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The Lowdown: A look at NWSL rules and tiebreakers

NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey. (Photo Copyright: Patricia Giobetti |

We’re now at less than 50 days until Portland Thorns FC and FC Kansas City usher in the NWSL era on April 13.  Slowly—and we do mean slowly—but surely the league and clubs have put together rosters, secured venues, and likely hundreds of other behind the scenes details we’ll never know about.  About the only major issue yet to be announced is a television deal (and other major sponsors, like the inevitable news that Nike will be involved).  It is certainly feasible to put on the league without a TV deal but there have been enough hints to indicate there will be some sort of broadcast agreement.  The latest hint was dropped via Twitter last week by FC Kansas City.

With most of the big details falling into place, we’re interested in some of the overlooked policies like tiebreakers and card rules.  The Lowdown did some poking around over the last week and here is some of what we came up with.


The league softly made it known that it will play a single table with the top four clubs qualifying for playoffs which will go as a straight knockout where higher seeds host.  But what if teams finish the season with the same number of points?  NWSL will employ the following procedures to break ties.

1)  Head-to-head records: Where two teams are concerned this will be straight up based on who gets more points from the other.  If it stretches to three or more tied teams, points per game will be used to negate that fact that not all teams play each other the same number of times.

2)  Goal difference: Straight-up goal difference.  This is the international standard bearer and the preference of most longtime soccer fans.

3)  Total goals:  Most total goals scored during the season.

4)  Head-to-head road records:  This one is interesting and won’t even be applicable if the tie is between two teams who have played each other four times.  That’s because in order for the straight head-to-head to be tied, this category would have to be tied as well.  If we ever get this far in a three-way tiebreaker though, it will make for some interesting dynamics.

5)  Goal difference on the road:  Goal difference in games played on the road.  This will not be put into play very often.

6)  Total goals on the road:  Total goals scored on all road games.

7) Coin flip

Officially there are additional steps going through all these processes for home games, but if teams are tied for total goal difference and road goal difference then they will obviously be tied in home goal difference as well.  The same applies to total goals.  And more often than not, these things will get handled in the first two tiebreakers, and almost always by the third.

Lauletta’s take:  Personally I prefer goal difference because it factors in the entire season whereas head-to-head can leave a team in the lurch over a bad day or two.  It also seems somewhat counter intuitive to break a tie on head-to-head when you’re leaving the team with the inferior record against everyone else on top of the league.  That said, head-to-head is a fine tiebreaker and it will be easy to figure out.  (And anything is better than MLS’s gimmicky use of total goals as the top tiebreaker.)

Substitution Rules

NWSL will use standard FIFA substitution rules.  That means three per game and no special handling for goalkeepers, as WUSA used.  That means a minimum of seven field players each game will have to go the full 90.  It also means we could see another Cat Whitehill moment.  Whitehill was forced into goal for the Washington Freedom in 2010 after the team used all its subs and Erin McLeod tore her ACL.

Speaking of the full 90…

That will be how long NWSL matches are.  There will be no silly extra times or penalty shootouts.  Three points for a win, one for a draw.  Just the way it should be, we know, but worth mentioning in case anyone had ideas otherwise.

Card accumulation

This is always a hot topic once the season gets going.  Here’s what we found out:

Red Cards:  Standard one-game suspension applies.

Yellow Cards:  A player will be suspended after accumulating five yellow cards.  Additional suspension will be in order after receiving another three (eight total) and then another three (11 total).  After that, every second yellow card will result in a one-game suspension.

In the event a player takes two yellow cards in the same match, the first card will count as an accumulated card and the second will count as a red card.

As of now NWSL does not have a ‘make good’ policy where players can wipe out their card accumulations by playing a certain number of consecutive matches without going in the book.

Lauletta’s take:  It will be interesting to see if the league sticks with not having a ‘make good’ policy.   Five is not a high number of cards over 22 matches especially for players who make their living in the defensive third.

Roster Limits

The roster limit will be 20 players.  Additionally there is a minimum limit of 18 players.  The league is working on a process to handle situations when teams require extra players due to excessive injuries and/or national team call-ups.  There are no current plans to maintain a league player pool similar to what MLS does with its goalkeeper pool.


Free Kicks

-Sky Blue FC have hired Erwin van Bennekom to the an assistant coach.  Van Bennekom will also coach Jersey Sky Blues in WPSL Elite.  That club will serve as Sky Blue FC’s official reserve team.   The Dutchman is a veteran of the WPSL coaching ranks.

-The main takeaway from Tom Sermanni’s early US roster selection for the national team is that he is blowing up the idea that players stationed overseas will not get a fair shake to be part of the rotation.  Earlier this month Sermanni gave Swedish-based Christen Press her first two caps and he called on 18-year old Lindsey Horan to be part of the current camp leading into next week’s Algarve Cup.  Horan notably passed up college to sign with Paris Saint-Germain.

-Shortly after being left off the list of Algarve Cup invites Heather Mitts tweeted, “That’s how the cookie crumbles. Can’t compete when you aren’t 100%. Will be cheering!” It is not known what, if any, injury Mitts is carrying, but barring a turnaround we could be looking at the end of her time on the national team.

-Some recent player signings:  Danielle Foxhoven and Jazmyne Avant (Portland Thorns FC); Caitlin Foord (Sky Blue FC);

-The Spirit got some excellent news this week when Ashlyn Harris had her contract with FCR Duisburg terminated in order to return to the US in time to start the NWSL season.  On the flipside the club will be without Alicia Garciamendez until she completes her senior year at Stanford.

-Canada will play France in an international friendly April 4 at the Ray Stadium in Nice.  The Canadian women were already slated to play in England three days later.

Hope Solo could miss the start of the Reign FC season due to wrist surgery.  If she does, the Reign will be without all three of their allocated U.S. players to open the season.  Amy Rodriguez is pregnant and Megan Rapinoe is playing with Lyon in France until June.

-Another Reign FC player, Nikki Krzysik, is still undecided about playing this season.  The New Jersey native recently attended Paul RIley’s Supergroup so if she does decide to play, fitness should not be an issue.


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