the regular season, a team has finally clinched a playoff spot. The Portland Thorns clinched a berth after beating Racing Louisville on Wednesday. The fact that it took 20 games for the first team to clinch demonstrates just how close the top of the standings are and just how much top teams will need points to guarantee their places.
This week, Kansas City, Chicago, and Houston all make some progress towards making the playoffs. Racing Louisville, meanwhile, gets mixed results in their efforts to play spoiler.
Chicago Smash Kansas City But Fall in Close Match to Houston
The Chicago Red Stars flattened the Kansas City Current 4–0 in a midweek match last week only to turn around and fall 1–0 to the Houston Dash three days later. In many ways, these performances are indicative of the Red Stars’ performance all season where they’d have bursts of dominance followed by tepid or disappointing matches.
In the match against Kansas City, Mal Pugh was in dominant form, earning two goals and an assist. As demonstrated by Chicago’s other recent 4–0 against Racing Louisville, Pugh is unstoppable when she’s hot or given space to use her incredible speed. When she’s contained, however, she and the whole Chicago offense get stymied. Houston did this well and, as a result, she only had a single shot the entire night.
Chicago’s big win against the Current coupled with Angel City’s loss to San Diego were enough to keep the Red Stars safely in sixth place even with their loss to Houston. Although Angel City is a full four points behind them, Chicago can’t rest easy. They only have two games left: Portland this Sunday and Angel City the following week. If Chicago fails to get even a single point against Portland, then Angel City knock them out of the playoffs with a win in that final match. So the stakes are high for Chicago as they fight for every point they can get to keep their postseason dreams alive.
Kansas Find Some Redemption Against Portland After Tough Chicago Loss
Prior to their midweek match last week against Chicago, the Kansas City Current were on a franchise-record 13-week unbeaten streak and ascended all the way to first place. They seemed unstoppable. And then they hit the brick wall that was Mal Pugh and the Chicago Red Stars. Giving up two goals in the first 10 minutes of the match proved to be too much for the Current, who fell 4–0 to Chicago.
In a sign that bodes well for the team’s resilience, however, they met Portland the following Sunday and scratched out a draw. Initially, it seemed like it was to be a nill–nill draw, but then Portland scored in the 87th minute. Kansas City roared back, however, and earned a late stoppage time goal to salvage the point.
It seems likely the Current, who currently sit in third place, will make the playoffs, but with the top of the standings so close they could either make it all the way back to first place or even drop all the way out depending on the outcomes of their final two games. Luckily for them, they finish the season playing two beatable teams, the Washington Spirit and Racing Louisville. Neither of these teams can be discounted, though. The Spirit have been recently resurgent and are back to earning wins for the first time all season. Racing is wiley and the Current will face them in Racing’s final home game of the season. Neither team may have a shot at the playoffs, but they do have some pride at stake and that will make them difficult. Kansas City will have to show the same level of resilience they showed last week if they’re going to set themselves up for success in the postseason.
Houston Top Chicago, But Face a Tough Upcoming Challenge
Houston eked out a tough win against Chicago last week which briefly pushed them to the top of the standings before San Diego overtook them the next day. Although no team has technically clinched the playoffs, Houston seems to be in about the best shape possible to do so.
After a couple of games without a goal, Ebony Salmon came back and did exactly what she does best to put Houston in front of the Red Stars. Houston’s defense also came in big to shut out a red-hot Mal Pugh and allow Salmon’s single goal to stand as the game-winner. Houston will need to do exactly this on Saturday when they face OL Reign.
OL Reign are perpetual contenders and have been since the inception of the NWSL. With stars like Rose Lavelle, Megan Rapinoe, and Jess Fishlock on their side, they’re a hard-pressing, fast-paced, and incredibly driven team. They’re currently just hanging onto fifth place and will need to get every point they can to stay in the playoffs. They’ll be a tough team to beat, but Houston has shown they can pull upsets. One point will be enough to keep Houston safe, but they’re currently fighting for the shield. And in a league where no game is guaranteed and the top of the table is so close, they’ll need to fight for all three points to get back on top.
Racing Louisville Earns Big Win Against Orlando, But Stumbles Against Portland
Racing Louisville started out their three-game week on a high note at home when they finally got a win against the Orlando Pride and broke their 13-game winless streak. Not only did they get a win, they got a 2–0 shutout. This was the first game they scored multiple goals in since July and their first shutout since late May.
Things turned a little more predictable for Racing when they faced the Portland Thorns in a late Wednesday match. Although Racing heroically held off the Thorns throughout the first half with some daring goal line saves, Portland made up for lost time in the second half with a barrage of goals in under 10 minutes. Racing was ultimately able to stop the bleeding, but the damage was more than done by the time they adjusted.
As frustrating as a 3–0 loss was, it wasn’t too unexpected. Unlike their recent drubbings by Chicago and North Carolina, Racing actually fought hard throughout this match. Mistakes and poor defensive work ultimately did them in, but they stayed in the match longer than many probably thought possible. This game once again demonstrated that Racing’s biggest issue is their defense. The backline is not cohesive and has never worked as a unit. Careless mistakes are trounced on and the end result is a 3–0 loss.
In their two matches left, Racing will face Angel City away and then Kansas City at home. It’s impossible to tell what results they’ll get, but these will be hard challenges. The best Racing can do is use these matches as building blocks for the next season and continue to work out what changes are needed in the off-season.
Week 18 Scoresheet
September 14th, Chicago Red Stars vs. Kansas City Current – Official Recap
5’ Tatumn Milazzo (1–0 CHI)
8’ Mallory Pugh, assisted by Zoe Morse (2–0 CHI)
60’ Mallory Pugh (3–0 CHI)
72’ Amanda Kowalski, assisted by Mallory Pugh (4–0)
September 16th, Racing Louisville vs. Orlando Pride – Official Recap
10’ Nadia Nadim, assisted by Jessica McDonald (1–0 LOU)
50’ Savannah DeMelo, assisted by Wang Shuang (2–0 LOU)
September 17th, Chicago Red Stars vs. Houston Dash – Official Recap
25’ Ebony Salmon, assisted by Nichelle Prince (1–0 HOU)
September 18th, Kansas City Current vs. Portland Thorns – Official Recap
87’ Rocky Rodriguez (1–0 POR)
90’+4’ Hailie Mace, assisted by Kristen Edmonds (1–1)
September 21st, Racing Louisville vs. Portland Thorns – Official Recap
47’ Sophia Smith (1–0 POR)
48’ Sam Coffey (2–0 POR)
56’ Olivia Moultrie (3–0 POR)