It’s the most confusing time of the year: one-third of the way through the National Women’s Soccer League season, and several teams do not look like themselves. Some are exceeding expectations while the basement of the standings features a perennial playoff contender and one of last season’s finalists.
Sample sizes, however, are small — we’re just seven weeks into the regular season, and the concurrent NWSL Challenge Cup only just began last month, with some teams not even featuring in that competition yet. Inevitably, though, the dog days of summer often bring a regression to the mean across the league.
Will the league table, as it stands now, look this way come October? Almost certainly not. It’s perhaps too early to completely ignore the two-month-old preseason expectations for the NWSL’s 12 teams, but we have to look at what the start of the season is telling us, and how reality has matched up to such expectations.
So, here is how the regular season is shaping up for each team — from best to worst with their win-loss-draw records — and how likely it is that current form will be sustained.
Preseason expectations: Toss up. Washington was not good last year. The Spirit followed a 2021 title run with a second-from-bottom finish in 2022, earning just 19 points from 22 games. They consistently dropped points late in matches by allowing equalizers and game-winners, a habit that cost them any momentum. After vacating his role as Netherlands coach after a disappointing Euros, Mark Parsons returned to the NWSL this offseason to take the Spirit head coach role. Parsons oversaw a half decade worth of success in Portland before his brief stint for the Netherlands, so his return brought optimism that the Spirit could get on track with an already-strong roster.
Performance thus far: Impressive. Washington’s big three of Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch and Ashley Sanchez have hit their stride again in attack. All three players are fighting for their place on the World Cup squad for the U.S. women’s national team, and they look hungry and motivated, with Rodman once again terrorizing defenses on the flanks, as she did against the San Diego Wave two weeks ago. Hatch leads the league with five goals after burying a penalty kick in second-half stoppage time on Saturday to beat Angel City FC in Los Angeles. Washington’s classic diamond midfield has smothered other teams playing more in-vogue systems, and the team’s five goals against is tied for the best in the league.
Future form forecast: Promising, but with caution. One of the impressive parts of the Spirit’s defensive record is that it exists with something of a bold experiment by Parsons: he converted forward Tara McKeown to a center-back (she even still wears the No. 9 jersey typically seen on strikers). McKeown has been great thus far. Can she sustain that form over the entire season?
A more pressing question will come in attack for the Spirit. If all of Hatch, Rodman and Sanchez go to the World Cup — which looks likely — who will step up for the Spirit? Early results are promising, especially because this team is finding ways to win late rather than drop points from winning positions, as it did last season.
OL Reign: 13 points (4-1-1)
Preseason expectations: Extremely high. The 2022 Shield winner remains a perennial contender loaded with big-name talent, yet again in search of an elusive first championship. They also had the league’s best defense in 2022 under the tactical plan of head coach Laura Harvey. Much like last year, this team has to find a way to win in the playoffs. Everything before that is exposition to the story that they hope finally has a different ending.
Performance thus far: Mostly convincing. The Reign followed an impressive 1-0 victory over the San Diego Wave in April with a 5-2 smashing of the Chicago Red Stars. In early May, they shut out the Houston Dash, a team with a three-headed monster of dynamic forwards up top.
Harvey’s side has done all this without the recent help of Rose Lavelle or Quinn in midfield due to injuries. U.S. national team defender Emily Sonnett has seamlessly slotted into the holding midfielder position, and Bethany Balcer is the unlikely No. 10 alongside savvy veteran Jess Fishlock in midfield. A 1-0 loss to the North Carolina Courage on Saturday is reason for some caution.
Future form forecast: Strong. Megan Rapinoe is just getting back toward full-game fitness, which is a boost to the Reign for at least the next six weeks. This remains one of the deepest rosters in the league and one capable of filling the void left by significant World Cup absences, whether through Balcer or midfielder Olivia van der Jagt. OL Groupe last month announced the Reign are up for sale, but any impact from that is a long-term concern. This season, another title chase is on.
Gotham FC: 13 points (4-2-1)
Preseason expectations: Low. Gotham finished in last place in 2022, winning only one game. It was a wretched season and it left Gotham with only one way to go from there: up. In that sense, improvement was expected because it would’ve been hard to repeat a season has poor as the one they had. The addition of U.S. international forward Lynn Williams was the team’s headline move of the offseason, and the addition of Juan Carlos Amoros as head coach was a tangible sign of change. Still, there were depth questions in midfield and defense that raised concerns.
