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This NWSL Season Has Been Nuts. Here’s How We Forecast The Finish.

If at the start of the National Women’s Soccer League season you thought two-time defending champions FC Kansas City would be in third-to-last place just over halfway through the season or that two-time regular-season champions Seattle Reign FC would have almost as many losses as they did in their previous two seasons combined, you’re either psychic or your predictive abilities are far greater than ours.

Before this year’s matches got underway, we built a model to forecast the league using the best information we had available: data from the three previous NWSL seasons. But because two of those years were dominated by Seattle and Kansas City, correctly predicting this year’s chaos in the league would have been very difficult. So with the table in tumult and the end of the regular season not far off, we thought this would be good time to update our initial predictions, see what’s changed and look ahead to which four teams are most likely to reach the playoffs this fall. Below is a table showing each team’s overall rating — made up of offensive and defensive components (higher is better for both) — as well as its projected win-loss-tie record and its chances of making the playoffs.

RATING AVG. SIM. SEASON PLAYOFF CHANCES
TEAM OVERALL OFF. DEF. W L T PLAYOFFS FINALS WIN
W. New York 120.3 138.1 97.8 11.9 5.5 2.6 99% 65% 37%
Washington 115.0 123.5 104.3 11.5 4.4 4.1 96 58 29
Portland 106.9 110.9 102.0 9.7 3.9 6.5 86 35 15
Chicago 99.6 89.3 112.5 8.6 6.6 4.8 46 16 7
Seattle 109.9 101.6 120.2 6.9 6.3 6.8 17 8 5
Sky Blue 97.2 99.4 94.5 7.3 6.9 5.8 20 7 3
Orlando 90.8 82.1 101.8 8.3 9.9 1.8 27 7 3
Kansas City 103.6 96.1 113.2 6.0 8.3 5.7 5 2 1
Houston 93.6 83.6 106.3 6.2 10.6 3.2 5 2 1
Boston 63.1 75.6 47.5 1.9 15.8 2.4 <1 <1 <1

This year’s surprise standout, the Western New York Flash, has skyrocketed to the top of our table and now has the greatest chance of winning the NWSL championship — 37 percent — up from just a 5 percent chance before the season started. With the league’s top two goal scorers, Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald (seven and six goals, respectively), the Flash are almost certain to earn a playoff spot. The Washington Spirit will likely grab another — our model gives them a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs.

There’s a little less certainty for the third and fourth playoff spots. The Portland Thorns are currently in first place in the league, with 26 points, and have an 86 percent chance of making the postseason. But the team has lost their past two games, in part because several national team players have been absent as they prepare for the Olympics. So Portland may continue to fall in our rankings over the next month. The Chicago Red Stars’ chances of making the playoffs have remained about the same from our initial forecast — dropping to 46 percent from 47 percent — but a strong start to the season has given way to three losses in the past four games.

The biggest shock this season, however, has undoubtedly been the rapid descent of the league’s top two teams, Seattle and Kansas City. Both teams were heavily favored in our initial predictions — with a 78 percent and 72 percent chance of making the playoffs, respectively — but at this point, it’s extremely unlikely that either team will earn a playoff berth. There are still six weeks of matches left, but both teams’ chances of winning the championship have plummeted more than 20 percentage points since the season started.

mccann-boice-nwsl-update-2

Although our preseason forecast didn’t think it was impossible for both Seattle and Kansas City to miss the playoffs (it assigned roughly a 6 percent chance to that possibility), their drastic decline may indicate that we should re-evaluate some components of the model for next year’s NWSL season. As in many of our sports forecasts, each NWSL team’s rating is reverted toward the league average between seasons to account for factors such as changes in personnel and retirements. For the NWSL, two-thirds of a team’s rating from the previous season carries over into the new season; that amount is based on the first three seasons and is in line with other soccer leagues around the world (both men’s and women’s). This year’s results, however, may indicate that NWSL teams should be reverted further toward the league average each season. Or maybe this is just a crazy season. Only time (and more data) will tell.

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Jay Boice is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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