Stars to watch in the NWSL as the playoffs near

Quick Hit
  • The NWSL playoffs are on the horizon, people. Today, we’re looking at some key players to watch during the league’s playoff race
Aug 7, 2022; San Diego, California, USA; San Diego Wave FC forward Alex Morgan (13) signs autographs for fans after the game against the Kansas City Current at Torero Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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This is an excerpt from Monday’s Weekend Recap. Subscribe to our free newsletter to get future editions of the Weekend Recap delivered right to your inbox.

The NWSL playoffs are on the horizon, people. After the weekend’s set of games, most teams have between four and five games left to play…unless we’re talking about North Carolina (7), NJ/NY Gotham FC (6), or Angel City FC (6). 

Our focus today isn’t on the team-level, though. No, we’re taking a look at a few key players to watch during the NWSL’s playoff race that has the top six teams separated by just five points.

Megan Rapinoe, OL Reign

The OL Reign are in fifth place in the league with 27 points and a 7W-6D-4L record. And while there have been question marks surrounding this team’s ability to build a cohesive attack that generates goals, it seems like they’re finally clicking.

Megan Rapinoe is a big reason why.

In the four games the Reign have played in August, Rapinoe has directly contributed to seven of her team’s eight goals. The best part here is that the only goal Rapinoe didn’t have a hand in was a NJ/NY Gotham own goal. 

Rapinoe’s recorded four goals and three assists in her last four games, and Saturday’s performance really takes the cake. The Reign entered halftime down 1-0 to the Orlando Pride, who have been hitting above their weight for the majority of this season. After the break, Rapinoe put the team on her back. 

In the 55th minute, she took advantage of a poor Orlando clearance with a cheeky touch, and found a streaking Bethany Balcer in the box. Balcer headed the ball past Orlanod’s Erin McLeod to pull the Reign even. Then, Rapinoe scored one of her own in the 92nd minute off a Sofia Huerta cross to steal all three points for the Reign.

This team’s been dancing near the playoff line in the last couple of weeks, but that’s not where they want to be after finishing the 2021 regular season in second place.

If Rapinoe and the Reign keep up their August pace for the remainder of the season, they might just finish in one of the top spots for the second year in a row. 

Mallory Pugh and Yuki Nagasato, Chicago Red Stars

Last week, I wrote about how Chicago needed to tighten things up if they wanted to make a playoff run. I think they heard me.

The Red Stars came into their match against Racing Louisville on Saturday having been shut out in four of their last five games, including a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of North Carolina. This time, though, it was the Red Stars’ turn to pour in the goals. Their 4-0 win against Racing combined with the other results this weekend moved them into sixth place with 26 points. 

The Red Stars were led by forwards Mallory Pugh and Yuki Nagasato, who each put together impressive performances on Saturday. Pugh ended the game with two goals and assisted both of Yuki’s, who also registered a brace in the win.

It was the first time Pugh put herself on the NWSL scoresheet since before the Concacaf W Championship and now she’s back in the Golden Boot race with eight goals on the season.

Even more impressive, though, is that Pugh’s performance brought her assist toal to five on the year, which is tied with North Carolina’s Carson Pickett for the league lead. Every other player who has scored more than five goals in 2022 has less than three assists, which makes Pugh’s current assist mark all-the-more impressive.

Yuki’s two goals were her first of the season and she’s tallied three assists this year.

Pugh and Yuki will need to continue this run into their final five matches to position their team well for the playoffs. That said, it won’t be easy for the Red Stars because all but one of their remaining matches are against teams that are currently above the playoff line in the NWSL standings. 

Alex Morgan, San Diego Wave

There was a marquee match-up in the NWSL this weekend between two teams that have been exchanging the first-place position in recent weeks, with the San Diego Wave taking on the Portland Thorns in Providence Park.

San Diego came out on top 2-0 thanks to a strong first half and are now two points ahead of second-place Houston Dash with 31 points on the season and a 9W-4D-5L record. The Thorns slid to fourth place, still with a game in hand.

A win was just what San Diego needed to cap off a difficult month. Two of their five losses have come in the last four-game stretch for the Wave, after they were bested by Kansas City and Orlando.

Alex Morgan has been a key component of the Wave’s last two victories. She’s recorded two goals and an assist, registering one of each in the Wave’s latest match in Portland. That brings her regular season goals total to 13 and her 2022 goals total to 17, which is five more than any other season of her professional career. 

It’s no secret that Morgan is in peak form at the moment. She’s been leading the NWSL Golden Boot race since the beginning of the season and came up big for the USWNT during Olympic qualifying after she scored the game-winner against Canada in the title match.

If Alex Morgan can continue scoring goals at a 0.91 per game rate, her team might have a shot at securing the NWSL shield. That would be a pretty massive deal for an expansion side in their very first season.

Stats courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.