Performance thus far: Businesslike. Gotham has not looked overly convincing for a team that is just off the league pace, but the New York-New Jersey-based side has taken care of business on the road and at home. (They’ve also dealt with multiple, significant weather delays already.)
Williams, whose all-time 60 regular-season goals ranks tied for second in league history, is back to her best self after missing 2022 with a hamstring injury. She has six goals in nine games across all competitions, including four game-winners. New winger Yazmeen Ryan, who was acquired as part of the big three-team trade involving the No. 1 draft pick, has been a bright spot thus far in attack.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) March 27, 2023
Future form forecast: Highly questionable. Gotham’s schedule has been relatively easy thus far in the regular season. All four regular-season victories came over teams currently positioned sixth or worse, with Gotham’s two losses coming against an inconsistent Kansas City Current team and league-leading OL Reign. A scoreless draw at home against the struggling Orlando Pride doesn’t exactly ease those doubts.
Now comes the real litmus test: road games against the Reign and Spirit, followed by a good San Diego Wave FC team in consecutive weeks. Gotham defeated the Spirit, 1-0 in April in the Challenge Cup, but Washington rested several starters, including the big three. Gotham looks better this year, but keeping pace with the pack over the full season will be a major challenge.
Preseason expectations: As high as they get. The 2022 league champions largely returned the same roster. Even with the resignation of head coach Rhian Wilkinson following a league investigation in which she was cleared, the Thorns maintained continuity from last year by promoting assistant Mike Norris. The Thorns continue to face off-field uncertainty with the team being put up for sale after an investigation into alleged abuse enabled by owner Merritt Paulson, but Portland has been the epicenter of the league’s turmoil the last few years and the team kept playing well. Portland is a perennial contender expected to challenge for the treble this year.
Performance thus far: Curious. A pair of back-to-back 3-3 draws, followed by Friday’s 2-1 loss to the Houston Dash, raised significant questions defensively. Worse, confidence appears to be lacking within the group according to postgame comments on Friday. Now comes a trap game at home against a last-place Chicago team with nothing to lose. Thorns center-back Becky Sauerbrunn’s absence due to a foot injury the past three weeks only partly explains the defensive issues. The good news for the Thorns is that they continue to score: their 18 goals in seven games is six more than the next closest team. Still, it hasn’t been good enough individually or as a team defensively.
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Future form forecast: They will right the ship. Portland will lose the spine of its roster to World Cup duties this summer, and there are serious questions about midfield depth from a pure numbers perspective, but two things mitigate those concerns. Firstly, across the roster the Thorns have a next-player-up ready to carry a heavier load. Just look at what 17-year-old Olivia Moultrie did on Saturday to score the third and final equalizer against the North Carolina Courage. Moultrie will be a focal point this summer.
Second, most of the league’s fixtures during the World Cup will be Challenge Cup games that won’t affect regular-season standings as the Thorns try to chase down the Shield. Portland is unbeaten in the regular season but lost to the San Diego Wave in the team’s only Challenge Cup game to date this season. The Thorns have conceded 10 goals this regular season on an expected goals against (xGA) of 7.6, per FBRef, which suggests it’s about solving individual errors. That is fixable.
Preseason expectations: High. San Diego led the league for half the season in 2022 as an expansion side. The Wave returned most of its core from last year and added Danielle Colaprico to further solidify the central midfield areas. Head coach Casey Stoney also proved up for any tactical challenge in a constantly unpredictable league.
Performance thus far: Inconsistent. For stretches this season, the Wave have looked like the team most expected to once again challenge for the Shield in 2023. A 1-0 win over the Thorns on the first Challenge Cup matchday was a nice result, followed four days later by a 2-0 victory over budding SoCal rival Angel City FC. Performances, however, have been inconsistent even within games, and it has cost San Diego.
