Finding the most entertaining team in the NWSL

Quick
Hit
  • Who are the most entertaining teams in the NWSL? Let’s rank them, from bottom to top
Jun 19, 2022; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Thorns FC celebrate the victory against the Orlando Pride at Providence Park. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

This piece is an excerpt from this Monday’s Weekend Recap.

Inspired by J. Sam Jones and his MLS entertainment rankings, I’ve created yet another “brand new, totally mathematically sound metric.” Only this time, it’s to quantify the entertainment values of NWSL teams based on their 2022 regular season performances. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s no gold-standard way to define entertainment value. So, I thought long and hard about what makes games and teams exciting to me. Now, it’s totally possible that the things that make games exciting to me are different from the things that make games exciting to you, reader, but I digress. Let’s get into it.

The first thing I came up with is rather obvious: goals. Sure, I love a team that can play a chess match. But if there’s a regular season match with a 4-3 scoreline happening at the same time as a 0-0 battle, I’ll probably turn on the goal fest. Since teams in the NWSL have played different numbers of games at this point, I’ll use goals per game in the entertainment value equation.

The next statistics I’m factoring in here are shots on goal per game and percentage of successful passes in the attacking third. These metrics made the final cut because if entertaining teams are the ones that score goals, then entertaining teams should also be taking shots on goal and pinging the ball around in the attacking third (you know, where the goal is).

I also included the percentage of duels won in the equation, mostly because if a team can’t win a 50/50 ball to save their life, it’s frustrating to watch (read: not entertaining). Finally, each team’s win percentage is factored into their entertainment value. I was motivated to put this in here after the Washington Spirit settled for yet another tie on Friday, this time against Racing Louisville FC, after leading for all of 65 minutes. 

In any case, I took data from games through Week 7 of the NWSL Regular Season, and standardized each team’s (1) goals per game, (2) shots on goal per game, (3) percentage of successful passes in the attacking third, (4) percentage of successful duels, and (5) win percentage. Since standard scores tell us how many standard deviations from the mean a value is, these values can be positive or negative (i.e., above or below the mean, respectively). Finally, I added these values together to get the entertainment value.

So, the equation for the Orlando Pride, for instance, looks like:

Entertainment Value = -0.09 + -1.25 + 0.45 + 0.78 + -0.68 = -0.78

Orlando’s entertainment value is negative because they’re below average on many of the metrics that go into the calculation (i.e., negative standard scores). 

Make sense? On to the rankings, then!

12. Kansas City Current

Entertainment Value: -4.37

This is what happens when a team is below average on all five metrics that (allegedly) make a team entertaining. Numbers aside, I must admit that Cece Kizer’s first-ever goal for the Current was quite entertaining. She netted this banger over the weekend to level the score and steal points from the Chicago Red Stars, extending the Current’s unbeaten streak to four in the process.
in the process.

11. Washington Spirit

Entertainment Value: -3.84

The Spirit were saved from the bottom of the rankings here because they’re slightly above average in terms of shots on goal per game. That makes sense given the star power in their attack, but their win percentage really did them in. After this weekend’s draw with Louisville, Washington are now winless through nine (!) games of the regular season.

10. NJ/NY Gotham FC

Entertainment Value: -2.73

Considering Gotham’s a mid-table team sitting at a 3W-0D-4L record, it might not be blatantly obvious that they’ve been having a lot of trouble creating a cohesive attack. The numbers don’t lie though, and their low ranking can be chalked up to their below average goals/game, shots on goal/game, and percentage of successful passes in the attacking third. 

T-8. Racing Louisville FC and North Carolina Courage

Entertainment Value: -1.68

I was surprised that Louisville and North Carolina had the same entertainment scores, because the Courage’s Kerolin Nicoli has been one of the most entertaining players to watch so far this season. 

Then I remembered that Kerolin didn’t return from the injury she sustained in the Challenge Cup Final until Week 6, which also happened to be when North Carolina started actually scoring goals and being dangerous in the attack again. In fact, the Courage scored three goals through the first four games of the Regular Season without Kerolin, and three goals in each of the three games that Kerolin has been back for, including the Courage’s 4-3 loss to the Houston Dash over the weekend.

7. Orlando Pride

Entertainment Value: -0.78

Orlando’s percentage of successful passes in the attacking third and percentage of successful duels scores propelled them into a mid-range spot in the rankings. If I had to guess, it’s probably the work of Makayla Cluff and Sydney Leroux, who have been real bright spots for a struggling Pride side.

6. San Diego Wave FC

Entertainment Value: 0.49

I bet you thought San Diego would be higher up these rankings. I certainly did, since it’s been entertaining to see an expansion club claim the top-spot in the standings for so many consecutive weeks. In fact, that’s where the Wave currently sit in the standings following their dominant 3-0 win against NJ/NY Gotham FC on Sunday. But their percentage of successful passes in the attacking third is what’s hurting them on this entertainment value metric, since their standard score is tied for second-to-last with the Kansas City Current.

5. OL Reign

Entertainment Value: 0.95

OL Reign’s inability to consistently score goals (and secure three points) is hurting their entertainment value, but they are highly rated on the other metrics. In fact, I’ll just leave this clip here as a proof of concept: 

Last week, reigning NWSL MVP Jess Fishlock scored this goal off a 22-pass sequence, which was the highest number of passes toward a goal this season (and second-highest ever in the NWSL). It doesn’t get much better than that!

4. Houston Dash 

Entertainment Value: 1.05

The Dash were on a hot streak that included a six-game unbeaten streak and four shutouts before they lost to the Portland Thorns by four goals last weekend. Then, they traveled to North Carolina and stunned the Courage by netting three second-half goals in under six minutes. How’s that for entertainment?

3. Angel City FC

Entertainment Value: 2.74

I was shocked to see Angel City land in the top three of these rankings, because some of their games have been pretty tough to watch. Saturday’s match against the OL Reign was a bit of a blood bath, with eight yellow cards and 29 fouls. The game set the record for yellow cards in a single NWSL match. Three of the four matches with the highest number of fouls this season include Angel City.

In any case, Angel City snuck into the third spot because they’re above average in their win percentage, percentage of successful passes in the attacking third, and successful duel percentage. Their goals/game value is not great and might be in danger of getting even worse, as their goal-scoring options dwindle in the wake of Christen Press’s season-ending ACL tear and Simone Charley’s early exit on Saturday.

2. Chicago Red Stars

Entertainment Value: 4.60

If North Carolina’s Kerolin is the most entertaining player in the league, then Mallory Pugh is a close second. Chicago’s above average on all but their percentage of successful passes in the attacking third. That’s already impressive, but it gets even more so when you think about the injuries that have plagued Chicago’s roster, including season-ending ACL tears for Tierna Davidson and Kayla Sharples.

1. Portland Thorns FC

Entertainment Value: 5.25

If I was ranking teams on their entertainment values by eye, I would have slotted Portland and Chicago in the top spots, so I guess that means my mathematical hand-waving is valid. Right? Right?

Portland’s killing it relative to the rest of the league on goals/game, shots on goal/game, and percentage of successful passes in the attacking third. It doesn’t even matter that their standardized successful duel percentage is third-worst in the league. 

For even more proof of concept here, Portland dominated the Orlando Pride by a 6-0 scoreline on Sunday and are now in second place with a +14 goal differential, which is best in the league.

All data courtesy of StatsPerform. Special thanks to Tony Maza for pulling the data and fielding my questions as I crunched these numbers!