Almost eight weeks ago, the NWSL kicked off with a bang, when FC Kansas City's Renee Cuellar scored the league's opening goal within three minutes of the opening whistle.
The goal, of course, came against the Portland Thorns, who had traveled to Shawnee Mission District Stadium as the second side in the marquee match, and it was a shocker.
Portland ended up with a draw in the game, but if anything, the opening fireworks demonstrated what a force Cuellar can be. Fifty-two days will have passed since that opening match, and much has changed for these two sides. Portland stands in second in the NWSL standings (6-2-1, 19 pts.), while FCKC (3-2-1, 10 pts.) is alone in fifth place. Portland has played nine games, Kansas City has played a league-low six. Portland's marquee players have lead the team to fulfilling the preseason predictions of success, while Kansas City's sailing has been rougher. But Cuellar's presence hasn't changed a bit.
FCKC coach Vlatko Andovnoski has chosen to play a modified 4-5-1 (shifting into a 4-2-3-1) with this team, pushing Cuellar up as the lone striker and relying on Lauren Cheney to act as a playmaker. If that shape's intention is to hold down the fort in back while feeding balls to the Cuellar, it's worked. The Mexican national has bagged four goals in six games -as many as Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, and second only to league leader Sophie Schmidt's five. Cuellar's 21 shots, including 11 on goal, have in in the top five of the league. Obviously, Portland knows all too well how quickly Cuellar can strike, and if the Thorns use that knowledge to shut her down, FCKC will have to adjust.
That adjustment most likely will come in the form of Cheney. A natural striker, Cheney ‘s role as playmaker in some ways mirrors that of the Thorns' Christine Sinclair. Cheney's distribution has been crucial for the Blues, as her three assists on the year demonstrate, but her attacking ability is the real threat here. The US national teamer has taken 19 shots of her own in FCKC's six games; two of those shots have found the back of the net. Should Portland's hardy backline shut down Cuellar, it can't rest on its laurels -Cheney will be lurking.
Speaking of that backline, the Thorns defense has spent much of the season on lockdown mode, racking up four clean sheets out of eight games. Last Saturday's 2-0 home loss against the Chicago Red Stars featured some lapses that lead to deadly set pieces, but the return of Rachel Buehler -who was away on national team duty during that game-should do much to shore things up.
Ah, yes, those set pieces: After Saturday's game, Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone said, "We got beat on set pieces today. We need to go back to the drawing table and make sure we don't let that happen again." And she was dead right. Sans the leadership of both Buehler and keeper Karina LeBlanc (also away on national team duty), the Thorns defense reverted to poor marking and confusion in the box. The return of those two stalwarts should help.
There's also the small matter of the return of forwards Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. I wouldn't expect any surprises here. Although Parlow Cone has proven she's not afraid to make unusual lineup shuffles, she doesn't have much choice but to play the 4-4-2 she's been using thus far, with Morgan and Mena Shim and Sinclair in the playmaker position behind those two.
Given the Thorns' struggles to connect on offense, will that be enough? Probably. Morgan's numbers are gaudy -33 shots, 21 shots on goal, and four goals-and Sinclair, who lately has appeared more aggressive when it comes to pushing the issue on offense, has four goals herself. The Thorns attack will be taking on a defense missing a key player, defender Lauren Sesselmann, who received a red card in FCKC's 1-0 loss to Sky Blue last week.