The Wave got outworked and outclassed on Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the Spirit, who cut off distribution from Colaprico and outlet play to Jaedyn Shaw or Alex Morgan. A week earlier, the Wave lost a headscratcher: a 3-1 defeat at home to the plucky Orlando Pride. The first 20 minutes of the game might have been San Diego’s best stretch of the season. It included an impressive team goal from Shaw, who has been one of the best players in the league thus far this season at age 18, but it was followed by individual errors and a pair of goals conceded before halftime. They got back on track Sunday with a 2-0 win over the Kansas City Current.
Future form forecast: Ups and downs poised to persist. Year two is always a challenge for an expansion team, and while that is a general cliché, there are tangible reasons things could take time in San Diego. The absence of midfielder Taylor Kornieck (abdomen injury) has been severely felt over the past few weeks.
At 6-foot-1, Kornieck serves as a target for goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan when the Wave look to go direct, as they did so effectively in 2022. Without Kornieck, that option dries up, and while the Wave can play out of pressure on the ground, there is no replacing that big ball in a league of transition like the NWSL. Stoney has also tinkered with the team’s shape slightly from game to game, and it is yet unclear which system best suits this version of the Wave.
Preseason expectations: Modest. The departure of midfielder Debinha, who signed with the Kansas City Current in the league’s first free-agency period, was another blow to a roster that no longer looks anything like the one that dominated the league a few years ago. Combined with the loss of Diana Ordonez via trade meant that two players responsible for half of the Courage’s goals had left. Brazilian attacker Kerolin would need to take the mantle from Debinha, but whether there was enough support around her was a legitimate question.
Performance thus far: Chaotic and unpolished. This Courage team has felt very 2022, which is to say they remain a work in progress. North Carolina was the neutral fan’s delight in 2022, playing in several ridiculous, chaotic, high scoring matches — sometimes to the Courage’s detriment. A recent 3-3 draw with the Portland Thorns felt eerily like the issues of yesteryear: North Carolina led thrice, only to blow the lead on each occasion. The Courage have won winnable games and lost to better teams.
A home victory over the Thorns would have been a stake in the ground. That marker eventually came Saturday with a win over OL Reign, who led the league entering the weekend. Imagine if the Courage had closed out the game against Portland the week prior?
Future form forecast: Winnable games in sight with time to get on track. After the big win over OL Reign on Sunday, North Carolina has a sweet spot in the schedule at a crucial time of the season: nine straight regular-season games await against teams that currently sit in sixth place or worse, including the full season series with Angel City and Racing Louisville. The next truly intimidating game in league play is not until August 20, the return leg with the Thorns in Portland. If the Courage want to surge up the table, it must happen early. More difficult games await in the homestretch.
Preseason expectations: Optimistic. The addition of Diana Ordonez to an attack that already featured Maria Sanchez and Ebony Salmon brought a lot of attention to Houston. This was to be a team that could score on anyone, a team with arguably the most intimidating front three in the league. Houston had finally gotten over the playoff hump in 2022, and there appeared to be some stability finally for a franchise that long yearned for it.
BIG TIME SALMON GOAL 🥵 pic.twitter.com/NxXvUjXoJm
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) May 13, 2023
Performance thus far: Just getting by. For all that excitement about the attack, the Dash have scored only five goals in seven regular-season games. Houston has been shut out in five of nine games in all competitions, and the team’s only victories this season prior to Friday had come over the last-place Chicago Red Stars (once in league play and once in the Challenge Cup). Then came the big one: a 2-1 victory over Portland, snapping a 57-game unbeaten streak for the Thorns when leading at halftime (all competitions, per Opta).
New Dash head coach Sam Laity has tested out a hybrid 3-5-2 system that has put a significant amount of pressure on the team’s center backs, although he strayed from that against Portland. The Dash have only conceded six goals in the regular season, but they’ve been lucky at times, especially in a 1-1 draw away to Portland last month, when the Thorns found acres of space but couldn’t finish.
Future form forecast: Likely to improve. An expected goals against (xGA) of 8.8, per FBRef, illustrates some of Houston’s defensive fortune. The good news is that the Dash should start scoring more, not just because they have the talent to do so, but because players are getting in the positions to score. The team’s 7.8 expected goals (xG), per FBRef, is a sign that the chances are there. Just like last season, under different coaching, it’s curious to see Sanchez in a hybrid wing-back role at times when she could be closer to goal more often, but it is a product of the team’s roster. Ordonez and Salmon must start finishing opportunities.
