Seven stories to watch as the NWSL returns

The NWSL fully returns from its Olympic break this weekend. Here are Jeff Kassouf and Richard Farley's stories to watch over the final stretch of the season.

After a full month off for the Olympics (save for one make-up game), the National Women’s Soccer League returns in full force this weekend to begin a sprint to the playoffs.

Five rounds of play remain to determine which four teams will make the postseason and fight for a trip to Houston for the NWSL Championship on Oct. 9,. The way things stand right now, we’re likely to have a new shield winner, a new champion and new finalists in that match.

Let us help you shake off the rust of a month off from the league with these stories to watch:

1. The Olympians return (well, most of them)

Whether the now defunct WPS or the seemingly healthier NWSL, the relationships between league, club and country have always been been a bit fragile and seemingly more complicated than they should be, considering that U.S. Soccer operates the NWSL. Unlike last year, after the U.S. women won the World Cup and largely took their time to get back to the NWSL, almost all U.S. players are expected to be available for this weekend’s matches, the first full slate of fixtures in August. Carli Lloyd is one player we know won’t be available, according to Houston Dash coach Randy Waldrum. Of course, they’ve had time off already after a shocking quarterfinal exit from the Rio 2016 Olympics, the program’s worst-ever finish at a major event.

How exactly Hope Solo factors into the rest of Seattle Reign FC's season -- and how she plays, assuming she does -- after U.S. Soccer terminated her national-team contract is anyone's guess. That's bad news for a Seattle team which almost must win out (see below).

There is also the business side of this. We’ve become accustomed to talking about ‘the World Cup bump’ -- WPS saw it in 2011, but the league was gone six months later (it was already nearly dead by the time the U.S. went on its roller-coaster run to second place). NWSL saw a modest bump in interest from last year’s World Cup, and we all wondered if something similar might happen post-Olympics this year.

None of those predictions factored in the U.S. bombing out in the quarterfinals of the Olympics. With no gold medals to market to fans, will there be a missed opportunity for clubs? That’s an oversimplification of things, but it will be interesting to see if even a portion of historically high interest levels in the U.S. women’s national team can translate to the NWSL with no victorious tie-in. Two full seasons without any major tournament for the U.S. are on the horizon.

- Jeff Kassouf

2. Repeat finalists on the brink

An offseason of upheaval in the ‘Heart of America’ has left the NWSL’s two-time defending champions, FC Kansas City, lodged in the standings’ bottom half. Though there’s league-wide empathy for what one of the NWSL’s most respected coaches, Vlatko Andonovski, has had to deal with, the bottom line is a grim one. Lodged in eighth place, nine points out of a playoff spot, FCKC has not been able to overcome the losses of Lauren Holiday (retirement) and Amy Rodriguez (pregnancy).

Seattle Reign FC, on the other hand, went into the season as the consensus favorite to claim a third straight regular-season title. Unfortunately for the Reign, after two dominant regular seasons, it seems the team’s been found out. Opponents are dumping the ball and then playing off the Reign, challenging Laura Harvey’s team to change how it build plays or go over-the-top. In sixth place and five points out of a playoff spot, Seattle hasn’t found the balance.

Kansas City looks destined to miss the playoffs for the first time. Seattle, on the other hand, has the talent to make up its gap. Unfortunately, with five games left in the season, that makes Saturday’s game against rival Portland a practical must-win.

- Richard Farley

3. Will Portland finally get a playoff game at home?

All of which brings us to the Portland Thorns, a team that seemed lost in the two years after claiming the league’s first title. This season, having brought in head coach Mark Parsons and parted ways with star Alex Morgan, Portland has perpetually been among the leaders. Coming into round 16 with the league’s fewest losses (two) and least goals allowed (12), Portland is showing the benefits of a cultural revolution.

The Thorns, however, are still three points back of Parsons’ former team, the Washington Spirit, and only have a three-point lead on Western New York. Still, if Portland can maintain its spot, it will accomplish a first in the history of the league’s marquee franchise: playing at home in the playoffs. Though the team has won a title, it has never earned the honor of hosting a game in the postseason, something that’s assured with a top-two-regular season finish. That has been high on the to-do list for Portland.

- Richard Farley

NEXT: Race for fourth, WNY's turnaround