This Saturday's match between the Thorns and the Spirit is a tale of two different trajectories. The Thorns come into Maryland SoccerPlex at the top of the NWSL standings with seven points, two wins, and a draw, buoyed by an electrifying home win over Seattle and a road win over Chicago last week. The Spirit, on the other hand, limp in with two points, courtesy of a loss and a pair of draws. Washington stands in sixth place at this point. It seems like a no-brainer -Portland is the superior team.
While that's probably true, win-loss records and standings don't tell the entire story, especially this early in the inaugural season of a league still getting its sea legs. While they've had their struggles, Washington is a team packed with talent. If the squad, led by head coach Mike Jorden, can tighten up certain issues, the Spirit will be a challenging foe.
Even as they stand now, the Spirit possess a dangerous potential. Speaking to the media at Jeld-Wen Field on Wednesday, Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone made it clear her side will not be overlooking the Spirit. "Every team is so good in this league," she said. "I say this before every game but it's true: when you only have eight teams, it's not like the talent is spread over 30 teams. Every team is quality, and every position is quality."
As Parlow Cone ticked off the players on the Spirit roster, it became clear pretty quickly that her statement was no platitude (the tone in Parlow Cone's voice added to the clarity, by the way).
Here's what the Thorns will be up against:
Ashlyn Harris. Along with USWNT stalwart defender Ali Krieger, the at-times brilliant goalkeeper (and UNC product) Harris has anchored the Spirit's effort. The Thorns have faced formidable keepers before -Michelle Betos and Erin McLeod come to mine-and should expect no relief from that trend on Saturday. Harris has seen 38 shots (22 on-frame) and made 17 saves, some of them spectacular, in this young season.
Ali Krieger. Krieger seems to have recovered well from the serious knee injury she suffered at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers in early 2012, and she's stamped the Spirit backline with her usual dynamic style of play. "She's not only amazing defensively, she's also so good at making those runs forward," Parlow Cone says, "and her service in the box is outstanding."
Diana Matheson. The hard-charging midfielder so far has proven the heart and soul of this team. "She's like the engine in there," Parlow Cone said. "She's everywhere defensively, and then attacking-wise, she's always looking to go forward. One minute it looks like she's playing right back, and then the next she looks like she's playing center forward. She's everywhere. And it's for 90 minutes." Indeed, over the past three games, Matheson has driven threatening service into opposing defenses on numerous occasions, as well as scoring two goals. Portland's midfield needs to be ready to shut her down.
So far, the Spirit's greatest weakness appears to be its attack. The team's forwards have the chops, but so far haven't proven a nose for the goal. "They have great speed and talent with Caroline Miller and Tiffany McCarty, whoever they try to put up there," Parlow Cone said. The squad's defense also is prone to costly breakdowns. In last week's game against Sky Blue FC, for example, poor marking on a corner kick led to a goal in the first three minutes of the game.
Still, the Spirit have at times proven they can take hold of the run of play. In the loss against SBFC, for instance, Washington's pass completion, pass totals, and first touch statistics all proved pretty solid, and the team has showed signs of extended coherence in its first three matches.
All told, the Thorns should beat this team. But if the Spirit start putting the pieces together, don't expect a walk in the park. In fact, don't even bother grabbing your walking shoes at all. "Every game is going to be a battle," Parlow Cone said Wednesday, slowly looking over the sun-drenched pitch at Jeld-Wen. "Definitely."