After years of clamoring from fans and media, the National Women’s Soccer League was finally ready to implement Decision Day for the final match day of the 2023 season.
They picked a good year to take the plunge. All 12 teams will be in action Sunday at 5 p.m. ET (all matches on Paramount+, plus a whip-around show on CBS Sports Network), and every match carries some sort of playoff implication.
The top and bottom of the table are mostly worked out. The Portland Thorns and San Diego Wave have clinched playoff berths and home semifinals with only the Shield to be decided this weekend. The Kansas City Current and Chicago Red Stars have been eliminated.
The middle of the table will feature two hours of Sunday drama, as eight teams vie for the other four slots. Seven of the eight are in with a chance to host playoff matches a week later. To illustrate the chaos and possibilities, there is a scenario where a team that hosts a playoff game finishes equal on points as a team that misses out. And the Orlando Pride could wind up tied for the most wins — and not go to the playoffs.
Bekki Morgan and Dan Lauletta are here to go over all the scenarios and what may be in store this weekend.
Washington Spirit vs North Carolina Courage
NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE – 3rd Place, 30 points
Clinch playoffs with:
-Draw + (Gotham loss OR Reign loss/draw OR Pride AND Angel City fail to make up GD)
(Note: Due to current GD, Courage realistically clinch with draw)
-Any three of: Gotham loss, Reign loss/draw while maintaining GD, Pride loss/draw, Angel City loss/draw, Louisville loss/draw, Louisville win while maintaining GD
WASHINGTON SPIRIT – 5th Place, 30 points
Clinch playoffs with:
-Draw + any two of: Reign loss/draw, /Pride loss/draw, Angel City loss/draw, Gotham loss/Gotham draw with makeup of GD
-Any three of: Reign loss, Pride loss, Angel City loss, Louisville loss/draw
Dan: For me, this is the most interesting match of the day because any loser opens the door to be bounced after both spent much of the season above the playoff line. I’ll start with the Spirit, though, who have not been the same since the World Cup break, and who will be in much worse shape than the Courage should this one end in a draw. Since June 18, Mark Parsons’ side has only two league wins, both against the Current. All season, they have only two wins against teams above the playoff line, though one of them was in North Carolina. They have generally looked out of sorts of late and Ashley Sanchez is one of several U.S. players in a post-World Cup slump. Golden Boot contender Ashley Hatch has not found the back of the net in four games. That is her longest scoreless streak since 2019.
Bekki: I agree with Dan that this is one of the most interesting matchups of the day. The Washington Spirit aren’t the only ones who’ve struggled to get wins. Although they did earn a trophy in the Challenge Cup, the Courage haven’t won a regular season game since way back on July 1, against the Houston Dash. Since then, they’ve had three losses and four draws. While their positive goal differential of six gives them some level of comfort that the Washington Spirit don’t have, this prolonged slump in performance is unquestionably a concern for the Cary-based side. Despite not winning, they haven’t been short on chances, however. In their most recent match against the San Diego Wave, the Courage outshot their opponents and won the xG battle 1.2 to 0.11 despite the game ending in a nil-nil draw. The previous match to that against OL Reign ended in 1-1 draw despite the Courage once again winning the xG battle 2.8 to 0.57. North Carolina has Brazilian phenom Kerolin on their roster who is closing in on Golden Boot leader Sophia Smith, but she’s going to have to find the back of the net more consistently and get help from teammates like Manaka Matsukubo if they’re going to get the win they almost certainly need.
Dan: Not only are the Courage slumping, but in their five matches since the World Cup break (0-2-3) you can argue they should — or could — have won all of them. The good news is that if they can win this one, they not only get in the playoffs but get to host next weekend at WakeMed. Easier said than done though. Both teams boast stars who can score on a dime: Kerolin for the Courage and Rodman for the Spirit. Those two alone make this one wildly unpredictable since either one of them can flip a script on a match late. Just two games ago, Rodman hit a stoppage-time winner after a mostly ordinary 90 minutes. Even the goalkeeper matchup fascinates as Aubrey Kingsbury and Casey Murphy were the U.S.’s unused backups at the World Cup. This may be a copout prediction, but I’ll go with a 1-1 draw which essentially send the Courage to the playoffs and gives the Spirit more than a fighting chance.
