On Saturday night, Portland Thorns FC play host to the Washington Spirit at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon. Just a week after climbing to the top spot on the league in front of a record-breaking crowd, the Thorns will try to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the league. Portland was handed a gift by Sky Blue FC on Wednesday when they beat the second-place Chicago Red Stars. With just twp points separating Portland and the third-place North Carolina Courage, there is no room for error for PTFC.
Washington is currently sitting in seventh place on the table, and they are trying to climb back into the playoff picture after briefly holding the top spot in the league. The Spirit have won just once in their last eight matches, but they could pop all the way to fifth with a win on Saturday night. They currently sit five points behind Reign FC, who are currently the last team set to make the playoffs. Washington has a game in hand over their nearest competition, but if they can't win games that won't matter.
The Thorns have been slumping
Things looked dire for Portland last weekend. They had drawn with Sky Blue FC the previous weekend before losing in a tight 1-0 match against Reign FC on Wednesday. The North Carolina Courage, a fellow competitor for the 2019 NWSL Shield, took a one-goal lead into halftime and seemed to be dominating the game. Then things changed.
The Courage suffered two second-half own goals to gift a massive three points to Portland. Then, in a midweek contest, Sky Blue FC was able to steal three points from Chicago with a stoppage time stunner from rookie Paige Monaghan. If either one of those games had ended differently, the Thorns would have been dropped down the table. Instead they sit in first place with the slimmest bit of breathing room.
Things haven't gone well on the pitch for Portland since they got their United States women's national team players back. Despite the return of Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Adrianna Franch, and Emily Sonnett, Portland has two wins, two draws, and a loss in their last five games. Things would have been even worse if they hadn't be handed a game last weekend against North Carolina. Franch looked great in the game against the Courage, but there is still some missing chemistry between the internationals and their teammates.
On Saturday night, the Thorns should be trying to get heath and Horan more integrated with the rest of the team. Heath has a tendency to push wide, which stifles the powerful attack from wingbacks Meghan Klingenberg and Ellie Carpenter. The ability of the two defenders to whip balls into the box plays a big role in the Portland attack, but they need that wide space to operate.
Forward Midge Purce, who is having a career year, was put on as a substitute in the match against North Carolina, and she changed the entire complexion of the game. Head coach Mark Parsons should be looking for a way to put her into the starting lineup if she is fully fit, because she brings a different perspective to the front of the formation.
The rookie wall blocks Washington
No team has had a bigger turnaround from 2018 than the Washington Spirit, but the last two months have been a major stumbling block for the young team. Coming out of the gate with unbridled, youthful enthusiasm, the rookie-stacked lineup championed by head coach Richie Burke stunned the league.
The possession-oriented gameplan was able to protect any deficiencies in the individual play of the young players, and goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe seemed to be building on her 2018 Goalkeeper of the Year award. Then, all of the sudden, everything changed.
The Spirit had been scoring at a level far above their expected goals number, but that was widely chalked up to them taking good shots and foregoing bad ones. Once the offense started producing at a more modest clip, the team started to fall apart. Without the threat of a sudden strike, teams were able to put pressure on the young players while they possessed the ball. Once flustered, the possession and passing fell apart, leading to a period of eight games with just one win.
The defense, similarly, has started showing signs of weakness. Bledsoe had been able to mitigate some of the problems early in the season with her excellent play, but teams are starting to wise up to the way that Washington is giving shot attempts.
Now, with Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh returning from the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, it's up to them to add some creativity and spark to an otherwise blase offense. Pugh has been nursing a wrist injury, but Lavelle has not been able to get her footing on a team not built for individual creativity. If the Spirit are going to make the playoffs, midfielder Andi Sullivan, who had been playing excellently to start the season, is going to need to find a way to facilitate Lavelle's talents. Similarly, forwards Ashley Hatch and Cheyna Matthews need to quickly acclimate to the types of runs that Lavelle is creating for them. If they can succeed, they should have a chance to win this game. If they can't, this is going to look like another lost season for the Spirit.
How to watch
The game is set to kick off at 10:30 p.m. ET at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon. The game will be broadcast in the United States on Yahoo! Sports. International fans can go to the NWSL website to find their steaming or broadcast provider.