If the Thorns (8-3-2, 26 pts.) can win this Saturday in their first matchup against the Boston Breakers (4-5-4, 16 pts.) this season, they could wrest first place out of the hands of Sky Blue FC, should the Jerseyites lose or draw their match against the Washington Spirit earlier in the day. If Boston wins, they'll remain in the race for fourth place.
Neither the Thorns nor the Breakers are riding any sort of momentum. Portland has won only two of its last five matches, while Boston has just won one. On Wednesday, Boston struggled through a 1-1 draw with the surging Seattle Reign. Portland, meanwhile, is coming off its worst game of the season, a depressing 2-0 loss at FCKC, in which the Thorns offense appeared positively anemic.
Boston comes into Jeld-Wen fronted by the red-hot Sydney Leroux, whose eight goals put her tied for the league goal lead with FC Kansas City's Lauren Cheney. Leroux will be aided by fellow USWNT player Heather O'Reilly, whose speed and consistent service make her a constant threat.
"Boston's an outstanding team. They have so much speed and pace up front and a very solid midfield three...we're definitely going to have to play our best to get three points out of this game," Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone said after training on Thursday.
Leroux and O'Reilly, plus the often dangerous Lianne Sanderson, will test a backline that has proven shaky --a situation made even worse by the fact that outside back Marian Dougherty, who injured her knee in last weekend's 2-0 loss to FCKC, will most likely not be available.
A positive for Portland: Boston's backline, led by Cat Whitehill, also lacks consistency, and while Portland has struggled at times to score against well-formed defenses like those of FCKC and SBFC, the Thorns' attack --led by Alex Morgan, of course, who leads the league in shots (43) and shots on goal (26)-- can be explosive when its firing on all cylinders.
Don't be surprised if Christine Sinclair isn't one of those cylinders. After training on Thursday, Sinclair seemed resigned to her shifting duties.
"It's a new role for me, but I need to pick up my game defensively, be more of a rock in the midfield," she said. "Getting stuck in, making those key tackles, trying to win the ball further up the field so that we can maybe play Alex in one ball or Mana [Shim] in, or myself getting in."
Is it a bummer to think of Sinclair--one of the top three forwards in the world--worrying about her defense? Yes. But considering that the usual midfield rock Becky Edwards is out for the season, and considering the difficulty the Thorns have had in connecting from the midfield, if that's what it takes to get the team back on track, so be it. As it stands, early in the season, this match looked very winnable for Portland; given their inconsistent play of late, it seems to be less of a sure thing. Given the firepower and inconsistent backlines on both sides, this game could very well end up a shootout. If that's the case, anything that gets the ball to Morgan will be crucial. If that means Sinc listing herself third as an offensive option, well...sigh...so be it.