Well, this should be interesting.
The Portland Thorns (6-1-1) v Chicago Red Stars (0-4-2) match that will take place this Saturday at Jeld-Wen is one of only two matches in the NWSL schedule this weekend (the other is Sky Blue FC v Boston Breakers, also on Saturday).
The big storyline in this game is the absence of Portland stars Alex Morgan, Rachel Buehler, Christine Sinclair, and Karina LeBlanc. The two U.S. and two Canadians will be facing off against each other in an international friendly on June 2, after which, they return to the Thorns as teammates.
The Thorns called up three amateurs to fill out the roster for Saturday's match: defender Carlie Davis, midfielder Amanda Dutra, and goalkeeper Cris Lewis.
The Red Stars have seen some lineup changes as well, as this week they welcomed their two German internationals, Sonja Fuss (D) and Inka Grings (F), hot off their season in Europe.
So, where does that leave us, exactly?
Morgan and Sinclair, of course, have been responsible for two-thirds of the Thorns' goals this season, with four apiece off of a total of 59 shots. Even when they're not scoring, the pair free up other attackers by forcing the defense to pay constant attention, pulling defenders out of position, especially on set pieces. Sinclair's newly adopted role as a distributor/attacking midfielder has proven a key component -if not the key component-for an offense tied for the lead league in goals scored (12). Also, in case you didn't know, they are two of the best players in the world.
Those are big boots to fill. The onus for filling them most likely will fall on forward Danielle Foxhoven -a dynamic player with a nose for the goal, heretofore utilized as a supersub-and Shim, an energetic team player who has never played forward before until this season.
Other potential scoring threats for the Thorns: Allie Long, who possesses a cannon foot, and Nikki Washington, who is also capable of cranking one in from long range. Kerr has looked more dangerous of late.
Having been set up more as an attacking midfielder than a pure forward, Sinclair also has played an essential role as a distributor. Who takes over that slot -or even if Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone chooses to remain in her version of a 4-4-2-remains to be seen, although my guess is we'll see Kerr there.
Considering Parlow Cone's willingness to mix and match players and positions and the fact that a primarily closed off training schedule has kept tactics/shape hidden, I hesitate to make any more predictions beyond that. But we can toss around a few questions:
How much will Rachel Buehler's absence affect the backline? Buehler has played some serious lights-out defense for most of the season, setting the tone for a physical, shut-down line that has gone 190 minutes without giving up a goal. Kat Williamson, Marian Dougherty, and Nikki Marshall all have played extremely well, but Buehler is their leader.
How will Parlow Cone reshuffle this backline? The coach has a few options for filling the Buehler gap -Courtney Wetzel has played very well in the midfield and could drop back to defense, or Parlow Cone could also go with the speedy Jazmyne Avant. Parlow Cone also has the option of throwing Davis somewhere in the back, or might even have Elizabeth Guess make her Thorns debut on defense. Yes, Guess is a midfielder, but Parlow Cone told me a few weeks ago that she has tried her out at right back in practice.
How will Adelaide Gay fare in goal? The 5'6" Gay certainly does not exhibit the imposing figure that LeBlanc does, nor can she boast the same level of veteran leadership. Gay's an overachiever, and while diminutive, she stood out at North Caroline, at one point racking up 450 minutes without a goal.
But can she stave off the Red Stars? Midfielder Lori Chalupny has played well in spurts during this season, earning two goals and an assist. While she's been underachieving to some extent, she still has managed some quality runs and chances in her two games against Portland. With the defense shuffled around and a different keeper, she may end up more successful. Another, perhaps more frightening, wild card is Grings. The 34-year-old is a veteran of the German national team and has 64 international goals under her belt.
Frankly, Grings knows how to rip up a defense. As well as the Thorns entire defense is playing, Grings is a colossal threat. If Buehler were playing, I'd be less worried about this, but at this juncture it's a concern, with a relative newbie in goal.
On paper, the odds favor the Thorns in this one. Chicago hasn't yet registered a win, has struggled to score goals, and have lost to Portland twice before already, both times 2-0. But both of those games featured a markedly different roster for the Thorns, and their roster for this game is, admittedly, quite a step down. The Red Stars' roster changes, meantime, have been for the better, as Grings is basically on the level of an allocated player.
We'll see what happens.