Once upon a time in the W-League there were a few big mean teams that would beat up on all the little teams over and over again. The 2007 Washington Freedom lost just one match on their way to the championship, sometimes scoring six or seven goals a match. The mighty Pali Blues joined the league in 2008 and proceeded to bulldoze their way to two consecutive championships and 33 straight games without a loss. Hudson Valley lost just one regular-season game in 2010. The Ottawa Fury went undefeated in 2011 until the final. And last year both Pali and the DC United Women had just one tie to mar their records. In fact, in the entire history of the W-League, never has the top team done worse than a single regular-season loss.
Well, those days are gone. As I write this, the team with the least blemished record is the Virginia Beach Piranhas, with one loss and one tie. And I’d be willing to bet that that’s not going to hold since they’re coming up against three of their toughest matches of the season. Last year Pali, DC, and Ottawa had two losses and two ties combined. This year it’s five and four, with each team still having three matches to play. And despite being a Washington fan from way back, I have to think this is all to the good. Blowouts aren’t that much fun for anyone, and it’s just nice to have so many competitive matches for a change.
So let’s go on and look at how the playoff picture is shaping up.
But before I get into the details, I’d like to compliment the W-League on how they organized the teams and the playoffs this year. Last year teams were grouped into divisions, and at least on the east coast played each division opponent three times. Heck, the DCU Women had to play Virginia Beach a fourth time in the playoffs.
This year there are no divisions but slightly larger conferences. In the Northeastern and Western Conferences, there’s a home-and-home series between each team. The slightly smaller Central and Southeastern Conferences have to add a few third matches to get a season of decent length, but still it’s more reasonable than playing every single team three times.
Except for the Central Conference, which has a midweek elimination game between the second- and third-place teams, each conference has a single playoff game the weekend of July 20, where the #1 team hosts the #2 team for the right to go to the Final Four.
Central Conference: This is the only conference where three teams make the playoffs, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense since historically it’s been a weak conference that the Ottawa Fury have run roughshod over. But, again, that’s changed. Ottawa is indeed in first place with 20 standings points, but their 6-1-2 record has them only two points clear of second. The Laval Comets are just behind them at 5-1-3, and the Toronto Lady Lynx are two farther behind at 4-0-4, but have a game in hand. And, yes, Toronto is currently the only undefeated team in the W-League.
No one’s officially clinched a playoff spot but only because the fourth-place team, K-W United FC, has five games left to play. One Ottawa win or K-W loss, and Ottawa’s in, with Laval and Toronto not far behind. Odds are that the finish will be Ottawa 1, Toronto 2, and Laval 3.
Northeastern Conference: The Washington Spirit Reserves just came back from a tough weekend road trip up north, where they lost to the Long Island Rough Riders before beating the New York Magic. The loss dropped them to second place with a 6-2-1 record (19 points), but the 7-1-1 (22 points) Virginia Beach Piranhas face the same trip this weekend. Then next weekend the Piranhas host the Reserves. The Long Island Rough Riders (5-4-0, 15 points) and New Jersey Wildcats (3-5-1, 10 points) haven’t been mathematically eliminated, but you’ve got to think that the season-ending Washington-Virginia Beach matchup will do nothing more than decide who hosts the Eastern Conference Championship.
Southeastern Conference: The biggest surprise of the league is how things stand here. Perennial powerhouses Charlotte and Atlanta are only .500 teams this year. The Lady Eagles are 4-4-0, while the Silverbacks are 3-3-2. Meanwhile, the Dayton Dutch Lions, who were an average team last year, rule the roost at 4-1-2, leading the conference with 14 points despite having played one fewer game than anyone else. The Carolina Elite Cobras are just one point behind at 4-4-1 but have just one game left in their season.
Only the last-place VSI Tampa Bay FC have been eliminated from the playoffs so far, but this weekend should clarify matters considerably as Dayton comes to the east coast and plays Charlotte and Atlanta on consecutive days. Depending on the results, Dayton could either clinch the top spot or drop to third. The other key match is the following weekend, when second place Carolina plays at Charlotte, a match that could easily decide the #2 spot. I’d lean toward Dayton 1 and Charlotte 2, but it’s really pretty wide open.
Western Conference: When the Pali Blues first came into being, this was a patsy conference, with the bottom three teams only having five wins among them. This year, except for the last-place Colorado Rush, who have yet to win a game, all the teams are competitive. Still, with just a few games to go the Seattle Sounders Women (6-2-2, 20 points) and Pali Blues (6-2-1, 19 points) have separated themselves from the pack led by the LA Strikers (5-4-0, 15 points), though amazingly the Strikers are 2-0-0 against the Blues (Pali’s only two losses this year) and would therefore come out ahead if they end up tied in the standings.
The Blues finish their season with three home games. Considering that in their entire history they’ve only lost twice at home, they’ve got to be the pick to take the conference. But Seattle won’t be far behind.
Championship: The W-League has done another wise thing, hosting the Final Four on neutral ground at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, over the weekend of July 26-28, with no team seeded into the Final Four just because they’re hosting it. Considering that, unlike previous seasons, there’s no clear favorite, it should be quite a weekend.