Full Time: NWSL’s tangled table

There was a lot of talk about the celebrities who showed up for Lionel Messi during the MLS game between LAFC and Inter Miami, but did Selena Gomez pen a personal essay like Jane Fonda did after meeting Megan Rapinoe?

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NWSL’s Sprint To The Postseason: Tangle at the top of the table

In racing (track, motor, horse) competitors usually form a pack before someone emerges as a frontrunner, untangling the mess in time to reach the finish line alone. With four games left in the NWSL regular season, that pack is more tangled than 10 rounds of Twister.

Last week, we mentioned that three points separated the top five teams in the league. After another full slate of games, the top five teams are … still separated by three points:

  1. San Diego Wave: 9-6-3, 30 points
  2. Portland Thorns: 8-5-5, 29 points
  3. North Carolina Courage: 8-6-4, 28 points
  4. OL Reign: 8-7-3, 27 points
  5. Gotham FC: 7-5-6, 27 points

Gotham FC’s (very) late comeback against North Carolina this weekend, and the Washington Spirit’s loss to Chicago, means Gotham has moved into the top five. The Spirit is still in the final playoff spot,  just two points ahead of Racing Louisville. No one is technically eliminated, and the Reds Stars proved it’s not over until it’s over with their 2-0 win, jumping over KC Current at the basement of the table.

Most NWSL teams will now enjoy a two-week break as the semifinal and final of the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup get underway. We will get back to NWSL playoff permutations next week (if I can figure them out by then).

The NWSL Challenge Cup schedule

What started as a tournament implemented out of necessity during the height of COVID-19 restrictions has turned into a regular part of the NWSL calendar — for now. The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup allowed the NWSL to become the first professional sport to return after the pandemic pause, with a month-long competition held in a bubble in Utah. This season, the competition looks much different, running concurrently with the regular season and including a $1 million prize.

This year, the bulk of the competition took place during the international break for the World Cup, with teams divided into three divisions of four teams. After the group stage, the teams with the highest point totals advanced, leaving us with the following matchups:

Wednesday, Sept. 6, Challenge Cup Semifinals

Saturday, Sept. 9

  • NWSL Challenge Cup Final @ 12:30 p.m. ET, held at the higher-seeded team dependent on stadium availability

OL Reign beat the Thorns, ACFC and Wave to emerge as the only undefeated team out of the group stage. If it beats Louisville, the Reign will host the final.

This year’s champion could be the last. The Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf reported last month that the league will not hold the competition in 2024.

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Chicago recorded its fourth clean sheet against Washington. (Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

Meg’s Corner: Chicago gets new owner bump

The Laura Ricketts era in Chicago officially began with a win.

Ahead of the closing of the sale — announced last Friday — I had the chance to speak to Ricketts and another member of the ownership group, Laura Desmond (CEO of smartly.io). It’s hard for me to overstate the difference between that conversation and the entire approach to ownership under Arnim Whisler, especially over the last year.

I think it’s fair to have big expectations for a turnaround in Chicago — and to hold the new ownership group to their promise of increased accountability. There is also room for understanding that Ricketts and this ownership group have a massive task ahead of them. Early into our conversation, Ricketts called the Red Stars a “distressed asset,” which, to me was a fair assessment of where the team currently stands. There are projects ahead, whether improving the roster, the coaching staff, the front office, or finding a general manager, sponsorships and facilities. Ricketts coming in and saying that they have to attack everything all at once is, I think, the only way through.

I brought up the historical challenges we’ve seen in major markets across the NWSL, but Ricketts immediately countered with how Angel City has thrived in Los Angeles. She’s right. I’m coming at this with my old-school Boston Breakers-era brain, where the confidence wasn’t always there. Chicago can and should be a good fit for the NWSL as it exists now. The challenges ahead aren’t about the environment or the ecosystem in which this team fits across the city of Chicago; it’s about how the team has been run, about the lack of money and ambition.

Ricketts and the rest of the ownership group have already pledged over $25 million. Will they get everything right? Probably not. No one does. But it sure is a relief to have hope for the Red Stars again.

NWSL Week in Review: A clean slate for Chicago

Though only Whisler was required by the league to sell the team, the Ricketts group also bought out the rest of the minority investors to create a true clean slate, according to former investor and sports personality Sarah Spain.

“I’m sad to be out but only because of what I hoped the experience would be, not what it actually was,” Spain wrote on social media. “Just know I did my best to do things right, alert people to wrongs, respond, address & change behavior, policies, etc. (Again… it all comes back to power/money/influence.)”

Spain was part of a large influx of new investors in Chicago in 2021. You can read her full explanation of the transition here.

Julie Ertz announces retirement, effective immediately

We may not know which teams end up in the postseason, but we do know one player who definitely won’t be there: Julie Ertz.

After making a remarkable comeback this year — away from the game for 18 months with injury and the birth of her son — she became crucial for the U.S. women’s national team and filled the veteran center back role left by Becky Sauerbrunn. Now, she’s hanging up the boots.

Ertz previously announced her retirement from international soccer after the U.S.’s round of 16 loss to Sweden this summer.

“Unfortunately this is my last time in this crest,” she told ESPN. She made the club announcement official on social media last week.

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(Photo: Richard Callis/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

“I gave everything I had to the sport that I love,” she wrote. “With that, I can walk away with no regrets because while I gave soccer every ounce of myself, soccer gave me even more, and for that, I’ll always be thankful.”

Drafted third overall in the 2014 NWSL Draft by the Chicago Red Stars, Ertz played 8,306 minutes in NWSL, making the postseason every year. Ertz only played seven games with Angel City after signing in April and scored her lone goal for the team in her debut against the Portland Thorns.

Moments from the weekend

They say a 2-0 lead is the most dangerous in soccer. I don’t know who they are, but they were right, at least when it came to the 3-3 draw between North Carolina and Gotham FC. Trailing 2-0 at halftime, Gotham was able to pull one back with a penalty kick before Haley Hopkins’ world-class strike increased North Carolina’s lead with 20 minutes to go. But Midge Purce only needs a few seconds to make a difference, which she did in the 82nd minute. It also helps when you can sub in a World Cup champion in the second half. Purce credited Spain’s Esther González in her first performance with the team for helping make a difference.

French international Amandine Henry made her debut for Angel City. She faced KC Current and fellow French international Claire Lavogez, who made her return from an ACL injury.

Meanwhile, Gotham midfielder McCall Zerboni announced she underwent successful surgery to repair a torn ACL. She will miss the rest of the season.

Elsewhere, San Diego claimed the top spot in the league, for now. In a game that saw another debut, with former Serie A winner and Brazil’s Andressa Alves getting on the pitch, it was the Wave that secured all three points thanks to this goal from Jaedyn Shaw.

But it was Wave goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan who stole the show postgame, carrying a small puppy into the press conference. I have many questions.

Just Getting Started In Europe

While things are winding down in NWSL, it is only beginning in Europe. Even though the Women’s Super League in England is still a month away from starting, Lauren James is already doing Lauren James things in a club friendly against Roma.

You also don’t have to wait for October for European soccer. Liga F in Spain begins Sept. 8 and Frauen-Bundesliga in Germany, Division 1 Féminine in France and Serie A Women in Italy all get going the weekend of Sept. 15.

In addition to the NWSL Challenge Cup this weekend, you can also catch the UEFA Women’s Champions League on Sept. 6 and 9.

(Top photo: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

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