Inside PTFC, Thorns, 7.5.18

The two things most likely to determine whether Portland Thorns FC will retain their NWSL title are how well they are playing two months from now and how that level compares to the currently league-leading North Carolina Courage.


That, in the broadest strokes, is the state of the National Women’s Soccer League, and right now, it’s that way for every team. Nothing’s going to matter this season unless you figure out a way to bridge the gap between yourselves and the Courage. And, if over the course of the next two months, you start bridging that gap, things like home field advantage, whether you can survive without it, or if you even make the playoffs will likely take care of themselves.


But increasingly, there is an obstacle looming in the Thorns’ path: playoff qualification, itself:

Rank
Team
GP
Pts
Pts/Gm
1
North Carolina Courage
16
39
2.44
2
Seattle Reign FC
14
23
1.64
3
Orlando Pride
15
22
1.47
4
Chicago Red Stars
16
22
1.37
5
Utah Royals FC
14
21
1.50
6
Portland Thorns FC
15
20
1.33
7
Houston Dash
14
17
1.21
8
Washington Spirit
15
10
0.67
9
Sky Blue FC
13
3
0.23

After last weekend’s action, the defending champions find themselves in sixth place, four spots below last year’s regular-season finish and two spots outside the playoffs.


The fact the team was in fourth three days earlier shows you how quickly things can change, and with Portland only three points out of second place, the team’s current state is far from dire. But with only nine games left in the season, the grains are running through the hour glass, and some point soon, the sand is going to stop.


When, exactly, that sand stops will come down to a number of things: most importantly, the team’s form. But how that form meets results will be heavily influenced by the Thorns’ opposition over the final 37.5 percent of the season. Too many road games, or too few matches against the league’s bottom teams, and the nuance of those nine games starts working against you.


The difficulty of other team’s paths matter, too. Between now and their last game on Sept. 7, the Thorns have to track down two teams currently sitting above them in the standings. But if the teams most likely to be caught have much easier run ins, Portland will have to overcome more than their opponents on the field.


With that in mind, let’s start digging in, looking at the remaining schedules of the NWSL’s two through seven teams (the true playoff) on as many meaningful vectors as possible.


For example, here are aspects you think about first: games left; the strength of those games (here, in terms of opponents’ average points per game, so far this season); and, how many games teams have remaining at home. As you can see, although the games remaining column isn’t working in Portland’s favor, the other favors are.

Rank
Team
Games Remaining
Home Games
Opponent Avg. Pts/Gm
2
Seattle Reign FC
10
6
1.40
3
Orlando Pride
9
5
1.19
4
Chicago Red Stars
8
3
1.31
5
Utah Royals FC
10
5
1.27
6
Portland Thorns FC
9
5
1.20
7
Houston Dash
10
4
1.18

We can dig even deeper on this, though. For example, in terms of that strength of schedule component, how do those games break down? Here we put each game into one of three camps: the “need three points” group, games against teams out of the playoff race (the bottom two); the “head to heads,” games against fellow playoff contenders; and then, the “good luck” cohort, matches against North Carolina.

Rank
Team
vs. Bottom Two
vs. Teams 2-7
vs. North Carolina
2
Seattle Reign FC
1
7
1
3
Orlando Pride
3
5
1
4
Chicago Red Stars
2
5
1
5
Utah Royals FC
3
6
1
6
Portland Thorns FC
3
5
1
7
Houston Dash
4
5
1

Within this, the fine print of the remaining schedule, we’re already starting to get a better idea of whose run ins will be tougher. For example, while Seattle has six of its final 10 games at home, they also face the toughest schedule of the group, getting only one game against the NWSL’s bottom two. Conversely, a full third of Portland’s games come against Sky Blue and Washington, while five out of the nine that are left will be at Providence Park.


But there’s another set of factors that could loom large in such a tight playoff race. From what we’ve already mentioned, above, you can figure out how many games teams are playing on the road, but there are three other things that coaches will worry about over their teams’ last months: games played on short rest (less than five days, for these purposes; the number of flights teams will have to take (each day traveling is one fewer day training); and the number of games played in or up against FIFA windows.


Because we can’t be sure how soon U.S. Soccer will call in players ahead of this month’s Tournament of Nations and August’s international break, the final column’s numbers are a little uncertain, but even in that uncertainty, you can see that some teams are at less risk than others.

Rank
Team
Games on short rest
Number of flights remaining
Games close to int. breaks/USSF callups
2
Seattle Reign
5
6
0 or 1
3
Orlando Price
2
7
0 or 1
4
Chicago Red Stars
2
8
1 or 2
5
Utah Royals FC
6
9
0
6
Portland Thorns FC
2
7
0 or 1
7
Houston Dash
4
12
0 or 1

Three tables. A lot of numbers. Hopefully you paused to take each in, but ultimately, what does it all mean for the Thorns?


Well, here are a few takeaways:


  • Only Houston and Orlando have easier run ins, in terms of their opponents’ points-per-game, than the Thorns. The Dash also have a game in hand, so any tendency to look at Houston’s history of never making the playoffs and dismiss their chances should be avoided. Having the most games left against Sky Blue and Washington, the Dash are well-placed to make a run.
  • The Dash, however, have the most flights between now and the end of the season, while the team directly above the Thorns in the standings, Utah, plays the most games on short rest. In both of those categories, Portland is much better off than most teams in the league, meaning they will have more time on the training ground to try and capture their best form.
  • Each team in the playoff race plays at least half of its remaining games against fellow 2 through 4 aspirants, meaning most of the games within this playoff picture will see success come at a playoff rival’s expense. Because of that, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see three teams click at the right time and pull away from the pack, as all of these teams will be playing each other. Though Orlando and Portland only have nine games left, the league’s last playoff spots won’t be locked down any time soon.


That, as much as any reason, is cause to stay calm. We’ve sounded some worrying notes in recent match reaction, noting that the team is running out of time to get back on course. But nine games, in an NWSL season, can be a lifetime. Not only does it represent over a third of the remaining schedule, but in such a small league, it ensures teams still have plenty of opportunity to take points from each other.


That’s both a virtue and a danger for the Thorns, as well as the Reign, Pride, Red Stars and everyone else fighting for a playoff spot. It almost guarantees that, regardless of what happened over the season’s first three-plus months, the teams which play the best in July and August will find themselves in the postseason.