Emergence of super teams foreshadows NWSL's top-heavy future

As talent starts to consolidate, can the rest of the league keep up?

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Sofia Huerta’s Sept. 15 debut for the United States women’s national team marked a unique change of FIFA eligibility. It also served as a definitive statement about the National Women’s Soccer League’s concentration of power. For a few moments, six of the United States’ 11 players on the field were Chicago Red Stars.

While playoff teams are, purely in terms of the standings, any league’s best, the distance between the NWSL’s four postseason qualifiers in 2017 and the league’s other six sides portends the potential future divide of the league. Fourteen of the 22 players called into the most recent U.S. national team camp play for one of the four semifinalists. These are the current super teams in a league being pushed and pulled in various directions.

Can the rest of the NWSL keep up?

Portland, Chicago, and No. 1 seed North Carolina Courage, under new branding, are all making return trips to the postseason, while the Orlando Pride surged to its first berth behind a fruitful Marta-Alex Morgan partnership. While Orlando had to dig its way out of an early-season hole, and Chicago had momentary and seemingly annual late-season regression, the playoff race lacked any real drama.

Seattle Reign FC wanted to convince us there was a battle for the final playoff spot, but the two-time Shield winners didn’t even elicit self-belief in that notion.

Sky Blue FC failed to take advantage of Sam Kerr’s league-record 17 goals, turning the page on another season that long looked like one step forward and two steps back.

Two-time champion FC Kansas City only briefly teased us into thinking it had the makings of a late miracle.

Huerta, Press part of Chicago's USWNT-heavy squad. (Daniel Bartel-ISI Photos)

Huerta, Press part of Chicago's USWNT-heavy squad. (Daniel Bartel-ISI Photos)

As August progressed and gave way to September, suspicions about those teams were confirmed. Seattle looked listless in a crucial late August road match in Orlando as the Pride comfortably warded off the would-be challengers.

Orlando’s dramatic ascent from an ugly ninth-place finish last season to the No. 3 seed in 2017 underscores just how difficult it is to crack the upper echelon of the NWSL. It required the acquisition of a host of international-quality players and relentless form from two world-class players. Marta and Alex Morgan, in less than three months, have turned into the league’s most dangerous duo, combining for 22 goals and 10 assists this season.

That’s how much had to be done to become playoff team in a season in which North Carolina was the best team wire-to-wire and Portland significantly separated itself from the rest of the field. The fluky, single-elimination playoffs may not confirm this, but much like the NBA right now, the NWSL has a pair of super teams and a couple of worthy challengers.

And it’s unlikely that any of the second-tier or bottom-dwelling teams could use Orlando as a model for climbing six places in the table year-over-year. Among the six non-playoff teams, the Pride’s MLS-backed resources can only be matched by the Houston Dash, which in four seasons in the league has shown few hints of matching the ambitions of Orlando and Portland.

Neither Marta nor Morgan is walking through the door in Boston or Washington. Perhaps Seattle coach Laura Harvey or FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski have the required magic to mold pretty good teams into playoff squads with more modest upgrades.

The NWSL, through five years, has been cyclical. An uncertain and open first season gave way to two years of Seattle-FC Kansas City title bouts and, now, the return of Portland and the Courage. That parity was the frequent trump card which coaches and players use to argue that the NWSL is the world’s best league, and it’s likely to continue.

North Carolina’s inclusion in this more ambitious set of teams is a new phenomenon brought on by the franchise’s relocation and change in ownership to an NASL-backed, MLS-hunting group. There’s a level of caution in drawing too many conclusions about Orlando overall, as it is the Pride’s first playoff appearance. That freshness is exactly the point, though: There’s a feeling of a looming sea change as the NWSL wraps up its fifth season.

This quartet of playoff teams, combined with the board-room battles over increased league spending and standards – and the rumored uptick in MLS interest which would dramatically shift that voting balance of power – could serve as a harbinger of NWSL 2.0.

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