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The NWSL has always been the most competitive league in the world. This year has been something else entirely.

In 2023, 12th really could beat first on any given day. The data proves it.

Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most emblematic result of the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League regular season came early last month when the Portland Thorns took the field against Racing Louisville at Lynn Family Stadium.

Both teams were lacking some firepower, but Louisville was the more depleted side: Nadia Nadim still wasn’t 100%, Savannah DeMelo was suspended, Carson Pickett was nursing her calf, and Jaelin Howell’s hip was causing her problems.

In the midst of Thorns forward Sophia Smith’s nagging knee problem, the visitors started Hannah Betfort in a strike partnership with Morgan Weaver. Although they were without Smith and their road assignment was historically the most travel-challenged in the league, Portland still held a nearly 18-goal advantage in non-penalty expected goal difference (npxGD). The spread in quality between the teams could not have been more stark. Without DeMelo, Pickett and Howell, Louisville didn’t have a prayer — so said logic, at least.

But two halves of soccer later, Portland lost 2-1. The xG for the game was 2-1. Louisville goals from Abby Erceg and Thembi Kgatlana were a bit fluky, but also came from consistent pressure on a too-open Portland defense. The Thorns were convincingly outplayed and deserved to fly home with no points for their efforts. 

A result and performance like this would send shockwaves through most leagues, but not the NWSL. “On any given day” has become a mantra among fans, players, coaches, and media since the league’s inception. And in the league’s 11th season, a mere 11 points separate first place from last in the 12-team league, and eight teams are vying for four playoff spots heading into Decision Day. Louisville outplaying and defeating Portland on a random Saturday in September is the league’s calling card. 

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