Bekki: Both teams have an identical number of points going into the final game and have both struggled to find consistent wins recently. And, of course, both are fighting to hold onto a spot in the playoffs. As a result, it’s not hard to see this game ending in a draw. To earn an actual win, it might come down to the slightest of edges. In that regard, I think the Spirit might have it. They’ll have their work cut out for them considering North Carolina has nine clean sheets this season — more than any other team in the league. But the Spirit get the slight edge via from playing at home where they’ve seen four of their seven wins and only two losses all season. The Courage, on the other hand, have only won three away matches and lost six. A home field advantage isn’t much, but a loud Audi Field might be just enough to propel Washington into a much-needed victory. If it happens, it’ll be a tight one — 1-0 or 2-1 potentially.
NJ/NY Gotham vs Kansas City Current
NJ/NY GOTHAM – 4th Place, 30 points
Clinch playoffs with:
-Draw + (Reign loss OR Pride loss/draw OR Angel City loss/draw)
-Draw + Pride failure to makeup GD
-Any three of: Spirit/Courage non-draw with loser behind on GD, Reign loss/draw while making up GD, Pride loss/draw, Angel City loss/draw, Louisville loss/draw
KANSAS CITY CURRENT – 11th Place, 25 points
Eliminated from playoff contention
Bekki: The Kansas City Current may have been eliminated, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play spoiler in a big way. Without the weight of the playoffs on them, they absolutely slaughtered the Chicago Red Stars last week in a 6-3 match that saw six different players score. This nine-goal game ties the highest score lines in NWSL history, which shows that even without a playoff berth on the line there can still be fireworks. Of course, Gotham are a vastly more successful team this season than Chicago was, but it helps that Kansas City did manage to beat Gotham already this April, 2-0. The Current have played their best football at home this year and they won’t have that advantage in New Jersey on Saturday, but if they can play as freely and comfortably as they might find comfort in going into the next season on a high note. While a win wouldn’t eliminate Gotham for sure, it would certainly take their fate out of their own hands. What’s more fun than playing spoiler when you’re already out of the race?
Dan: Two weeks ago, Gotham were eyeing the Shield. Now they need a result to assure even being part of the playoff party. And while the Current never really got their teeth into this season, they can be explosive when at their best, as Bekki illustrated. As for Gotham, Lynn Williams carried the team early in the season with seven goals in 13 matches and never going two-in-a-row without scoring. But she is one of many returning World Cup players struggling to find league form since. She does have two assists but has yet to find the back of the net in five matches. During the regular season, Gotham are 7-0-2 when Williams scores or assists, and 1-7-4 when she either does neither or does not play. For a club that has not enjoyed much on-field success since joining NWSL, this will stand as their biggest regular season match to this point.
Bekki: As Dan says, this is arguably Gotham’s biggest regular season match ever. They’re playing at home, they have everything to lose, so I think they’ll find the edge and beat the Current. Yes, the Current were explosive against Chicago, but numerous teams have been explosive against Chicago this year. (Sorry, Chicago.) Gotham is a much harder team and Kansas City’s defense has been a weak point consistently this season. With Midge Purce back and Esther González having already demonstrated what she can do, they should be able to beat the Current even if Williams is still struggling to find her form. But while I’m going to predict a Gotham win, I’m never going to ignore what Debinha might be capable of. I’m going to call this a 2-1 win for Gotham.
Dan: I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and go against Bekki. It has been easy to forget during the Current’s lost season that Debinha is the best player in the NWSL. Gotham will need to find an answer for her while also scoring goals in a match they will feel like they have to win. Sure the Current defense has been spotty most of the season, but to Bekki’s point way above they played with reckless abandon against the Red Stars after being eliminated. I expect them to do it again and emerge with a 3-1 win to either break Gotham hearts or send them in through the back door.
