by Dan Lauletta
The 2023 NWSL Shield race is down to the final day — Decision Day. Two weeks ago, the San Diego Wave beat the Portland Thorns 2-0 in Portland to take control of the race. But a scoreless draw in North Carolina paired with a Thorns win over Gotham last weekend put Portland back in control. All the Thorns need is a win over Angel City on Sunday to wrap up a third NWSL Shield. A loss or draw opens the door for the Wave to become the first team to win a trophy whose lineage does not track to the inaugural season.
Here is a look at the history of the NWSL Shield, from 2013 through last year.
2013 – Western New York Flash (10-4-8, 38 pts)
The inaugural NWSL season nearly saw all four playoff teams finish even on points. It looked like FC Kansas City would walk away with the Shield when they took a 1-0 lead against the Chicago Red Stars in the final match of the season. Jen Hoy equalized just before halftime which still kept FCKC in pole position for the Shield. But Hoy struck again in stoppage time to give the Red Stars the win and the Flash the Shield. The Flash, Kansas City, and Portland all finished on 38 points. Sky Blue wound up 4th on 36 points after only managing a draw to end their season.
Postscript: The Thorns had the last laugh, winning playoff games in Kansas City and Western New York to claim the first NWSL Championship.
2014 – Seattle Reign FC (16-2-6, 54 pts)
There was no repeat drama in 2014. The retooled Reign won their first seven games — still the league-record win streak — and made it all the way to July 12 before losing a match (13-0-3, still a league-record unbeaten streak). Their only other loss was on the final day of the season to the Thorns, who needed the points to get into the playoffs. The Reign locked in the Shield with four games to go and outpaced FC Kansas City by 13 points.
Postscript: Displaced from their home grounds for the final due to the Bumbershoot Music Festival, the Reign returned to Starfire Stadium and were upset by FC Kansas City in a bitter end to a spectacular season.
2015 – Seattle Reign FC (13-3-4, 43 pts)
It didn’t quite have the magic of 2014, but the Reign again went undefeated at home and again took the Shield by double digits — 10 to be exact — this time over the Red Stars. And this time they clinched with two games remaining after a win over the Boston Breakers. In a memorable moment one match later, Jess Fishlock equalized against Sky Blue in the 90th minute to preserve the Reign’s perfect record at Memorial Stadium ahead of a rainy Shield presentation.
2016 – Portland Thorns FC (12-3-5, 41 pts)
The Thorns revamped their roster and went a dozen matches without losing (7-0-5) to start the season, but followed that up with three losses in their next four to slip 6 points adrift of the Washington Spirit heading into September. The Thorns responded by taking all 12 points in September with wins over the Breakers, Dash, Flash, and Sky Blue. Meanwhile the Spirit managed only 4 points from their four September matches and finished with road losses away to the Reign and Red Stars. The Thorns played the following day and overcame an early deficit to become the first and heretofore only team to win the Shield the season after missing the playoffs.
Postscript: The Flash beat the Thorns in extra time in an epic semifinal in Portland, and then the Spirit on penalty kicks to win the NWSL Championship.
2017 – North Carolina Courage (16-7-1, 49 pts)
The Courage arrived in North Carolina (from Western New York) and kicked off the most dominant stretch in league history with 4 wins out the gate and a record-equaling 16 for the season. The Thorns made a nice run, aided by a four-match win streak that brought them within 2 points during the final month. But the Courage had a match in hand and wrapped it up with a midweek win over the Dash. That match was played at H-E-B Stadium in Edinburg, Texas after the Dash were briefly displaced from Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Postscript: The Courage were cut down in the final by the Thorns in an ugly, foul-filled affair in Orlando. Extending their linear history back to the Flash, it marked two Shields, and two NWSL Championship losses to the Thorns.
2018 – North Carolina Courage (17-1-6, 60 pts)
In one of the most dominant seasons in American sports history, the Courage lost only once on the way to rinsing the field and repeating as Shield winner. After opening the season 9-0-3 to match the Thorns for the second longest unbeaten run out of the gate, they fell 1-0 to the Royals on Brittany Ratcliffe’s stunner at the death. The Courage responded by finishing up 8-0-3, stopping for a brief break just for good measure to beat Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon in the Women’s ICC. They secured the Shield with four matches to play, matching the 2014 Reign.
Postscript: After Hurricane Florence chased them out of North Carolina for the semifinals, the Courage flew to Portland where they beat the Red Stars and then drubbed the Thorns in the final to become the first team to do the Shield/NWSL Championship double.
2019 – North Carolina Courage (15-5-4, 49 pts)
If it is possible to win 15 of 24 games, score 31 times more than you concede yet take a small step back, the Courage did that. They were never going to live up to the one-loss tour-de-force of 2018 but still rolled to the top of the table soon after the start of the season and were undeniably the best side in the league. When they beat the Royals 3-0 on September 21, they locked up an unprecedented third straight Shield with two matches to go.
Postscript: The Courage repeated the double, overcoming an extra time dance with the Reign in the semifinal before dismantling the Red Stars 4-0 in the most lopsided final the league has ever seen.
2021 – Portland Thorns FC (13-6-5, 44 pts)
After the pandemic wiped out the 2020 regular season, the Thorns went to the top of the table in 2021 on the strength of a 9-1-2 run shortly after Mark Parsons announced he was leaving at the end of the season. But a late surge from their rivals from Seattle left the Thorns a single point ahead of the Reign with three matches to play. The teams squared off October 13 in Portland. Morgan Weaver put the Thorns ahead in the 3rd minute, a lead they held until Megan Rapinoe’s penalty in the 86th. The 1-1 draw left it all to play for over the final two match days. Three days later the Reign lost 2-0 at home to the Spirit allowing the Thorns to win the Shield a day later when they beat the Dash.
Postscript: The semifinals were an all-Pacific Northwest affair for the first time but neither advanced to the final, which saw the Spirit (2-1 vs. Reign) get by the Red Stars (2-0 vs. Portland) in extra time.
2022 – OL Reign (11-4-7, 40 pts)
The Cascadia rivals again staged an epic Shield battle through the final month that wound up coming down to the last match day. As the calendar hit September and five matches remained, the Thorns held a one-point lead. Both teams collected three wins and a draw to put the Thorns in position to take the Shield by beating Gotham — who had lost 12 straight matches. The Thorns opened up a 3-1 lead early in the second half but a spirited Gotham side rallied for a 3-3 draw. A few hours later the Reign easily defeated the Pride, 3-0 to snatch the Shield in a most satisfying manner — after not occupying the #1 spot in the standings for the entire season.
Postscript: The Thorns had the last laugh, beating the Wave and Current to take their third NWSL Championship. The Current had defeated the Reign, marking the second straight year losing a semifinal at home.