Each NWSL team's playoff path and what they need to do next

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Even by last year's standards, the 2023 National Women's Soccer League playoff race is as tight as it ever has been with four rounds of fixtures to play.

Four points separate first-place San Diego Wave FC from the Washington Spirit, who currently hold the sixth and final playoff spot. Two points behind them? Another pair of challengers.

Only 11 points separate the 12 teams heading into the home stretch of the regular season, and while a few of those squads are (or should be) looking ahead to 2024, this year's playoff race once again confirms that the NWSL is as competitive as any league on the planet.

With the NWSL Challenge Cup wrapped up after the North Carolina Courage won it again last weekend, teams can now focus on closing out their regular seasons and pushing for playoff spots.

Here's where each NWSL team stands now -- in the order of the standings, with current point totals and W-D-L records -- and what lies ahead.

San Diego Wave logo 1. San Diego Wave FC (30 points, 9-3-6)

How they got here: The Wave are atop the table again, where they spent half of 2022 as an expansion team. This sophomore campaign has been more hot-and-cold than last year. Entering the World Cup break, San Diego enjoyed a five-game winless run -- six, if you include the now-concluded Challenge Cup -- but rebounded with three straight wins since the resumption of the regular season.

Naomi Girma, the best player for the U.S. at the World Cup, is back to patrol central defense, and 2019 World Cup champion Abby Dahlkemper made her long-awaited return earlier this summer, which will solidify things further at the back. Jaedyn Shaw remains the attacking engine, and the 18-year-old just earned her first U.S. women's national team call-up.

What they still need to do: A home game on Saturday against the last-place Kansas City Current could be a trap game if the Wave aren't careful. After that comes road games against the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage -- two fellow NWSL Shield contenders directly behind San Diego in the standings -- before wrapping up the season at home against Racing Louisville FC, which is currently in the hunt for a playoff spot.

All eyes on the calendar will be looking at Nov. 11, when San Diego will host the NWSL Championship. The Wave were good enough to be there last year, but late-season injuries partially derailed that pathway. Hosting the final will add pressure, and the Wave must continue to solidify their defensive shape. They've conceded more goals this year than they did all last season, in four fewer games.

Portland Thorns logo 2. Portland Thorns (29 points, 8-5-5)

How they got here: There was a point in the spring when the Thorns appeared to be on shaky ground. They played to back-to-back 3-3 draws and followed that up with a 2-1 loss to the Houston Dash. The vibe around the squad was concerning, too, as players spoke about their team's performance not embodying that of a Thorns team, and first-year head coach Mike Norris at least publicly expressed some confoundment at the team's defensive issues.

Their trajectory from there has hardly been linear, but they've picked up the necessary points to be in the Shield race again, and a 2-1 victory over the North Carolina Courage on Aug. 20 -- a game in which Portland went down to 10 players only 17 minutes into the match, conceded two minutes later, and then rallied to win -- is one to remember.

What they still need to do: The need for improved consistency is a theme across the league and applies here as well. A 2-1 road loss to Racing Louisville FC in their most recent regular-season match speaks to the ebbs and flows of the season.

Star forward Sophia Smith, who scored the winner in that Aug. 20 game seconds after entering in her return from the World Cup, is out injured. She won the 2022 MVP award and scored in last year's triumph in the NWSL Championship. Hannah Betfort will need to continue to carry some of that scoring load in Smith's absence.

Next up? A derby with Seattle-based OL Reign on Saturday.

North Carolina Courage logo 3. North Carolina Courage (28 points, 8-4-6)

How they got here: Early spring looked like much of the same from last season as North Carolina struggled to consistently put together results. A 5-0 thrashing of the lowly Chicago Red Stars on June 10 was the start of a four-game winning streak, however, and that coincided with further success in the NWSL Challenge Cup, which the Courage just won on Saturday for the second straight year.

North Carolina is a more possession-based, methodical team under head coach Sean Nahas, turning away from the (also successful) all-out approach of the previous era. The Courage have also found such success after losing over half their 2022 goalscoring production in the offseason, with the departures of Debinha and Diana Ordoñez. Brazilian attacker Kerolin has fully taken center stage.

What they still need to do: For the Courage, it's about keeping steady. They haven't lost since Aug. 20 in Portland, and they look to have only gotten better with the addition of 19-year-old Japan international Manaka Matsukubo, who won the MVP award in Saturday's Challenge Cup final after scoring a sensational goal.

A treble -- Challenge Cup, Shield and NWSL Championship -- is entirely still on the table for the Courage.

OL Reign logo 4. OL Reign (27 points, 8-3-7)

How they got here: After a season-opening loss to the Washington Spirit, OL Reign went on a six-game unbeaten run to confirm their place once again as a contender.