Angel City vs Portland Thorns
ANGEL CITY – 8th Place, 28 points
Clinch playoffs with:
-Win + (Gotham loss (or draw with makeup of GD) OR Reign loss/draw OR Pride loss/draw (or Pride win with makeup of GD))
PORTLAND THORNS – 1st Place, 35 points
Already in playoffs, clinch Shield with:
-San Diego Wave loss
-Draw + Wave draw
Dan: The Thorns are right back where they were a year ago when a win over Gotham would have delivered the Shield. Despite taking a two-goal lead early in the second half, a Gotham side that had lost 12-straight matches rallied for a 3-3 draw that allowed the Reign to nab the Shield with a win later that day. All was not lost as the Thorns wound up as NWSL Champions. However, they’ll be anxious to redeem themselves in this year’s Shield race.
Bekki: Ever since Becki Tweed took over as head coach of Angel City, the Los Angeles-based club has been a very hard team to beat. They’ve only lost a single game since mid-June while getting five regular season wins in that time. Three of those wins were against top-six teams like San Diego, North Carolina and OL Reign. They simply aren’t a team you can count out of any game anymore. Just look at their win last week against Houston at the death, thanks to a goal from Savannah McCaskill. It’s true the Thorns have everything to fight for and will want that Shield, but Angel City want to make their first playoffs just as much and, as a result, they’ll be a hard team to stop.
Dan: Angel City, under Tweed, are suddenly difficult to play against. But so are the Thorns. And since Angel City need to win, they’ll be going for it much more readily than the Thorns. I’ll take Sophia Smith scoring to wrap up the Golden Boot and then getting her hands on the Shield after a 2-0 victory.
Bekki: On paper, Portland seems like a shoo-in. They’re the top team, they’re fighting for the Shield, and they’re playing a bottom half of the table team, so the results should be weighed pretty heavily in Portland’s favor. But you just can’t deny Angel City’s hot streak while Portland has been a bit more all over the place. Portland hasn’t played well consistently against lower-table teams. They lost to Kansas City and Racing Louisville in the latter half of this season even though they got wins over North Carolina, OL Reign, and Gotham. Angel City will also have the home team advantage in arguably the best stadium environment in the NWSL. Still, Angel City had to rely on a late-game stunner to pull of the win that kept them in this race. It’s hard to see them pulling that off again, especially against the number one team in the league — and don’t forget Smith is back as well. Portland probably fell victim to underestimating lower table teams early in the season and there’s no chance they’ll do that on Saturday. I’m going to agree with Dan and predict a Portland win over Angel City, but a slighter one at 1-0.
Orlando Pride vs Houston Dash
ORLANDO PRIDE – 7th Place, 28 points
Clinch playoffs with:
-Win + (Gotham loss OR Reign loss/draw OR Angel City loss/draw OR (Gotham draw OR Angel City draw with either making up GD)
HOUSTON DASH – 10th Place, 26 points
Clinch playoffs with:
-Win + Reign loss with makeup of GD + Angel City loss/draw + Louisville loss/draw)
Bekki: This is another particularly interesting match-up akin to the Spirit-Courage game because it also has big implications for other teams. Of these two, Houston definitely has a harder road ahead. After a heartbreaking loss at the death against Angel City last week, their path to the playoffs is much harder and a win might not even be enough to do it. This is somewhat on par with the season for Houston that’s seen them rise and fall in a performance that’s been inconsistent at best. They’ve scored the fewest goal in the league this season (16). Houston is actually the fifth-lowest scoring team in NWSL history as things currently stand. Even with a painful loss last week in their final home game, the Dash still have a lot to play for and against another inconsistent team like the Orlando Pride, they might be able to get the three points they need. And they’ll have to get them to even have a chance at the post-season. On paper, they should have the attacking prowess to do it with the likes of Michelle Alozie, Diana Ordóñez and María Sánchez, but to win they need to find the back of the net more consistently.
Dan: Before getting into the weeds on the Pride, let’s pause for a moment and remember that almost everyone had them picked to finish 11th or 12th on the table. However this ends, full credit to Seb Hines and new general manager Haley Carter for instilling a new mentality into a club still looking for its first playoff win. First they have to get there, something that has happened once, in 2017. And if they can beat the Dash… Well, it would take some very specific things for them to miss. Last week was rough when they opened up a 2-0 lead in Louisville only to fall 3-2 in a devastating loss that appeared to shred their playoff hopes. But just about everything since then went perfectly and now the Pride are actually on the doorstep. Can they rebound from the Louisville loss and find a way to beat Goalkeeper of the Year candidate Jane Campbell? They tried in June and couldn’t do it, losing 2-0.
