From the Wave claiming the top of the standings to a last-minute game winner for the Reign to a crucial momentum win for the Red Stars, this week in the NWSL was all about solidifying position in the playoff race with just over a month left in the regular season. It’s not hard to make an educated guess at who the top two or three teams might be, but there is still wiggle room left for almost anyone’s season to go sideways; that’s how tight those standings are.
Most teams have four or five games left to play. It’s probably fair to say teams like Gotham FC, the Washington Spirit, Racing Louisville, and even the NC Courage are out of contention even if they haven’t been mathematically eliminated yet (the Courage have 7! games left to play though). That still leaves eight teams scrambling for six spots, and an interesting race going on for the NWSL Shield with four teams within three points of each other at the top.
You get the sense that the Shield position could change hands multiple times all the way up to the end of the season, which is one of the things that makes NWSL such a great league — and also a stressful and chaotic one.
San Diego Wave
Kansas City Current
Chicago Red Stars
Angel City FC
North Carolina Courage
Goalkeeper of the year race
There hasn’t been a singularly obvious standout this season for goalkeeper of the year; in fact there are a couple of players who might have been shoo-ins in seasons past but have had a dip in form in 2022.
Some of the strongest candidates are, predictably, amongst the playoff contenders: KC Current’s A.D. Franch, OL Reign’s Phallon Tullis-Joyce, and San Diego Wave’s Kailen Sheridan. Katie Lund, currently leading the league in saves with Racing Louisville FC with 85 (next is Erin McLeod with 62), should also be in the mix.
One of the most important cofactors to look at when judging this category is probably the relative strength of each goalkeepers’ defense. Sheridan has been called upon to make some incredible saves, true, but the Wave’s defense has probably been stronger over the course of the season than the Current’s, or even the Reign’s.
One of the stats that helps reveal this is shots faced per 90 (all of our numbers are via Wyscout). Lund has faced the most shots out of any goalkeeper in the league on average this year, with 6.03 faced per 90. Here’s a look at the four candidates being discussed here by the numbers by four categories averaged per 90: goals allowed, shots faced, saves and prevented goals.
NWSL goalkeepers by the numbers
|Goalkeeper||GA per 90||SA per 90||SV per 90||PG per 90|
We’ve seen a good goalkeeper win this award despite not-so-great results. In 2014, Alyssa Naeher won for her work with the Boston Breakers, despite conceding 53 goals that season (the league high) and a 2.11 GAA. She also made 106 saves that season.
Sheridan is arguably the league’s best goalkeeper, and the Wave have an excellent narrative around their success as an expansion team. Right now, she has to be the frontrunner for this award, but the voters are going to have an interesting choice ahead of them this October in what they choose to reward.
With playoffs looming, players are stepping up
Wave at the crest
A battle between the league leaders highlighted this week. With the Wave’s 2-0 win over the Thorns, San Diego skipped right up to the top of the standings — a highly notable feat for first-year coach Casey Stoney and an expansion side that has been, above all, steady. While the Wave have had their share of doldrums and heartbreakers in their first season (the devil works hard, but NWSL chaos energy works harder), they’ve never looked likely to truly fall into a skid or unable to recover from a rough loss. Although we can’t truly know what goes on behind closed doors, that kind of resilience speaks well of whatever’s going on in the locker room.
Of course, it helps to have an in-form Alex Morgan scoring buckets of goals. Morgan is now on 13 goals and two assists for the season, including this really nice team goal that just skips over every line the Thorns had out on the field.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) August 28, 2022
Morgan is now two goals ahead in the Golden Boot race, with the Thorns’ Sophia Smith and Courage’s rookie Diani Ordoñez tied with 11 behind her.
Mal Pugh is who Chicago needs her to be
It’s so tight in the playoff race that every point really, crucially matters. The difference between first and sixth is currently five points, and there are at least two teams that are within clawing distance of that sixth-place spot. So Chicago sitting at fifth is still a tenuous position, especially the team is tied with the Current on 26 points and only one point ahead of Angel City, which is on 25. From here on out, every game matters, and building momentum towards the end of the season matters too.
So the Red Stars’ rollicking 4-0 win over Racing Louisville, in which Pugh picked up two goals and two assists, is an important confidence builder for a team that can’t quite seem to find its footing.