They did all that without midfielder Rose Lavelle, who spent almost the entire spring on the sidelines as a precautionary approach to a knee injury ahead of the World Cup. Reign head coach Laura Harvey toyed with how to fill the void in the No. 10 role of the team's 4-2-3-1, turning to forward Bethany Balcer and longtime midfield engine Jess Fishlock at different points.

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What they still need to do: In simple terms, the narrative is familiar for the Reign: finish the job. The successful Seattle club is a perennial contender and won another Shield last year, but has not yet won an NWSL Championship. The knockout-game disappointment extended to the Challenge Cup again last week with a semifinal exit at home.

Hanging over the team is the curious benching of goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce, who was replaced by two different goalkeepers in the past three games in all competitions. Harvey has offered little detail about the decision beyond feeling that it's what the team needs right now. With four games to play and a Saturday trip to Portland looming, it could be a make-or-break move.

Forward Megan Rapinoe's guaranteed remaining games can also now be counted on one hand. Rapinoe, who has been with the Reign since the league's inception a decade ago, has one last shot at an NWSL Championship.

Gotham FC logo 5. NJ/NY Gotham FC (27 points, 7-6-5)

How they got here: Gotham was the surprise team of the season in the spring, jumping to the top of the table for early stretches of the season and staying in the mix right until the end.

The New Jersey side is still three points clear of missing the playoffs and three points off the pace of leaders San Diego Wave FC. That's a pretty good place to be for a team that was historically bad last year, enduring a 12-game losing streak on the way to a last-place finish. New head coach Juan Carlos Amoros has injected life into the team's play.

What they still need to do: Three of the team's remaining four games are at home, all of which are against teams chasing them in the table.

Gotham has had to chase games lately in all competitions, settling for late equalizers or consolation goals. That was underscored by a 3-3 draw with the North Carolina Courage on Sept. 2, when Gotham rallied from 3-1 down and Margaret "Midge" Purce struck the equalizer in the 82nd minute. They can't afford those slow starts to matches with the playoffs in sight.

Washington Spirit logo 6. Washington Spirit (26 points, 6-8-4)

How they got here: The attacking trio of Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, and Ashley Hatch has largely delivered this season. Hatch, who was left off the USWNT's World Cup roster after serving as the team's backup No. 9 for the year prior, has nine regular-season goals, second only to Sophia Smith. Reliable center-back Sam Staab has paired well with converted forward Tara McKeown this year, although the Spirit have been in some barnburners.

The Spirit have settled for a draw in nearly half their games. A 2-0 loss at home to the Chicago Red Stars on Sept. 3 was a sting to the Spirit's playoff push.

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What they still need to do: Saturday is a huge match for the Spirit with a road match at Gotham FC, who currently sit one point ahead of Washington. The diamond midfield has been impressive for stretches of this season for the Spirit, notably in a big, early-season game against San Diego.

Can the Spirit hold a clean sheet? They've done so only three times this season, and not since May 13, a 1-0 road win over Angel City.

Racing Louisville logo 7. Racing Louisville FC (24 points, 5-9-4)

How they got here: Meet the masters of the draw. Louisville's nine draws are a league-high and account for exactly half their regular-season games to date.

They have sacrificed precious points along the way due to inconsistencies, including in both regular-season meetings against OL Reign as each ended in a 2-2 draw with the Reign rallying from 2-0 down with goals after the 80th minute. Louisville also blew a two-goal first-half lead to draw Angel City, 2-2 early in the season.

What they still need to do: Racing Louisville just lost the Challenge Cup final to the Courage on Saturday after a grueling week of travel. Will the past week, which included a Challenge Cup semifinal in Seattle late Wednesday night and an early kickoff in North Carolina three days later, catch up to them in their playoff push? They are currently two points adrift of the Spirit.

The looming return of midfielder Jaelin Howell, who has been dealing with a hip injury, could be the boost they need.

Angel City FC logo 8. Angel City FC (24 points, 6-6-6)

How they got here: You read that record correctly. Interim coach Becki Tweed has resurrected Angel City, leading them on a 10-game unbeaten run in all competitions following the mid-June sacking of Freya Coombe.

Tweed's first game in charge was a 2-1 road win over budding rival San Diego Wave FC. A 2-1 victory over OL Reign in late August confirmed Angel City's unlikely playoff push. Center-back Sarah Gorden's return from a lost 2022 due to a torn ACL has solidified the back line, and Savannah McCaskill remains an engine as the attacking midfielder.

What they still need to do: Julie Ertz will not play again for Angel City as part of her retirement decision, but French midfielder Amandine Henry is now healthy enough to be available to further bolster the team's midfield.

Angel City's next three games are against Chicago, Orlando and Houston -- all teams behind them in the table. There are no givens in the NWSL, but door is open for an unlikely midseason turnaround to be capped off by a first playoff appearance for Angel City, which joined the NWSL as an expansion team last season.