Bekki: If the Pride are going to beat Houston, they’ll need to keep their heads in the game even if things don’t go their way. Last week against Louisville, they got rattled, made some costly mistakes, and that cost them the game. They can’t be this sloppy again. Ultimately, though, I can’t help but feel this is an evenly matched and fairly balanced game. The Pride are very young and are clearly building something special in Orlando, but I’m going to call this a 1-1 draw. Against Louisville, Orlando only scored once in the run of play (their first goal was a penalty) and even with Messiah Bright having an excellent rookie year, I don’t think they’ll get more than one past Campbell. And Houston has struggled to score, so I don’t think they’ll get more than one either. Even with a potential draw, however, this has the potential to be a very fast, very fun game with huge implications for other mid-table teams.
Dan: Judging by the way these teams have exchanged dropped opportunities of late, this game really should end in a draw. The teams are coming at it from different perspectives, though. As I mentioned already, not much was expected of the Pride this season. Meanwhile, the Dash find themselves needing help to get into the playoffs despite having conceded only 17 goals in 21 games and running out the likes of Sánchez, Ordóñez and, for a while, Ebony Salmon on offense. Nichelle Prince came back from injury to replace Salmon. Anything short of a return to the playoffs should be considered a disappointment. I’ll predict a 0-0 draw that leaves both teams frustrated and heartbroken.
Chicago Red Stars vs OL Reign
CHICAGO RED STARS – 12th Place, 24 points
Eliminated from playoff contention
OL Reign – 6th Place, 29 points
Clinch playoffs with:
-Draw + any three of: Gotham loss, Spirit loss, Pride loss/draw, Angel City loss/draw, Louisville loss/draw, Courage loss with makeup of GD
-Louisville loss/draw, Angel City loss/draw while maintaining GD + (Pride loss OR maintaining GD over whoever finishes on 29 points from Pride win/draw)
Dan: As the Reign celebrate the end of Megan Rapinoe’s soccer career, they are fighting and clawing to send her out with another trip to the playoffs. What once looked like a certainty has become anything, but as the Reign have won only once in league play since July. Perhaps more alarming is they do not have an assist from open play since July 1, and that includes three Challenge Cup matches. You can argue they miss Rose Lavelle, but the midfield ‘wunderkind’ has appeared in only four matches (Reign are 2-2-0 in those games) all season. On the bright side, Alana Cook returns after serving a red-card suspension and Claudia Dickey exits her best game as a pro last Friday when she made two game-saving stops on Trinity Rodman to preserve the scoreless draw. They are not eliminated with a loss, but it opens up many possibilities that would knock them out. In other good news, the Reign put five goals on the Red Stars (without Lavelle) at Lumen back in April.
Bekki: As Dan stated, OL Reign are not at their hottest point, but it’s obvious Chicago isn’t either. As mentioned above, the Kansas City Current absolutely killed the Red Stars last week, 6-3. This eliminated the Red Stars and kept them out of the playoffs for the first time in seven straight years. It definitely hurts that they were missing key defenders Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger last week. Whether they’re available this week is currently unknown, but it would definitely help Chicago immensely if they are. To add more unpredictability to the Red Stars is the fact that it was announced that head coach Chris Petrucelli’s firing was announced on Tuesday afternoon. As a result, assistant coach Ella Masar will take over for this final game. Will a new coach bump help the Red Stars end a rough season on a high note? It’s hard to say.
Dan: The Red Stars have absolutely played games this season that have made them look like a legitimate, mid-table side. But at their worst, things have gotten quite ugly. As for the Reign, beating a non-playoff team that you handled 5-2 in April should be an easy assignment, but recent form makes it seem they may struggle to score. Hate to be a downer, but there won’t be any goals in this one.