Pugh almost made it look easy on both her goals, although that was partially attributable to Louisville’s baffling lack of attention to her in their defensive third. Louisville head coach Kim Björkegren told media after the game that their pre-game planning had specifically taken Pugh into account, knowing her abilities in open play and on set pieces. And yet the team seemed unable to close her down. Pugh also whipped up some sharp set piece service; this play between her and Yuki Nagasato is just sheer fun.
.@MalPugh ➡️ YUKI on 🔁
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) August 28, 2022
Pugh outright called it fun in her postgame comments, complimenting the Red Stars midfield at enabling her to stretch teams, make runs in behind, turn with the ball, and run at players. “I think just having the freedom to do that and reading off of everyone as a whole, it’s been good,” she said.
Angel City called game
The other expansion team is still working on securing a playoff spot, and walking out of Red Bull Arena with three points was key after Chicago’s big win. Angel City brought plenty of fans (and all four founding owners in Julie Uhrman, Kara Nortman, Alexis Ohanian and Natalie Portman) and then found three goals in fifteen minutes to essentially wrap the match up in the first half.
There might not have been the standout performance of a Mal Pugh in this match, but both Simone Charley and Savannah McCaskill looked excellent in person — they found success against Gotham’s back line via cutting passes and with the ball at their feet.
The nutmeg. 🥜
The finish. 🎯
SAVANNAH MCCASKILL MY GOODNESS. 😳 pic.twitter.com/jd6altokY1
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) August 28, 2022
McCaskill said afterwards that the one-on-one opportunity she took with McCall Zerboni was quite intentional. “I usually would cut back in that situation,” she said, “And try to find someone at the top of the six, but I’ve been really being urged by our coaching staff to take those shots and take that on myself.”
Angel City has shown they can weather sustained pressure at multiple points this season, going all the way back to their home opener for the regular season against North Carolina. On Sunday, Gotham tested them on that front in the first 15 minutes and for most of the second half. Angel City has also proven to be adept at the dark arts of timewasting (DiDi Haračić picked up a yellow on Sunday again for it). Both of these skills could come in really handy over the next month, as they stare down a trio of away games in Houston, North Carolina, and San Diego.
Spirit players refute Kris Ward’s public comments
Responding to former Washington Spirit head coach Kris Ward’s Q&A in which he gave his perspective on how and why he had been removed as head coach, team captain Andi Sullivan read a prepared statement after their match against the Houston Dash on Saturday.
“Firstly, we’re frustrated that this is necessary given our history. Secondly, we are angered by Kris Ward’s answers in the piece from The Athletic. We know the idiom that there are two sides to every story, but that is simply not the case in this scenario. We know his interview to be a completely inaccurate recollection of a serious situation. And furthermore, the apology offered to us last Friday demonstrates a misalignment in his words and actions towards this team. The players fully support the decision of the club to relieve him of his duties as head coach and we have every intention of cooperating in a proper course of action as it relates to circumstances like this one. We will no longer take any questions regarding his dismissal or make any further comments on it at this time. We are focused on our current performances for the rest of our season and moving forward as a group.”
We get it, you’re ripped
Before we get to the big conversation around the Reign and Megan Rapinoe, a moment of appreciation for the team’s first goal against the Orlando Pride, which was looking like a goal of the week candidate until their second one happened.
Heads up! Megan Rapinoe finds Bethany Balcer and it’s all square. 💥 pic.twitter.com/UC5UTAfI3H
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) August 27, 2022
In the second minute of stoppage time, Rapinoe hit a game winner with a volley at the back post off of service from Sofia Huerta and promptly went into Celebration Mode.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) August 27, 2022
Like we said, the playoff race is tight. The Reign needed this win to give themselves even a smidge of breathing room in fourth place; if they’d tied, they would have been on 25 points instead of 27, which would have dropped them into sixth place, only ahead of Angel City on goal differential.
“Soph (Huerta) is one of the best in the league at those balls and just putting them in a dangerous spot,” said Rapinoe after the game. “So just try to crash on that back post and make sure nothing got through, and booted that B right in there.”
And who can blame Rapinoe for finding the camera and flexing; honestly if I (Steph) were similarly ripped, I would simply never wear a shirt in every context in which it was permissible, and I would ensure I was photographed as much as possible before the inevitable march of time turned it all into a fond memory.
One last thing
The quote of the week:
“Sports.” – Elizabeth Ball, Kansas City Current, after the Current came back for a 3-2 win over the Courage, the second game in a row where the Current and Courage proved they are unable to play a normal game against each other
(Top photo: EM Dash-USA TODAY Sports)