On Friday night, Utah Royals FC will host Portland Thorns FC in the first match back in league play after the FIFA break last weekend. While the league took a short hiatus, the United States women's national team won twice against Portugal in a pair of friendlies as part of their Victory Tour. The five-game series will be spread out over three months as a celebration of the USWNT winning their fourth Women's World Cup.
Utah is bringing a streak of three wins and a draw into this match, and they are hoping to continue the impressive performance that has pulled them into playoff position. After a sluggish period during the World Cup, Utah has been playing with intensity and confidence offensively, something that the team has been struggling with throughout their existence. The visiting Thorns will try to hold their significant advantage at the top of the league table as they push toward their fourth NWSL Shield.
Christen Press is on fire
During the World Cup, Utah Royals FC went from first place in the National Women's Soccer League to seventh. It felt like the newest team in the league was destined for another also-ran sort of season as the offense shut down and the defense couldn't hold their own. Then the World Cup ended and superstar Christen Press returned to league play. All of the sudden, Utah looked dynamic and started winning games again.
Press has scored six goals in the last seven games, and her presence on the front line has helped fellow forward Amy Rodriguez score three goals in the last four matches. Those nine goals represent almost half of the total number that Utah has scored all season. It's clear that the team has been more successful since Press retuned to the lineup. There are a few warning signs, though. The reliance on Press and Rodriguez in Utah is worrying. Those two players have accounted for 14 of the 19 goals that Utah has scored this season. If they lose some production, like they did against the Washington Spirit in the last match, there aren't any other players set to step up. That is especially dangerous against the Thorns.
The Royals defense has been in a bit of a slump lately. After going through the first five games with just one goal allowed, Utah has been allowing over one goal per match. That kind of defensive performance is good, but there have been times that the back line has broken down at inopportune times. The Royals are also down one of the best outside backs in the league, with Kelley O'Hara still recovering from a leg injury. Getting the defense together for this match will be extremely important because Portland has scored more goals than any team in the league.
Portland hopes to stay on top
Portland Thorns FC have been one of the most consistent teams in the league this season. They started with a win that vaulted them to the top of the standings, and they haven't dropped out of playoff position all season. The Thorns have finished in the top-2 each of the last four seasons, and they seem destined to continue that streak as they currently sit seven points clear of the third-place Chicago Red Stars. A win on Friday would all but guarantee a home playoff game for Portland in October.
While most teams experienced a slump at some point during the season, the Thorns have been remarkably consistent all season. The biggest reason behind their consistency is the performance of Midge Purce, who is having an excellent 2019 campaign. Purce has scored eight goals, the most in her career, while ensuring that her team's offensive performance has remained consistent throughout the season. She is now playing a quieter role with USWNT stars Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan back, but that is certainly a good fallback to have.
While Portland's offense has been the best in the league, their historically excellent defense has slipped. At fifth in the league for goals against, Portland's defense has occasionally been a liability. The pairing of Emily Sonnett and Emily Menges at centerback has been average. Without excellent play from the centerbacks, the advanced play of Ellie Carpenter and Meghan Klingenberg occasionally puts the defense in a difficult position. Even with the slightly worse defensive performance, the added offensive power has kept Portland at the top of the league table. This team is definitely doing something right, but they'll need to shut down one of the hottest forwards in the league to win on Friday.
How to watch
Kickoff is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. ET on Friday night at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, UT. The game will be broadcast on Yahoo! Sports in the United States and on ESPN internationally.