Playoff picture: North Carolina Courage can clinch in Week 18
Teams playing with plenty on the line as Week 18 approaches
Kristen Hamilton and the North Carolina Courage are not throwing away their shot for the 2017 NWSL season as the playoffs approach. (Photo credit: Andy Mead for
Kristen Hamilton and the North Carolina Courage are not throwing away their shot for the 2017 NWSL season as the playoffs approach. (Photo credit: Andy Mead for

As the National Women’s Soccer League heads into Week 18 of games, the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. At the top of the table, the North Carolina Courage could clinch their playoff berth this weekend.For the Courage and Portland Thorns FC, there’s enough space in the table now to truly start thinking about locking down home field advantage in the playoffs. For six teams, it’s simply about making sure they’re above that thin red line of elimination. And for the Breakers and the Washington Spirit, it’s survival time with their Elimination Numbers in single digits.

From Magic Numbers to scenarios to tiebreak rules to team-by-team previews, we have everything you need to know about the 2017 NWSL Playoffs.

There are plenty of big, fun storylines of the 2017 season as the march to the postseason continues. That six game pack of the Chicago Red Stars, Orlando Pride, Seattle Reign FC, Sky Blue FC, FC Kansas City and Houston Dash are all within six points of each other for the third and fourth playoff spots. Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr is having a standout season in New Jersey, while Pride forward Alex Morgan is crushing August and hoping to make the NWSL Championship a home match for her club.

Here’s what’s at stake in Week 18:

North Carolina can clinch their playoff spot if they win against Houston. They’ll also clinch if Portland beats Seattle and the Breakers beat Sky Blue, or if three matches end with draws: North Carolina-Houston, Seattle-Portland, and New Jersey-Boston.

North Carolina can clinch hosting a semifinal is they beat the Dash, plus the Red Stars lose and the Pride lose this weekend.

Boston needs a win to ensure they’re not eliminated, but they could also officially be out of the play-off picture if the Red Stars and Pride win their games, or if all three of those matches end in draws.

The Breakers won’t be the only team with vested interest in other matches. The Spirit could be eliminated from the 2017 playoffs if they lose to Chicago, and the Pride defeat FC Kansas City.

Here’s a team-by-team breakdown of what’s coming up for the rest of the regular season and their playoff hopes:


13-5-0, 39 pts

Goal Differential: 12
Games Remaining: 6
Max Points Possible: 57
Magic Number: 4
Elimination Number:

Six games remain for the top-of-the-table Courage, and it’s not an easy slate of games at that. The Courage only have two home games left in Cary this season, and have to face the Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC on the road. Their final game of the season is against the Orlando Pride at home, and the Pride could have plenty to play for on the final day of the season. If the Courage stay in form and keep their four game winning streak alive, they could set a new regular season record for the most wins in a season.

Here’s the good news for North Carolina: they have the best record on the road in the league, at 5-3-0. Their defensive rate is still the best in the NWSL too, conceding the fewest goals at 14 and allowing the fewest shots (160) and shots on target (62). The Courage are also the only team so far this season to hit double digits on clean sheets, with 10. If the Courage were the dark horse in last year’s postseason, that label doesn’t stick this year at all. North Carolina is the team to beat, and most teams still haven’t figured out how.


10-5-4, 34 pts

Goal Differential: 9
Games Remaining: 5
Max Points Possible: 49
Magic Number: 9
Elimination Number:

Thorns supporters got some great news on Tuesday night thanks to The Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg: Tobin Heath is expected back on the roster, and more importantly, expected back for the postseason.

While head coach Mark Parsons didn’t make any promises about seeing Heath in a Thorns kit during the last five weeks of the regular season, it’s still a tantalizing promise of the full potential of the 2017 edition of the club.

Portland, as always, will be looking to host a semifinal at home in Providence Park — but the last five weeks of their schedule demand results: three away games, including this weekend’s trip up to Seattle. The Thorns also have to close out the season against the Pride and the Red Stars, even if their final match of the season is in their home fortress. Right now, Portland has the best home record of any team in the league, at 8-1-1, and of their last five matches, they’ve only dropped one.

The Thorns have some breathing room on the table, with a five-point gap between them and the Chicago Red Stars. A result on the road against their Cascadia neighbors on Saturday would go a long way to locking down home field advantage for October.


