Question:

What are the biggest surprises from the NWSL season so far?

Answer:

At the start of this year I admittedly didn’t expect to see the San Diego Wave or Angel City at the top of the table. And, based on their Challenge Cup performances, I didn’t think the North Carolina Courage or the Kansas City Current would be at the bottom, struggling to secure their first regular-season wins. 

Perhaps I should have expected this out of both the Courage and the Current, though, since I previously wrote about how they exceeded my preseason expectations in the Challenge Cup. Regardless, I’ve begun to realize that the Challenge Cup may not be the best indicator of regular season performance. The 2020 Challenge Cup wasn’t followed by a regular season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the 2021 edition of the tournament saw NJ/NY Gotham FC win the East Region and eventually fall to the Portland Thorns in penalties during the championship match. Then, in the regular season, Gotham struggled to win games, and ultimately posted more draws than any other team in the league (11).

Fast forward to 2022, and a similar pattern is emerging, with North Carolina and Kansas City winning their respective Challenge Cup groups before starting the regular season off poorly: winless and at the bottom of the table.

Speaking of the bottom of the table, if someone flipped these standings upside-down and said San Diego and Angel City were last in the standings, I’d probably believe them. I didn’t expect much success from the NWSL’s newest expansion sides coming into this season, because expansion teams tend to struggle in this parity-filled league.

Before this season, there had been five expansion teams: Houston Dash (2014), Orlando Pride (2016), Utah Royals (2018), Kansas City Current (2021), and Racing Louisville FC (2021).

The Dash, Pride, Current, and Racing all finished either in last or second-to-last place in the league after their first seasons, with the Royals being the only exception to that trend. Importantly, though, the Royals actually acquired players from a folding FC Kansas City club prior to their first season in Utah, which was not the case for the other expansion sides. Royals aside, it’s clearly been difficult for new teams to find success early on, so I’ve just been surprised to see San Diego and Angel City seemingly break that mold. Even more impressive, the Wave are one of only six NWSL teams to have won four of their first five regular season matches in the history of the league

Of course, it’s still early. Each team will play 22 games this season, and so far, teams have only played between three and five games. With that said, it’s hard to predict whether either expansion side will ride their early-season momentum into the postseason, or if North Carolina and Kansas City will emerge from the bottom of the standings.

If anything’s certain in this league, though, it’s that I will continue to be surprised until after the 2022 NWSL Championship trophy is lifted in October! 

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