As recently as a few weeks ago, it seemed like this year would, without question, be the first since 2013 that didn't feature the Seattle Reign in the title game, or in even in the playoffs at all. It's been a long time since Seattle, winner of the last two NWSL Shields and loser of the last two NWSL Championship games, was bad. But this year, the Reign never really got going, or at least didn't get going until it was almost too late. For most of the season, Seattle was way too far down the table to be considered in the playoff conversation. Up against a string of injuries, some bad luck, and a bunch of really good teams that had all finally found their rhythms, Seattle looked destined for a disappointing season that echoed the inaugural year more than the trophy-winning ones.
But things have changed recently -- the Reign's lost just once since coming back from the Olympic break, and now they're two points from the final playoff spot. The problem, of course, is that that playoff spot is the final one. The other three have all already been claimed, with Washington, Portland, and Chicago all having previously secured playoff berths. And even if the Reign do get in, it'll be only as the fourth-place team, a far cry from the first place finishes that have become commonplace in Seattle.
But getting in won't be easy. Seattle's game is the final one of the weekend -- and of the entire NWSL regular season -- meaning the Reign's fate might well be decided before they even take the field on Sunday night.
Currently, Western NY owns the fourth spot, and with that two-point lead and the edge in tiebreakers against the Reign should the two end up even on points, the Flash would only need a draw in its match on Saturday to keep Seattle from the playoffs.
Western NY's opponent on Saturday is, of course, the Boston Breakers. This is a matchup that's a blessing and a curse for both the Reign and the Flash. The good news for Western NY and bad news for Seattle is that Boston is Boston, in all its hopeless last-place glory. The Breakers will finish the season at the bottom of the table for a second consecutive year. Boston could beat the Flash 75-0 on Saturday, and then do it again on Sunday, and they will still not be getting out of the basement. Western NY and Boston have met three times this season, and mostly it has not gone well for the Breakers. That -- plus the Flash has outscored Boston 13-3 in those three meetings -- is not a great sign for a Seattle team that badly needs Western NY to lose.
But that the Flash embarrassed, and then did whatever it is that comes after embarrassed to the Breakers in two of those three games also isn't the worst thing for the Reign. Boston managed to half-avenge Western NY's public reading of their diary in a crowded cafeteria by playing to a 2-2 draw with the Flash three weeks ago, and the Breakers, with not much else to play for, would probably like to be the team that played spoiler in what is Western NY's biggest game of the season and the one that will determine their playoff fate.
Western NY, for its part, has had a pretty impressive season. Under new head coach Paul Riley, the Flash went from April predictions of a middling-at-best season to a team headed to the playoffs -- unless they somehow screw it up -- for the first time since they won the Shield in 2013. Western NY is far from the league's most talented team technically, but they're also one of the most inexperienced, and one still trying to recover from a mass exodus of players that started following the 2013 season. Riley wasn't even announced as the team's head coach until February, nearly a month after the draft. But what Western NY lacks in experience or technical skill, they've made up for in true Riley fashion, with tactics and sometimes sheer brute force. It's a style that echoes Riley's old Philadelphia Independence team from the WPS days, and the Indys made it the title game both of the years they existed.
What Western NY does is only half of the equation for Seattle, though. If Western NY gets a result -- and again, all they need is a draw -- it won't matter what Seattle does on Sunday. But should the Flash lose to Boston, the Reign would have a shot at sneaking into the playoffs as the fourth-place team. Then, Seattle would need to win on Sunday night in Houston. The Reign has played the Dash just one other time this season, a 1-0 win for Seattle. But that was also a Dash team that was, at the time, exclusively losing games 1-0. That loss to Seattle was the third in a string of six consecutive 1-0 losses for Houston.
Whether it's Western NY or Seattle that claims the final playoff berth is only part of what's up for grabs this weekend though. While Washington, Portland, and Chicago have secured their playoff berths already, and both the Thorns and Spirit have claimed the top two spots, which team finishes in which of those spots is still a question. Washington will host a playoff game for the first time ever, and the Spirit also had a chance to win the Shield last weekend, but Jim Gabarra's team was shut out by Seattle, leaving the season's first piece of hardware unclaimed for another week. To make matters worse for the Spirit, Portland won its game last weekend, putting the Thorns just a single point behind the Spirit.
Just like in the case of Western NY and Seattle, the equation here is fairly simple if Washington wins. If the Spirit beats Chicago on Saturday night, they'll win the Shield. Anything less than a win is where things get complicated. If the Spirit draw or lose, they could still finish top of the table, but they'll have to wait for the result of Portland's game in New Jersey on Sunday to find out.
The Thorns play Sky Blue on the final day of the season, and while a win and anything less than that from Washington would secure the regular season title for Portland, the Thorns would also take it should the two end up tied on points (the Thorns hold the tiebreaker -- the better record head-to-head vs. the Spirit).
Washington won 2-0 in the season's only other meeting with Chicago, and Portland beat Sky Blue 2-1 in their previous meeting.
Whether it's Portland or Washington, one thing is certain, and it's that someone new is going to win the NWSL Shield. Only two teams -- Seattle and Western NY -- have claimed this possibly non-existent object in the three-year history of the league. That's going to change this year. And for a league where the postseason was starting to feel like a bit of a foregone conclusion, that's a good result for everyone.
Orlando Pride vs. FC Kansas City, 5:00 PM, Camping World Stadium (YouTube)
Boston Breakers vs. Western NY Flash, 7:00 PM, Jordan Field (YouTube)
Chicago Red Stars vs. Washington Spirit, 8:00 PM, Toyota Park (YouTube)