NWSL's Defining Storylines Entering the Run to the Playoffs

On the heels of the Women's World Cup, the NWSL race to the playoffs is heating up, with the league's top tier locked in a battle for the Shield, injuries to game-changing stars factoring into the big picture and the unlikeliest of all spoilers emerging for the home stretch.
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The 2019 NWSL season is headed for the home stretch, even if the regular season doesn’t wrap up until mid-October. A pair of upcoming FIFA international breaks will stretch the final run of matches out, but every club has completed at least two-thirds of its regular season after the weekend’s action. Which storylines will shape a tight playoff race? Here are five to watch over the next two months:

Who will win a compelling Shield race?

A season ago, the most interesting thing about the NWSL Shield race was watching the margin the North Carolina Courage would win it by expand. With a team of players who have fully bought into coach Paul Riley’s system, the Courage dominated the league in 2018, going 17-6-1, posting a +36 goal differential and finishing with 15 more points than the second-place Portland Thorns (whom North Carolina would later defeat 3–0—in Portland—in the NWSL final).

Things look a lot different in 2019. Thanks partly to a season shook up by Women's World Cup absences (58 NWSL players were rostered in the tournament), partly to the Courage not being quite as dominant even at full strength and partly to the improvement of the Chicago Red Stars, this year’s Shield race is shaping up to go down to the wire. After the weekend’s action, just four points separate the first-place Thorns and second-place Red Stars, with the latter having a game in hand. The Courage, meanwhile, are five points behind Portland with two games in hand, while the Utah Royals and Reign FC sit tied for fourth, just six points behind Portland with a game in hand.

In short, the stage is set for a wild finish. The Shield seems likely to go to one of Portland, Chicago or North Carolina, as that trio has been the most consistent and dangerous this season, and a case could be made for any of them. The Thorns have the advantage of four of their final six games being at home in the intimidating Providence Park atmosphere, while the Courage and Red Stars both have fairly favorable schedules the rest of the way. Portland’s next three games—against Chicago, Utah and North Carolina—will surely be a pivotal stretch.


Injury all that's stopping Sam Kerr

The Red Stars’ star striker has had another spectacular season in Chicago, tallying 13 goals in 14 games so far. The Australian is in position to not only potentially break the NWSL single-season goal record again (she set it herself just last year with 17), but perhaps chase a new milestone: a 20-goal season. With seven games left on the Red Stars’ regular-season schedule, it’s certainly within reach given her torrid pace in 2019—that is, if she stays on the field. An apparent foot/ankle injury suffered in Chicago’s recent loss to Sky Blue FC is a concern (the club has not provided an update at this time, but she was spotted on crutches after the match), and any potential games missed would be a tough blow at a crucial time for Chicago.

When Kerr was at the Women's World Cup, the Red Stars’ attack noticeably struggled, as the club failed to score in three straight defeats. Even with Kerr returning, the front office took steps in response to try to add more depth up top, trading for forward Savannah McCaskill. But not having Kerr for any period of time would put a lot more pressure on the likes of McCaskill, Yuki Nagasato and Katie Johnson, as well as the Red Stars’ midfield. And if Kerr's injury were to be serious, it could torpedo what had been shaping up as an excellent year for Chicago and perhaps its best chance yet to get over the hump of the playoff semifinals, where it has lost in each of the last four seasons.

Who will nab the final playoff spot?

While no one is close to officially locking down one of the four NWSL playoff spots yet, it’d be a fairly surprising development if any of Portland, Chicago (assuming Kerr is fit) or North Carolina misses the final four. Never say never, but assuming there’s only one other slot to go around for the league’s next tier, there’s an interesting race developing.

After looking disjointed during the Women's World Cup and even in the immediate aftermath, Utah may be finally starting to unlock its offensive potential under Laura Harvey in an attack led by U.S. star Christen Press, former U.S. forward Amy Rodriguez and Spanish midfielder Vero Boquete. The Royals, who scored multiple goals just once in their first 11 games, have outscored their last three opponents 8–1 and are starting to look like a darkhorse in the league—if they can prove this is more than just a hot stretch. The Vlatko Andonovski-coached Reign, meanwhile, continue to stay in the thick of the race despite a wide array of injuries and have beaten the rival Thorns twice this year. And while their cases are more unlikely, the Houston Dash and Washington Spirit lurk in sixth and seventh place, five and six points behind the fourth-place Royals/Reign, respectively.


Will Megan Rapinoe suit up again in 2019?

Alex Morgan’s return to action with the Orlando Pride on Saturday left just one USWNT player who has yet to take the field in the NWSL since the team’s Women's World Cup win: Rapinoe. This summer’s Golden Boot and Golden Ball winner, Rapinoe has yet to play for Reign FC this year due to multiple injuries. After sitting out the first three games of the NWSL season before U.S. players were pulled for camp, Rapinoe played in most of the U.S. matches in France but notably sat out the semifinal vs. England with a hamstring problem. Since returning from France, she’s been sidelined by what Reign FC says is a lingering Achilles injury.

While Rapinoe has been on hand in Tacoma (and in New Jersey this past weekend) to cheer on her team, the Reign would undoubtedly benefit from getting her on the field, especially considering how injury-ravaged the club has been in 2019. Six players are already out with season-ending injuries, including star Welsh midfielder Jess Fishlock (ACL) and goalkeeper Michelle Betos (Achilles), and a host of other players are currently sidelined. While Rapinoe isn’t part of the SEI list, it’s unclear how close she is, if at all, to returning. With seven games left for the Reign and a potential playoff trip on the table, Rapinoe’s on-field presence at any point could be a game-changer felt across the league.

Can Sky Blue play spoiler?

A month and a half ago, the idea of Sky Blue factoring into the bigger picture in 2019 would’ve sounded pretty absurd. Dating back to the start of 2017, the New Jersey club had gone 1-24-8 under head coach Denise Reddy—yes, that’s 24 losses in 33 games, with only one win—before it made the decision to fire her on June 28. Since then, the team has shown real progress, going 3–4–2 and even beating the Red Stars twice.

To be clear, it’s unfair to pin all of Sky Blue’s struggles on Reddy. There were documented problems with how the club was being run both on and off the pitch, bringing the team into the spotlight for negative reasons and leading to a player exodus that included its top two 2019 draft picks, UCLA’s Hallie Mace (No. 2 overall) and UNC’s Julia Ashley (No. 6), going overseas rather than signing in New Jersey. A turnaround seemed unlikely no matter who was heading the team.

But there are finally reasons for optimism. Some player conditions have improved, and in April, embattled club president and GM Tony Novo resigned. That paved the way for Alyse LaHue to step in as interim GM, and she’s quickly made a positive impact on the club and its fans. After seeing attendance boosts in the matches after the Women's World Cup, Sky Blue moved its game this Sunday against Reign FC to MLS’s Red Bull Arena, drawing in a club-record 9,415 fans on short notice to witness a 1–1 draw. It capped a four-point week for Sky Blue, which picked up points against two playoff hopefuls who both could’ve really benefited in the standings from a win. With the veteran Carli Lloyd, a goalkeeper in Kailen Sheridan who is having a career year and young talent like Paige Monaghan, Raquel Rodriguez and Imani Dorsey, this team has the look of one that could impact the Shield race and playoff picture without being in contention itself.