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NWSL tier rankings: Now we've got a (small) sample size

It's time to read way too much into just a handful of games.

Last Updated
5 min read
Mallory Swanson is back and Chicago is thriving.
© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

We're now a month into the 2024 NWSL season, and most teams have played three regular season games. There have been surprises, young players balling out, and a lot of games with quite a few goals...great for the neutrals and winning teams.

The big theme so far in this young campaign league-wide is that things are nearly as close as they've ever been, so I'm not really going on a limb to claim that the standings this year will be as tightly packed – perhaps even more – than last year's absurdly entertaining NWSL Shield and playoff races. Every team has at least a point through three games. Only one team has three wins in three tries. Expect much of the same as we continue through 2024.

And now, on with the latest tier rankings of the league:

Leader of the pack

Kansas City Current (3-0-0, 9 points)

It did seem like the Current would bounce back this year and they've done that to kick off 2024, taking maximum points so far. Getting a coach with a track record of success in the NWSL in Vlatko Andonovski, check, opening a new stadium and playing two games there, check, and grabbing an impressive win in San Diego, check. If the competition needs a pick-me-up, however, Kansas City have allowed seven goals so far, which is tied for second-worst out of the gates. Shootouts are fun but I don't expect an undefeated season here. Still, they're picking up points where other teams are faltering.

More sample needed

San Diego Wave FC (3 points, 1-1-0)

Gotham FC (3 points, 1-1-0)

Obviously, all the teams need a larger sample size to determine their level, but that's especially true for last year's Shield and Championship winners, respectively. Of course, they have a game in hand because they started the year with the SuperCup-ified NWSL Challenge Cup, which San Diego eked out to a 1-0 win over Gotham, but these teams remain stacked and I would be surprised (barring injuries, crossing fingers tightly here) if these teams aren't in the running throughout the season.

Looking pretty, pretty good

Chicago Red Stars (7 points, 2-0-1)

North Carolina Courage (6 points, 2-1-0)

Washington Spirit (6 points 2-1-0)

This tier has a bit of everything: The team who are who we thought they were (North Carolina), who would be unbeaten if not for two attempted penalties unconverted on their first trip back to Utah in a few years; the team that looked set to tread water for half or all of this season (Washington) only to start pretty hot out of the gates; and the team that was last in the league last year (Chicago), but who presently sit in 2nd place in the standings.

The Red Stars deserve special mention for taking a leap forward with head coach Lorne Donaldson, previously manager of the Jamaica women's national team. Donaldson's innovation is having a coherent tactical gameplan, which, uh, had previously never been a big thing under a Chicago head coach. Their games are often going to be ugly, they may drop from their lofty perch as the season goes on, but they are no longer an easy out and could really turn the corner this year.

Asking some questions

Seattle Reign (3 points, 1-2-0)

Orlando Pride (3 points, 0-0-3)

Not every team can have a good or good enough start, and some questions are cropping up around these two. For the Reign, their two losses have come on the road and each by just a goal, so it may be a matter of small sample size for them to this point, although Lianne Sanderson's broadcast observation that Seattle's lines weren't really connecting particularly in the most recent loss, at San Diego, was apt.

I really thought Orlando was poised to be legit this year and they've started...fine, just fine. They keep getting results, often via dramatic equalizers, but they've also dropped four points at home so far this year. If the table's going to be as tight this year as it seems, that could be a significant loss for the Pride come the end of the season. I still think both these teams will be pretty good this year, but there's some work to be done.

Not terrible (expansion edition)

Bay FC (3 points, 1-2-0)

Utah Royals (3 points, 1-2-0)

This is grading on a curve a bit, yes, but the new teams have been NWSL level to start, which is nothing to sneeze at. As predicted, Bay FC have relied on a fearsome frontline, with goals already from Asisat Oshoala, Deyna Castellanos and Racheal Kundananji, and their defense has been solid. Maybe not quite good enough to avoid two one-goal losses, but they're off to a solid start.

Utah are not as flashy but they're doing almost literally the same so far, demonstrating that both expansion teams' roster build strategies were pretty good. Ally Sentnor is already being given the keys to the Royals' attack and the mix of mostly NWSL experience and domestic youth is coming together quite well under head coach Amy Rodriguez.

Sometimes good, but also not so much

Houston Dash (4 points, 1-1-1)

Racing Louisville FC (3 points, 0-0-3)

There are signs of promise for these two teams but also major signs of concern here. The Dash may actually move up in the coming weeks, since they've improved week over week in results so far this season, and they may just need time with new head coach Fran Alonso. But they also seem to have a talent deficit against most teams, and if they don't play great, that will spell doom.

Racing also have a talent deficit, and hearing Abby Erceg roast her own team after dropping a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 in Portland may hint at some discord behind the scenes. Or it may just be a team needing a wake-up call after drawing all three games to kick off the season. Still, Reilyn Turner has been fantastic to start the season and if she really takes off, she has definite Rookie of the Year potential among a stacked class around the league.

Big questions are being asked

Portland Thorns (1 point, 0-2-1)

Angel City FC (1 point, 0-2-1)

I'm sure neutrals aren't having a good laugh over these two teams bringing up the rear, oh no. But again, it's very early in the season and I'll be surprised if they stay quite this bad for the duration. They are the only two teams sitting on a single point, and given the high expectations inside both clubs, pressure's going to be on them both very soon.

The Thorns have more room for growth on paper, although I think their struggles out of the gate are some chickens coming home to roost. Their forward line remains top-notch and is likely going to pull them out of some jams, but the defense is incoherent and the midfield is arguably been even more so. Having more than half your lineup giving up lots of goals and having to fight back for results is not a winning formula, and that's how they sit in 13th place. Mike Norris' seat should be getting warm at the least at this point in Portland.

Angel City are coming off an old-fashioned tonking, a 4-2 loss in Kansas City, and they're looking less and less sure of themselves. The goals allowed number (6) isn't great, but of bigger concern right now needs to be goals scored (3). This team is running out Sydney Leroux and Alyssa Thompson and Messiah Bright and they have the firepower to overpower teams. But they aren't, and that's a concern, certainly.

Alicia Rodriguez has been covering the NWSL the past several years and is currently working on a book about the North Carolina Courage. You can follow her @soccermusings on the major social media platforms.