Orlando Pride logo 9. Orlando Pride (22 points, 7-1-10)

How they got here: The league's other purple team has the opposite issue of draw-happy Louisville. As good as the Pride have looked at times this year, they've lost 10 of their 18 games this season. Converting even a couple of those to draws would have Orlando more in the thick of the playoff race, but that is the learning curve of a young team.

Head coach Seb Hines & Co. have largely outperformed expectations despite their ninth-place ranking. They've pulled off some gutsy wins, including a 3-1 road victory over San Diego and a 3-1 home triumph over the Thorns. The latter showed how far the team had come in a short amount of time, after Orlando lost 4-0 in Portland on opening weekend.

What they still need to do: The Pride will still be aiming for the playoffs, and games against Angel City, Racing Louisville and the Houston Dash will all be six-point affairs, but simply finishing this season strong will mark progress regardless of whether they get back to the postseason for the first time since 2017. Rookie Messiah Bright has been a revelation at forward, and (yet another Brazilian) Adriana has already shown how she can improve Orlando in the longer-term after her late-summer arrival.

As has been the case with the Pride, they need to sustain progress. The season thus far has laid a good foundation, but they can't allow the wheels to fall off at the end as they did (under different circumstances) two years ago.

Houston Dash logo 10. Houston Dash (20 points, 4-8-6)

How they got here: The Dash made the bold decision to fire Sam Laity as head coach last week before he finished his first full season in the position. Houston sits only one point off the bottom of the table despite the best defensive record in the league: 15 goals conceded in 18 games.

The problem is, the Dash can't score. Their measly 12 goals scored in 18 games is a particular problem considering the trio of Ebony Salmon, Diana Ordoñez and María Sánchez was expected to be the most dangerous in the league. Instead, Laity struggled to find a system that made sense for all his personnel, and Salmon just returned to England on a transfer to Aston Villa. Houston is gritty and hard to beat, but four wins ranks worst in the league.

What they still need to do: Dash general manager Alex Singer spoke about the ability to still make the playoffs in wake of Laity's dismissal. More shocking things have happened, but that is a lofty goal.

Awaiting the Dash are Racing Louisville, Gotham, and Orlando on the road, plus a home game against Angel City. They are six points off the playoff pace with four games to play, and they'll need a lot of help in addition to a miraculous turnaround under Sarah Lowdon, serving in an interim coaching role for the second year after back-to-back seasons of head coach firings.

Chicago Red Stars logo 11. Chicago Red Stars (20 points, 6-2-10)

How they got here: The Red Stars have had some dire moments this year, including 5-0 losses to both the Courage and Pride, and their 39 goals conceded is 11 more than the next worst in the league. But the context extends off the field. The team went through a second straight offseason of player exodus in the wake of the league's reckoning with abuse allegations, and the role that longtime Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler played as an accused enabler to it.

The Red Stars dealt with much of that weight last year, too, but forward Mallory Swanson (née Pugh) dragged the team through it with an MVP-finalist season. Swanson, however, sustained a torn patella tendon in early April while with the U.S. national team, effectively leaving Chicago without their star for the entire season.

What they still need to do: The focus for this team on and off the field for some time has been on a creating clean slate, and they're getting that in the form of new ownership. Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts is the leader of a new group that finalized the purchase of the team on Sept. 1.

Ricketts' top priority is restoring trust with players. The new ownership group will invest roughly $25 million immediately into staff and infrastructure improvements just to get the Red Stars to a place that is competitive with the rest of the league. On the field, these final four games are about figuring out how 2024 might look.

Kansas City Current logo 12. Kansas City Current (19 points, 6-1-11)

How they got here: There is no bigger disappointment this season than the Kansas City Current, who made it to the NWSL Championship last year and won the global lottery in the league's first free-agency period by signing Brazilian midfielder Debinha. After losing their first three games of the 2023 season, the team abruptly fired head coach Matt Potter and vaguely alluded to differences in opinions with management. A slight bump in form followed, but the Current never recovered from early-season injuries (including Debinha) and subsequent results, on top of the coaching change.

A July 1 win over the Thorns, just before the World Cup break, provided some hope, but the early hole the Current dug has been insurmountable.

What they still need to do: Settle on a coach, for one. Caroline Sjoblom has spent almost the entire season in the interim role, and it is unclear what the Current's plans are ahead of a 2024 season that will see them open a new stadium, the first purpose-built for an NWSL team.

The club has spent money on stars and spent on a stadium and training facility -- but now they need that to come together on the field. Between Michelle Cooper, Debinha, Kristen Hamilton and Cece Kizer, there is plenty of attacking talent. These final four games should serve as further evaluation for how to improve defensively.