8-6-5, 29 pts

Goal Differential: 2
Games Remaining: 5
Max Points Possible: 44
Magic Number: 14
Elimination Number:

“Our best is still ahead,” Chicago Red Stars head coach Rory Dames promised on Twitter this week, “onto the road we go!!”

The Red Stars apparently decided playing on the standard setting of difficulty wasn’t fun enough for the 2017 season, and after losing three games in eight days this past week, ticked the setting up a couple notches to maximum difficulty. They have the toughest five-game stretch left of any team: four games on the road and a 2-3-3 record so far this year. They start in Washington, then play their last game at Toyota Park on September 3 against first-place North Carolina, then finish on the road against a surging FC Kansas City, the Houston Dash, and Portland Thorns FC. No. 1 goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has also been nursing a groin strain since the Tournament of Nations, complicating their situation even further.

The Red Stars made a move this week to help shore up their depth, trading a 2018 College Draft pick to Washington for midfielder Kristie Mewis. And if there was one bright sign in Week 17’s 3-1 loss to FCKC, Julie Ertz’s brilliant give-and-go goal with Yuki Nagasato shows the goal-scoring talent is there, and doesn’t just lie with leading goalscorer Christen Press.

Chicago also has the mentality to get through a poorly-timed losing streak. Press told Hot Time in Old Town that this is where the team just needs to start grinding through the regular season:

“It’s so important to just stay present and not think about the past and not think about the fact that it’s three games or if we’re down, and just keep doing what we’re doing because we have a great team. I think that we have a really good chance at winning the championship. It’s hard to see in moments like this, but I think we’ll continue to believe in ourselves and will our way there.”


8-6-5, 29 pts

Goal Differential: 10
Games Remaining: 5
Max Points Possible: 44
Magic Number: 14
Elimination Number:

Alex Morgan has scored six goals in four games during the month of August, Marta continues to lead the league in creating chances with 46, and Ashlyn Harris has returned as the Pride’s starting goalkeeper after a stellar and consistent performance from Aubrey Bledsoe to help keep the Pride in the playoff hunt. Everything’s coming up Orlando as September approaches, though they need to maintain their grip on a top four spot.

Orlando will be at home for three of their five remaining regular season games, hosting Boston, Seattle and Portland. This week, they’re on the road in Kansas City for the Game of the Week on Lifetime, and they’ll wrap their season in Cary, North Carolina.

It’s not just Morgan enjoying her August — the Pride haven’t lost in their last four games and have outscored their opponents 11-2 this month. The challenge is keeping that form going for another month and a half, but that’s not too much pressure to put on the big names on this roster with their track record.


7-6-6, 27 pts

Goal Differential: 6
Games Remaining: 5
Max Points Possible: 42
Magic Number:
Elimination Number: 14

Even if the Reign aren’t close to the stellar form of their best seasons, Laura Harvey’s club is always one to watch. Only two points out of a playoff spot heading into Week 18, the Reign are more than capable of pushing their way into the postseason.

Saturday’s home game against Portland could show just what this team is made of, even without leading scorer Megan Rapinoe (left knee meniscus tear). Additional good news for the Reign: there are no more games left against Sky Blue FC. Those two wild 5-4 clashes exposed the Seattle backline more than the team would have liked, especially on Sam Kerr’s Goal of the Week winning strike.

After Portland, the Reign have away games in Houston and Orlando, come back home to face off against FC Kansas City, then wrap up the regular season in Washington. Picking up points against the Dash, Pride and Blues are crucial to ensure a playoff berth.


8-9-2, 26 pts

Goal Differential: -7
Games Remaining: 5
Max Points Possible: 41
Magic Number:
Elimination Number: 13

Sam Kerr. Sure, Sky Blue has other things going well, but right now their season can pretty much be summed up by those two words. Currently in sixth place, Sky Blue has arguably the easiest five games remaining, with a home-and-away against the Boston Breakers, a home game against the Washington Spirit, and matches against FC Kansas City and the North Carolina Courage. The Jersey club is one of the few to have defeated the league leaders this season.

Looking at the team’s last five games, there’s only one win, but winning in such epic fashion at home in stoppage time off a four-goal performance from Kerr is going to provide plenty of momentum at Yurcak Field.

Despite losing their head coach and defender Christie Pearce within days of each other, plus new co-captain Kelley O’Hara nursing a right adductor strain, Sky Blue FC is the club this season that can buck the odds no matter how grim they seem.


