When the NWSL drew up “Decision Day,” it dreamed of drama that only simultaneous soccer can produce. The sport’s storied history is full of examples. From the Premier League to amateur leagues, from women’s World Cup to men’s, concurrent games have produced iconic moments and heart-stopping lore. The concept is rather simple: on a season’s final weekend, all matches begin in unison. The yield is often complex and thrilling: there are comebacks and collusion, goal-differential swings and tiebreaker calculations, smartphone refreshing and channel switching, and endless permutations evolving by the minute.
So there was precedent, fuel for what NWSL executives envisioned. But there has rarely, if ever, been a Decision Day as potent as what the league stumbled into on its very first try.
On Sunday, all 12 teams will waltz onto fields a little before 5 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network/Paramount+), and all six games could yield either a playoff berth or a trophy — or neither.
The Premier League’s version of this madness, by comparison, occasionally features a two-way title bout; sometimes there are relegation deciders; oftentimes there are fights on the fringes of the top four.
The NWSL’s version is unadulterated chaos. Entering the 22nd and final weekend of the 2023 regular season, nearly everything is up for grabs. Only two of the league’s 12 teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. Seven of the remaining 10 could either host a first-round game or miss the postseason entirely.
Only two, Portland and San Diego, have already clinched playoff places, and they’re in a two-horse race for the NWSL Shield — the trophy awarded to the team that finishes atop the regular-season table.
That table, below Portland and San Diego, is an absolute mess and promises to get messier as Sunday unfolds. Those aforementioned seven teams — the North Carolina Courage, Gotham FC, Washington Spirit, OL Reign, Orlando Pride, Angel City and Racing Louisville — are separated by three points. Only four can survive; at least three won’t play again until 2024.
The messiness is a function of legislated parity. The NWSL imposes a salary cap and other roster restrictions. The world’s best players go to Europe, while the best of the rest are dispersed somewhat evenly across the American league.
So there is a downside. Parity doesn’t actually help a sports league grow. But, week to week, year after year, the NWSL is the most competitive league in all of women’s soccer — and no European peer is particularly close.
The competitive balance has shaped Decision Day — and injected it with meaning. These aren’t just soon-to-be-forgotten, MLS-style spats on the bubble of a bloated playoff field. Anybody who gets in can make a run. The Thorns are quite clearly the league’s best team, but aren’t untouchable. They semi-recently drew the fifth-place Spirit and lost to ninth-place Louisville.
So there are stakes. There’s uncertainty. There are hundreds of possible outcomes, all of which can be gamed out via this brilliant “NWSL Playoffs Explorer.”
For a decade, there were no simultaneous games at the end of NWSL seasons. In Year 11, the league adopted this format and instantly struck gold.