NWSL Tiers: Contenders and pretenders after the first quarter of the season

Quick
Hits
  • After a quarter of the NWSL regular season, we’re starting to get a better idea of which teams are real contenders and which ones are pretenders
  • With all of the parity in the NWSL, separating teams into tiers is a difficult task, but some clear patterns are developing across the league
May 27, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA;  Washington Spirit forward Trinity Rodman (2) celebrates scoring a goal with team mate Washington Spirit forward Ashley Sanchez (10) against the Orlando Pride during the first half at Exploria Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

With roughly a quarter of the NWSL regular season behind us, I thought it was time to take a step back and evaluate how various teams have performed this year. 

So, I’m highlighting six teams here: three that I think are real playoff contenders and three who have utterly failed to meet my expectations. 

Before we get started, I’ll just say that this was hard. This league’s parity is a major factor and can make it difficult to group teams together. In past seasons, we’ve seen teams start out slowly and end up at the top (looking at you, 2021 OL Reign), but we’ve also seen teams come out of the gates raring and end up in the bottom half of the table (sorry, 2021 Orlando Pride). 

So needless to say, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised come playoff season if any of these teams prove they shouldn’t have been at the top or bottom of my rankings after Week 5.

All stats courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.

Real contenders

OL Reign (2W-1L-3D), San Diego Wave (4-2-0), Washington Spirit (1-1-4)

The San Diego Wave currently sit atop the table with 12 points through six games. Their two points per game average is the best PPG figure in the league. The Wave also have the best goal differential in the league (+5), which is downright impressive for a team that has only played 12 games together…ever.

The OL Reign earned their spot here because I think something would have to go utterly wrong for this team to miss the playoffs in 2022. Though they’ve only won one third of their first six games, I think they’ve been relatively unlucky to start the season. The Reign lead the league in expected points per game with 1.92, though they’re only averaging 1.5 actual points per game.

They boast the second-highest expected goals per game (1.70), only behind the Wave (1.81), yet are averaging just 0.83 goals per game, which is eighth in the league. If they can start performing ‘as expected’, I doubt they’ll find themselves in the bottom half of the table this year.

The Washington Spirit made the top tier here because I’m not entirely sure that their rocky start is completely their fault. Kris Ward recently noted that due to their schedule and traveling, they’ve had only one “normal training session” with a large group of the team in an entire month. They’ve been dealing with several injuries too, which we saw earlier this week after eight players were listed on the injury report for their mid-week match against Chicago.

Despite all that, the Spirit have split points with a number of their opponents and have only lost once in their first six games. Historically, the Spirit are great in the face of adversity, and it looks like they’re continuing on that trajectory this season.

Missed expectations

NJ/NY Gotham FC (2-2-0), Kansas City Current (1-4-1), North Carolina Courage (0-3-1)

Though NJ/NY Gotham FC are technically sitting at a respectable 0.500 right now, I really don’t think that number is telling the full story here. 

Their attack is struggling quite a bit: Gotham have posted less than one expected goal in the majority of their matches this year. When we combine Gotham’s Challenge Cup and Regular Season statistics, they’re posting the worst expected goals per game in the entire league with 0.87. This number is even lower (0.7 xG per game) when you strip out the Challenge Cup data and focus on the regular season. They’re currently doubling their expected points per game with 1.50 PPG on 0.75 expected PPG and are also overperforming their expected goal differential per game. It certainly looks like Gotham have been lucky to come away with points through their first four games – they’ll need to improve their attacking play if they want to be a real threat in 2022.

The Kansas City Current put on an impressive showing in the Challenge Cup…before they stopped winning. They were winless through the first five games of their regular season until a 1-0 win over Racing Louisville on May 30th broke that streak. Sadly, this is actually an upgrade from 2021, when the Current failed to win a game until August. In any case, they’re averaging 0.67 PPG, despite having played the fifth-easiest schedule so far this season. 

They’re also averaging the fewest goals per game (0.5) and have the worst goal differential per game of all 12 teams in the NWSL. I don’t necessarily think it’s time for Kansas City to hit the panic button yet, especially since they’re still without USWNT midfielder Sam Mewis, but they’ll have to make some changes if they want to avoid a repeat of the 2021 season.

Similar to the Current, the North Carolina Courage have been on a long skid since lifting the 2022 Challenge Cup trophy in May. They’re the only team that has failed to win a game during the regular season, and they’ve only earned one point through four games. It’s true that they’ve played the joint-fewest number of games, but their measly 0.25 PPG is also the worst in the league. 

I think many of North Carolina’s struggles can be chalked up to the fact that a majority of players in their recent line-ups are true defenders that have been forced to play out of position. They have the lowest expected goals per game (0.66) figure in the league, but are slightly over-performing that metric. Hopefully with the return of the 2022 Challenge Cup Final MVP Kerolin Nicoli and the addition of French striker Valérie Gauvin, the Courage will start scoring goals and winning games to begin their climb up from the bottom of the standings.