Preseason expectations: Growing. Year one was a relative success for expansion side Angel City. Had the Wave not also simultaneously set a new bar for expansion teams, Angel City just missing out on a playoff spot would have otherwise been the best finish for an NWSL expansion team.
The Los Angeles team are also without Christen Press and Sarah Gorden for most and all of last season respectively, and their impending returns were among the reasons to be excited about this squad’s potential. Then, of course, there was the offseason addition of No. 1 draft pick Alyssa Thompson, an 18-year-old forward who had already been capped by the U.S. national team.
Want another angle of Alyssa Thompson’s golazo?
Of course you do 🤩 pic.twitter.com/6Nlcx8svCs
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) May 8, 2023
Performance thus far: Late collapses persist. Thompson has been a revelation and an injection of life into not only this team, but the NWSL. She also looks to be on the fast track to a World Cup roster spot. Angel City remains a mid-table team with a wide deviation of performances.
Angel City looked like the better team in losses to Gotham and San Diego and managed to go punch for punch with the Thorns at Providence Park in a 3-3 draw recently. The catch to that result is that Angel City twice blew the lead, including in the seventh minute of second-half stoppage time when Portland goalkeeper Bella Bixby scored on a corner kick. On Saturday, they lost 1-0 to the Spirit on a second-half stoppage-time penalty. It was a harsh call, but it continued a trend.
Future form forecast: Grueling stretch ahead will punish inconsistency. A microcosm of the inconsistency plaguing Angel City is 2-2 draw with Racing Louisville in LA on April 15. Louisville jumped on Angel City early, winning the midfield battle and going up 2-0. Angel City fought back with two second-half goals to earn a point, but 90-minute performances have been lacking. That result was also an opportunity missed, because among the next four league games is another against unbeaten Washington Spirit and one on the road to face OL Reign. Another reason for optimism around Angel City is the recent signing of midfielder Julie Ertz, who fills a major void for a team that needed more bite in midfield. Was Ertz the missing piece? We’ll find out. The return of Press also looms.
Preseason expectations: Higher than before. Racing Louisville looked like a team that, at minimum, should be getting better. As a 2021 expansion team, Racing finished second from bottom, then climbed to ninth out of 12 teams last year but never really challenged for a playoff spot. The expectation this season, the second with head coach Kim Björkegren in charge, was to be in the mix for the playoffs. Even after trading away Emily Fox (the No. 1 draft pick in 2021), there is promising young talent in midfield with Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell. The relatively costly offseason addition of Nigerian striker Uchenna Kanu from Tigres added further expectations.
Performance thus far: Incomplete. That is the best way to describe Louisville over 90-minute stretches. Racing will dominate stretches of games, as the team did away to Angel City last month, but they can’t see out games, which is a concern. On April 29, Louisville went up 2-0 at home in the first half against OL Reign. Three minutes after the Reign scored, DeMelo was sent off, and then Jordyn Huitema equalized for the visitors in the 90th minute. Racing remains hot out of the gate but burns out at the finish line. That must change.
Future form forecast: Low confidence, but it’s early-season must-win time. DeMelo’s absence was felt in the 1-0 loss to Orlando earlier in May, and her importance was underscored in Friday’s 3-0 victory over the Chicago Red Stars to earn the team its first victory of the regular season. Louisville was the only remaining winless team heading into last weekend. DeMelo is the heartbeat of this Racing team and looks like a future star for the U.S. women’s national team. Louisville still needs to get the job done against teams other than last-place Chicago.
Preseason expectations: Very low. Orlando has been a revolving door for a while on and off the field and hasn’t really figured out a foothold in the league. There was optimism around the Pride this offseason about creating a foundation of young talent under new permanent head coach Seb Hines, and a concession even from within that such a process would take time. There is young talent, and the return of Marta from a torn ACL was another positive heading into the season. Still, this was not a team expected to contend for a playoff spot.
