Sky Blue FC vs. Portland Thorns FC
Date: Saturday, June 23, 2013
Kickoff: 4 p.m. (Pacific)
Location: Yurcak Field (Piscataway, N.J.)
Forecast: 82 degrees, partly cloudy
Well, this is a big 'un. On Saturday, Thorns FC will arrive at Yurcak Field to take on New Jersey's Sky Blue FC, a team that has quietly done what the Thorns were supposed to do according to preseason pundits: set the standard for the league.
It's not like Portland's far behind in that department. The two teams are tied at the top of the NWSL table at 8-2-1 and 25 points, with Sky Blue claiming the advantage due to head-to-head advantage. Portland and Sky Blue have met only once, a disappointing May 16 affair at Jeld-Wen, in which the Jersey squad topped a tepid Thorns bunch, 1-0.
How they won that match spoke both to the Thorns' weak points as well as Sky Blue's strengths. SBFC's coach Jim Gabarra appears to have found a solid philosophy that his team is buying into and executing nicely, and it was no more apparent than that mid-May loss, when the team's backline formed a cohesive block that shut down the Thorns formidable offensive threats of Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and (in the second half) Danielle Foxhoven. Sky Blue's masterful defensive leader Christine Rampone stuck to Morgan like patchouli stink, and the usually fierce Morgan seemed resigned to being shut down. Portland also lost its shape a number of times, made ill-conceived runs, and seemed content to let Sky Blue cinch the Thorns' offensive flank.
That was then, however, and this is now. Coming off last week's emotional 2-0 home win against Seattle, Portland has vastly improved its performance of late, both with and without its national team players. After struggling to get comfortable in her new forward position, Mana Shim finally seems to have found her stride. In fact, the offense appears much more in sync, and for longer periods, than it did on May 6. The Thorns outside backs seem to have finally taken Portland head coach Cindy Parlow Cone's exhortations to make overlapping runs and spread the offense wide. Most important, the Thorns seem to have shifted into another attitudinal gear. They were sleepwalking at times this year. After a mortifying loss against Chicago a few weeks ago, the two has played two straight games with a focus and intensity that has manifested in solid wins.
It doesn't hurt, either, that the Thorns will be enjoying the return of three international players -Christine Sinclair, Rachel Buehler, and Alex Morgan.
The big question here is, how will Parlow Cone utilize the three? Sinclair played 90 minutes on Wednesday in Canada's 1-0 loss to Germany, so she should be the most rested. Buehler and Morgan both played 90 in last Saturday's 4-1 defeat of Korea Republic, and Morgan played the first half of Thursday's 5-0 win over the same team.
Other big questions: Will we see recently acquired defender/midfielder Casey Ramirez, who reportedly had been with club for about a week before being officially announced, and/or our other recent signee forward Tiffany Weimer? Does Parlow Cone dare even put them in the game, with a roster that is finally developing some chemistry?
And perhaps the biggest question: How will the Thorns defense respond to an attack that has, somewhat surprisingly, grown into one of the most steady and prolific offenses in the league? Aussie Lisa Di Vanna (5 goals) and Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt (5 goals) have scored some of the most dramatic goals of the season. The Thorns cannot afford to give them an inch of space. Similarly, U.S. international continues to threaten every team she plays, with 14 of her 16 shots being on-goal.
We'll see. Gabbara certainly will have thorough gameplan ready and his team prepped. If the Thorns exhibit the type of effort and willingness to adjust they've exhibited in the past few games, they should be able to upset it and come away with three points.