6-8-5, 23 pts

Goal Differential: -5
Games Remaining: 5
Max Points Possible: 38
Magic Number:
Elimination Number: 10

If anyone else is happy with their remaining schedule along with Sky Blue FC, it’s FC Kansas City. While they might not have the easiest combination of opponents, they have the one of the most ideal in controlling their own destiny. The Blues have four games at home, all five games against teams they need to beat for a playoff spot. Add that to a three-game winning streak and a club brimming with confidence and led by Vlatko Andonovski, and there’s every reason to believe that the club is not to be overlooked over the next five weeks.

The Blues have a three-game home stand against the Orlando Pride, Sky Blue FC and the Chicago Red Stars, before their final game on the road against the Seattle Reign, before wrapping up the season at Children’s Mercy Victory Field against the Houston Dash.


7-10-2, 23 pts

Goal Differential: -9
Games Remaining: 5
Max Points Possible: 38
Magic Number:
Elimination Number: 10

The Houston Dash aren’t out of things yet, but as things stand at eighth place on the table and a tough five-game slate ahead, they do have a big uphill climb for a semifinal spot. They’re also missing Carli Lloyd thanks to that left ankle sprain, and Morgan Brian has battled injuries all season, including groin tendinits.

That said, there’s a reason why Houston’s been living by the motto “Not Dead, Can’t Quit.” If they can hit another winning streak as they did earlier this summer, then all bets are firmly off for who makes the playoffs.

The Dash do have three home games left, but they’re against the Courage, the Reign and the Red Stars. In fact, they get a home-and-away match-up with the Courage over the next three weeks. Their season concludes in Kansas City against the Blues, and there’s plenty of potential that match could decide the final playoff spot if things go right for both teams.


3-9-7, 16 pts

Goal Differential: -9
Games Remaining: 5
Max Points Possible: 31
Magic Number:
Elimination Number: 3

At this point in the season for the Breakers, it’s all about avoiding elimination. Boston is the team with the smallest Elimination Number (3) heading into their Saturday match against Sky Blue FC. While the season started out with the fresh promise of a rebuild using their four first-round draft picks, especially No. 1 pick Rose Lavelle, after her injury with the U.S. Women’s National Team, the season has returned to a familiar pattern of summertime struggle.

There have certainly been some bright spots: despite the record, goalkeeping from Abby Smith and Sammy Jo Prudhomme was promising this season, and the team didn’t drop a result this season to the Reign. At this point, however, it’s mostly about staying out of last place. With five games left, three are on the road, and the opponents include Sky Blue FC twice, Orlando, Portland and Washington.


4-10-4, 16 pts

Goal Differential: -9
Games Remaining: 6
Max Points Possible: 34
Magic Number:
Elimination Number: 6

The Washington Spirit are much in the same boat as the Boston Breakers, but have an extra game to play in the remaining five weeks. They’re also without a win in their last three games, playing to one draw and two losses.

The one good thing for the Spirit at the close of the season is that of their last six games, four are at home at the Maryland SoccerPlex, including games against Chicago, North Carolina, Boston and Seattle.

If head coach/general manager Jim Gabarra’s quotes concerning the trade of Kristie Mewis are anything to go by, the team is already looking at the long-term plan and rebuilding. Even if the results weren’t what they wanted in 2017, the team took a huge first step in that plan by adding Mallory Pugh.

Playoff Tiebreaker Procedures

Here’s the full guide to how the tiebreaker procedures work for the NWSL playoffs. It’s worth it to note that Magic Numbers and Elimination Numbers listed above for all the teams don’t reflect scenarios that require tiebreaker scenarios. Tiebreaker scenarios are required when a team’s Magic Number or Elimination Number is 1.

If two teams are tied in the standings, the tie will be broken by:

  1. Head-to-head record
  2. Overall goal difference
  3. Overall goals scored
  4. Head-to-head road record
  5. Goal difference in all road games
  6. Goals scored in all road games
  7. Head-to-head home record
  8. Goal difference in all home games
  9. Goals scored in all home games
  10. Coin toss

If three teams are tied in the standings, the primary tiebreaker will be points per game against the other two teams. Then overall goal difference and the following mechanisms via the two-team scenarios. Also, if two teams are still tied after the third team has advanced via the tiebreaker, that will be broken following the two-team procedure.

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