Bekki: Oh, Chicago. You put together a strong string of games and then get absolutely slammed by the only team already eliminated from playoff contention. It’s wild to think Chicago has won four times in the regular season since July 1 and OL Reign have only won once, and yet Chicago is the team that’s been eliminated. Even with these vastly differing fortunes, I can’t help but think OL Reign will take the three points. Chicago is just too injury-laden. Their backline has been porous all season so even with OL Reign’s scoring problems, it’s hard to think that they won’t score if both Kruger and Davidson remain out. And as Dan said, Cook’s return and Dickey’s improvement bode well for keeping Chicago out. The Red Stars have definitely surprised me recently, so I could be wrong, but I’m predicting 1-0 in OL Reign’s favor.
San Diego Wave vs Racing Louisville
SAN DIEGO WAVE – 2nd Place, 34 points
Already in playoffs, clinch Shield with:
-Win + Thorns draw/loss
-Draw + Thorns loss + makeup GD
RACING LOUISVILLE – 9th Place, 27 points
Clinch playoffs with:
-Win + any three of: Gotham loss, Spirit loss, Reign loss/draw, Angel City loss/draw, Courage loss with makeup of GD
Bekki: If you think a match-up between the second-place team and the ninth-place team sounds like one of the less exciting matches this week, you’d be wrong. Despite the San Diego Wave being consistently one of the top teams in the league and Racing Louisville trending towards the middle to the bottom of the standings, San Diego has never beaten Louisville. Racing won their first meeting in early 2022 and their next two games have ended in draws. When it comes to Louisville’s 2023 campaign, inconsistency is probably the best word to sum up their season. They’ve had bright moments where they beat the Portland Thorns for the first time and last week came back to win a game from a two goal deficit for the first time in team history. But then they’ve also had completely flat performances like their loss to Houston a few weeks ago in an entirely winnable game. If Racing gets three points on Saturday, they have the chance to end the season as high as fourth, but if they lose, they have the potential to drop as low as 11th. As a result, Louisville has a lot to play for, but the best version of Racing will need to show up if they’re going to pull it off. And with midfielders Ary Borges and Jaelin Howell likely back from injury, and Wang Shuang back from international duty, they might have a fighting chance.
Dan: The Wave are perhaps the most aptly named club in the NWSL this season. At some points over the summer they looked entirely lost on the pitch. Two weeks ago they dominated the Thorns, in Portland, to take charge of the Shield race. The control was ceded back after a 0-0 draw in North Carolina. So the Wave need a result and help if they are to finish atop the table and bring home the club’s first trophy. Whether that happens or not, the Wave’s path to the NWSL Championship is the same, and it’s pretty cozy, They have already secured passage to the semifinals which they will host, and a week after that is the final at Snapdragon. The drawback is the FIFA window which means they won’t play for 21 days after this one. That should be enough motivation for Casey Stoney to run out her best against a side that will be all-out for a win and, as Bekki mentioned, the Wave have yet to defeat.
Bekki: I truly cannot predict how this game will go. If San Diego had been even slightly better against the Courage last week — not even dominant, just a bit better — I’d say they were a shoo-in. Instead, they only managed four shots with one on goal all game. That’s about as tepid as it gets for a draw. Additionally, if Louisville hadn’t won last week, I’d also say San Diego were a given, but Racing instead had one of their biggest wins in franchise history. Both teams boast solid defenses and top keepers. Both teams have also had inconsistent attacks. It’s very possible this end in a nil-nil draw like their last two matchups and this might be a cop out, but I think this match entirely depends on which version of each team shows up. If last week’s Wave plays last week’s Racing, I think Racing takes the game and has the chance to make their first playoffs if other things fall their way. But if the Wave that beat Portland plays the Racing that fell flat to Houston, it’s San Diego all the way. But if the Wave that beat Portland shows up to play the Racing that came back to beat Portland for the first-time ever, my only prediction will be that this will be an extremely fun game.
Dan: I will double down that the Wave are going to do everything in their power to stay sharp with two weeks off heading into the playoffs. Meanwhile, Bekki already pointed out all the returning players for Louisville but they will have approximately zero time to get back in the groove. There will be some moments, but in the end, the Wave will exit the regular season 3-2 winners. And Taylor Kornieck will make the score sheet with either a goal or an assist.
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