NWSL Race to the Playoffs

We’re right at the stage where things are the most interesting in the race to earn a playoff spot. Every team is still mathematically in the running, but at the same time there are teams on the verge of clinching or being eliminated. The dust will clear in a game or two, but it’s worth taking a look now.

Some schedule notes

Everyone probably realizes that to fill out a twenty-game schedule some teams played two games against each other while other teams played three. What is interesting is who plays whom. You’d think geographical considerations would be paramount, but that turns out not to be the case. For example, Seattle and Portland only play each other twice, while both play the lineup of east coast teams (Western New York, Boston, Sky Blue, and Washington) three times. And they don’t play the central teams (Chicago, Kansas City, Houston) three times, either. Meanwhile, the east coast teams play each other just twice while playing the two west coast teams three times and each playing two out of three central teams three times. The only regions where teams play each other is the central, with Houston playing Chicago and Kansas City three times each.

The other interesting aspect of this is how this correlates with the standings. Here are the teams in standings order:

Seattle
Chicago
Washington
Houston
Portland
Kansas City
Western New York
Sky Blue
Boston

And here are the teams in order of increasing toughness of schedule based where the teams they have to play three times are in the current standings:

Chicago (three games with 4, 7, 8, and 9)
Seattle (3, 7, 8, 9)
Portland (3, 7, 8, 9)
Kansas City (3, 4, 7, 9)
Houston (2, 3, 6, 8)
Washington 1, 4, 5, 6)
Western New York (1, 2, 5, 6)
Boston (1, 2, 5, 6)
Sky Blue (1, 2, 4, 5)

I wouldn’t think four games would make that much difference, but it’s still twelve points, which is two-thirds of the difference between first place and ninth.

Playoff race overview

Okay, here’s how I sum up the playoff situation. (I take a picture because WordPress isn’t good at formatting tables.)

PlayoffPicture2015-08-06

Any questions? The columns are current standings points, number of games left, and maximum possible standings points (this is what they’re ordered by), followed by a shorthand table of the remaining schedule. At the bottom is my best guess as to how each game is going to turn out and the resulting standings.

As a Spirit fan, I’ve been optimistic about their prospects, or else you can consider this a thought exercise determining what they need to do to earn a home playoff game by finishing second. The NWSL has a more mathematical exercise here, but I tried to be more realistic. (We all know Boston isn’t going to win all of its last four games considering that would be more wins than they have already.) So far as placement is concerned, I think it’s going to come out as follows:

39+ points: First place
c. 38 points: Second place
31-37 points: Third place
28-30 points: Fourth place

Of course, this could require significant revision as soon as this coming Sunday. But we’ll see.

Team-by-team

If you want the tl;dr version: Three teams are in good shape for the playoffs with the exact positioning the remaining question (Seattle, Chicago, Washington). Four teams are in a very tight race for the fourth and final playoff spot (Kansas City, Houston, Portland, Western New York). And two teams should probably just start thinking about what went wrong and what to do about it (Sky Blue, Boston).

Seattle: Seattle is in good shape with five games to go, three home games remaining, two of which are against cellar-dwellers Boston and Sky Blue. Unless Houston and Washington can take them down a peg – and maybe even if they do – they’re likely to take the Supporters’ Shield again. But there’s almost no question that Seattle will be in the playoffs – it’s only a question of where.

Chicago: Like all of the top three teams, Chicago is undefeated at home this season. With four home games left, that puts them in good shape though probably not good enough to catch Seattle. But with them currently tied in maximum possible standings points, it could happen. They have a home-and-home against Western New York that you think but for their last match against each other would be a fairly easy six points. They also play Sky Blue at home. So likewise they’re almost certainly in the playoffs and most likely second. But the Washington match will be key for settling that.

Washington: Washington ought to win their next two, at Boston and back home against Western New York, which would all but clinch them a playoff spot. Of course, they have an unfortunate habit of not winning when they should, particularly on the road where they’ve only won once this year. That will need to change for them to finish second for the first time in Washington WoProSo history. (Yes, even the WUSA team led by Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach finished just third in 2002 and fourth in 2003. The WPS Freedom hosted a home playoff game in 2009 but only due to the odd WPS playoff scheme of #4 playing at #3 for the right to play at #2.) The key match, of course, is the makeup game against Chicago – a team that was last defeated at home by, well, the Spirit, last year. And their final match, at home against Seattle, could very well be a battle for a home playoff game.

Houston: This is where things get really interesting, with four teams within two points of each other and all with five games to go. I think Houston is going to fall just short. They’ve got home games against Sky Blue and Boston they should win, but they have a home-and-home against Seattle and are on the road against Chicago. So another seven standings points is a realistic estimate.

Kansas City: The Blues have just one road game left, and that’s against Sky Blue. As a result, I’m predicting them to pick up eleven standings points to claim the final playoff spot, but even nine should be enough. The race is tight, though, so any slip could leave them on the outside.

Portland: So which Portland is it going to be, the one that scored five on Boston or the one we’ve seen most of the season? With three away games and their two home games being against Chicago and Washington, I figured them for just another two standings points, but that’s obviously pretty pessimistic. But they’d need at least three wins for a serious chance at the playoffs.

Western New York: The Flash have a tough three game road trip against Kansas City, Washington, and Chicago before their two final games at home. They’ll need to steal some points and then win at home to get through. I’m not expecting them to do it.

Sky Blue: Sky Blue would just about need to sweep to make the playoffs. With road matches against Chicago and Seattle, that doesn’t seem likely.

Boston: The Breakers have just four games left, with three on the road and their one home game against a determined Washington team. They should probably just start making plans for the draft – and start thinking about who they need to fire to get the team turned around.

4 thoughts on “NWSL Race to the Playoffs

  1. john

    I’m a huge Spirit fan as well, but their road record and bad habit of having some real poor performances makes me much more pessimistic. Not just statistically, but based on past efforts they could easily fall out of the playoffs. However, as you point out there is a lack of consistency across the table. My guess is the Breakers game determines the Spirit’s fate.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Parker Post author

      Spirit have an 8-point margin in maximum possible points after tonight’s result in Houston, so they can slump a bit and still get a playoff spot. I think that if they win against Boston and again back home against New York that would just about do it.

      Reply
  2. FDChief

    Well, Portland already knocked over the beer pitcher by beating Chicago 2-1 at home and looking fairly decent while doing it (two of the goals were appalling, mind you; a Mautz shoss that completely bumfuzzled Betos and a tragicomic collision in Chicago’s backline that left LeBlanc like a turtle on the highway while Long took out the trash…). The Thorns have looked much better over the last three matches, so their season looks to come down to whether they can take the points off FCKC in KC. Should be interesting.

    Reply

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