Performance thus far: Getting better. A season-opening 4-0 loss to the Portland Thorns felt ominous, and losses to Angel City and Gotham in the subsequent weeks appeared to confirm that it was going to be another long season in Orlando. A recent 3-1 road victory over San Diego came as a surprise, however, and the buildup to the goals provided a glimpse into what could be for the Pride. Orlando’s second goal, scored by Haley McCutcheon, came from patient build-up play. The Pride’s third goal, scored by Adriana, was an 11-pass buildup that twice saw Marta get on the ball and break pressure. Orlando followed that up with a 1-0 win over Racing Louisville and a scoreless draw at Gotham.
— Orlando Pride (@ORLPride) May 11, 2023
Future form forecast: A slow burn. This is another multi-year project in Orlando, and the key for the Pride is making sure it is indeed that — not another one that ends prematurely. The Challenge Cup has been a good place for more players to get reps and make their debuts, which was a solid benefit from a 4-2 loss to the Washington Spirit last Wednesday. Orlando has promising attacking talent in Messiah Bright and Ally Watt, as well as some solid potential in midfield with Mikayla Cluff and Viviana Villacorta. A three-game unbeaten streak should give this group some confidence going forward, but they must know that growth will not be linear.
Preseason expectations: Lots of hype. The Current went from last place in 2021 to making the NWSL Championship last fall. Then they went and won the Debinha lottery in the offseason and added midfielders Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat through free agency. They also traded away Lynn Williams for the No. 2 pick to draft forward Michelle Cooper, opting for a forward the team felt was a better long-term fit. There was every reason to believe that Kansas City would once again challenge for the title.
Performance thus far: Erratic. The Current lost to the Courage on opening day, then got smoked by the Thorns in a championship rematch that saw Sophia Smith strike for a hat trick. They doubled down on the cause for concern the following week with a 4-2 loss to the Chicago Red Stars, that team’s only win of the season to date.
Then came the ousting last month of head coach Matt Potter due to what was vaguely described as “issues around his leadership” and disagreements with the team’s higher-ranking staff. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch got benched and Cassie Miller took over for a run of three straight wins in all competitions. That ended with a loss to Angel City that saw the Current trailing 3-0 at halftime. Then came Sunday’s 2-0 loss at home to the Wave. Franch was back in goal for that and conceded an own goal for San Diego’s game-winner.
Likelihood to last: Uncertain, to say the least. Kansas City remains under the guidance of interim coach Caroline Sjöblom, so clarity is needed on the coaching front, for one. Rotating goalkeepers is one thing, but Kansas City has been awful defensively, and there are no immediate solutions there. Elizabeth Ball has been out with a hamstring injury, which is a big piece of the equation. New Swedish full-back Hanna Glas still is not fit, and the recent absence of Alex Loera compound the issue. There is plenty of attacking talent on this team, but the Current must stop bleeding goals.
Preseason expectations: Moderate. This was always the Mallory Swanson show, and for that reason alone, Chicago could not be counted out. Swanson has been unstoppable over the past two seasons and somehow reached a new level at the start of 2023, for Chicago and the U.S. women’s national team. Even when the Red Stars seemed to be outclassed on the day, Swanson could change a game with a moment of individual brilliance. The big questions were always going to be in defense, where depth was lacking but a pair of U.S. internationals were returning from long layoffs.
Performance thus far: Terrible. Swanson’s long-term injury (torn patella tendon) sustained while with the U.S. team in early April is a factor here, but the big issue in Chicago has been a leaky defense. Casey Krueger (maternity leave) and Tierna Davidson (ACL injury) are still getting reassimilated after their returns and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has had some uncharacteristically bad moments.
Some of this defensive weakness originates in midfield, which was decimated in the offseason by the departures of Danielle Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat via free agency. Conceding 18 goals conceded in seven regular-season games is unacceptable by any standards.
Future form forecast: Concerning. The level of individual talent in defense suggests that the Red Stars should get better on that side of the ball, although at minimum, Naeher will be leaving for the World Cup. Who will carry the scoring load over the long haul? Swanson’s absence cannot be understated. Ella Stevens, Ava Cook and Penelope Hocking are potential long-term solutions. A more existential question is whether this three-back system really is the right solution for this team, or if it has run its course given the offseason changes. The ball is not bouncing Chicago’s way — quite literally in the case of the Naeher own goal on Friday from a penalty kick that bounced back off the post — but this team needs a complete system reset.