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The 2021 NWSL season has officially come to a close, with the Washington Spirit winning their first-ever championship in an extra-time thriller. Now it’s time to look ahead to 2022.
With December’s expansion draft just around the corner, most of the league’s teams will undergo a considerable roster shakeup this offseason. Clubs are allowed to protect nine players, including just one U.S. allocated player, from San Diego and Angel City FC’s selection, making change inevitable.
How will the upcoming expansion draft impact the existing NWSL teams, and how will the Wave and ACFC fair? We’ll find out in December. For now, here’s how the league shakes out today.
2022 NWSL Way-too-early Power Rankings:
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1. Washington Spirit
It’s hard to bet against the Washington Spirit after their commanding 2021 Championship run. The Spirit finished the season on a 12-game unbeaten streak, excluding the club’s two forced forfeits due to COVID-19 protocol violations. Overcoming off-field turmoil, the team fielded a young team that was stacked across the board, including Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman, Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe, Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch and USWNT stars Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett and Andi Sullivan.
Even on their way to capturing the league title, the team looked to be still growing into itself, with young, talented players yet to hit their apex. With another year of development, Washington seems poised for a playoff repeat.
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2. Portland Thorns
The Portland Thorns were the heavy favorites heading into the 2021 season and lived up to the preseason hype, winning the 2021 Challenge Cup and NWSL Shield but falling short of the Championship.
Longtime coach Mark Parson’s departure could shake things up, but with veteran talents like Becky Sauerbrunn and Christine Sinclair, coupled with young stars in Simone Charley, Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, Portland could exact revenge in 2022, clinching the NWSL Championship they were expected to win in 2021. The big what-if? How soon Crystal Dunn can return from pregnancy.
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3. NJ/NY Gotham FC
Gotham FC had a landmark 2021, launching one of the most successful rebrands in NWSL history, playing in Red Bull Arena, booking a trip to the Challenge Cup final, and making a hard-fought playoff run. Though Carli Lloyd has retired, Gotham FC has plenty of talent ready to step up to the plate, including MVP candidate Margaret Purce.
The squad is also loaded defensively, with Caprice Dydasco winning Defender of the Year and Imani Dorsey recently receiving a call-up to the USWNT. With another year to gel as a team and develop their confidence, Gotham FC should be a force to be reckoned with in 2022.
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4. OL Reign
OL Reign ended the season as one of the most exciting attacking teams in the league, boosted by an influx of international talent. The Tacoma club, however, is set to lose Eugiene Le Sommer, Dzsenifer Marozsan and Sarah Bouhaddi, who are all on loan from Lyon. The team does still have the 2021 MVP in Jessica Fishlock, star midfielder Rose Lavelle and Sofia Huerta, who is quickly becoming one of the league’s best outside backs. OL Reign also has a not-so-secret weapon in Coach of the Year Laura Harvey, who has experience leading teams to titles and getting the most out of her players.
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5. North Carolina Courage
The North Carolina Courage undoubtedly had a trying 2021, dealing, like the rest of the league, with the allegations of sexual coercion made against former coach Paul Riley. The team somehow found a way to make the playoffs despite the off-field drama and a sidelined Sam Mewis. If the team can regroup in the offseason and get their all-star midfielder back, the Courage may just be back in contention for the top of the table. With Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald up top, it’s hard to count out North Carolina.
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6. Chicago Red Stars
The Chicago Red Stars pushed their way to the club’s third NWSL title match in 2021 against all odds, with a series of the team’s top players falling to injury. Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Casey Krueger were all mainstays on the injury list following the Tokyo Olympics, while Kealia Watt and Mallory Pugh picked up knocks throughout the playoffs. Pugh also missed Chicago’s semifinal match alongside teammate Kayla Sharples due to COVID-19 protocols.
Now, the Red Stars must deal with a bombshell report detailing former coach Rory Dames’s alleged misconduct over his tenure with the team. Depending on the new coach and what the club does to shift the overall culture, Chicago could either rise to the challenge of a culture overhaul or be forced to start over next year. No matter what, the talent will be there, as Ertz, Watt, Naeher and Kreuger should all be healthy — the only question is if the Red Stars will get to keep all of them during the expansion draft.
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7. Houston Dash
The name of the game for Houston’s offseason will be defensive development. The Dash ranked fourth in goals scored for the 2021 season but conceded 32 goals — the only teams to allow more goals in their net were Racing Louisville, Kansas City and Orlando Pride, none of whom made the playoffs.
With USWNT center-back Abby Dahlkemper traded to San Diego, Houston will need to shore up their backline in order to make a playoff run in 2022.
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8. Orlando Pride
The Orlando Pride had a tough break in 2021, enduring a midseason coaching switch-up that resulted in a late-year stall after what looked to be a promising start to the NWSL schedule. The club is still on the search for a new head coach after Beck Burleigh’s stint as interim coach came to an end.
The team has undeniable talent in Marta, Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Sydney Leroux, but has yet to find a way to be productive in the final third, with the team ranking eighth in the league in goals and shots on goal this season, in front of only Racing Louisville and Kansas City.
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9. Racing Louisville
Racing Louisville made its presence known in the NWSL early, winning the inaugural Women’s Cup in its first year as an expansion team. The club also played host to the NWSL Championship, showcasing its world-class facilities and the city’s burgeoning soccer fandom. On the pitch, Louisville finished strong, too, notching two draws and a win to end the year, indicating promise for the 2022 season. Now that Louisville knows what it has in star striker Ebony Salmon, the team certainly has the ability to build a compelling attack and climb the NWSL standings.
10. Kansas City Current
Kansas City can breathe a sigh of relief as it is the only team exempt from the NWSL expansion draft in an agreement solidified with the club’s introduction to the league. The Current finished last in the 2021 NWSL standings but showed flashes of promise during their debut season. Acquiring known talents in Adrianna Franch and Kristen Hamilton during the season, Kansas City has a solid core to build around without the stress of losing players to either San Diego or Los Angeles.
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11. Angel City FC
Before ever making a pick in December’s NWSL expansion draft, Angel City FC heads into their first season with a key roster cornerstone — that being USWNT star Christen Press. The Los Angeles expansion team signed Press in August, acquiring one of the best forwards in the world in the process. The team also brought on Gotham FC’s former head coach Freya Coombe, who has a proven record at succeeding in NWSL. Depending on who the club takes in the draft, ACFC could be a contender in its inaugural season. For now, they’re sitting near the bottom of our list.
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12. San Diego Wave FC
San Diego also has a proven coach and a big-name star heading into the league’s expansion draft. The Wave inked a deal with Casey Stoney, luring Manchester United’s manager to the NWSL, while USWNT defender Abby Dahlkemper also signed with the team, becoming San Diego’s first player. Stoney’s experience in professional women’s soccer could be a real advantage in a year that’s scene historic turnover elsewhere across the NWSL. But as with ACFC, San Diego sits at the bottom of our rankings until we know more about their roster come December.