The Portland Thorns (5-4-2, 17pts.) return to the pitch, as they travel to Boyds, Maryland to take on the Washington Spirit (6-6-1, 19pts.) on Saturday, June 21 at 3:30pm PDT from the Maryland SoccerPlex.
The Thorns and Spirit met for their only meeting of the season in Portland on Sunday, a 2-0 victory for the Thorns that saw Jessica McDonald return to the score sheet, Vero netted her first goal and earning Player of the Week, and Michelle Betos make her first start of 2014 and record her first clean sheet in the NWSL as both sides played with rosters depleted by international call ups.
The Thorns played arguably their best match of the season Sunday, despite missing 4 starters (Nadine Angerer, Allie Long, Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair) and two presumed starters (Tobin Heath and Rachel Van Hollebeke) to international duty. Betos, Sarah Huffman, Angie Kerr, and Rebecca Moros filled in admirably in their stead, as the Thorns brought out an attacking mindset from the start, with McDonald getting an early goal, and Vero finished the match off late after lurking around the net for much of the second half.
During training last week, Riley spoke of the variety of factors that would come into the lineup for this match, with the performance of the squad in Sunday's match, the closeness of the international matches, and some schedule congestion all playing a role in team selection. Thankfully for the Thorns, the only player to play a full match on while international duty and will be available Saturday was Sinclair, as her Canadian side lost to Nadine Angerer's Germany side 2-1 in Vancouver on Wednesday. Long played 60 minutes, Morgan played 45, scoring 2 goals, and Rachel Van Hollebeke did not appear for the US. Angerer and Heath will not be available for the Thorns Saturday.
With a match Wednesday in Portland against Sky Blue FC and another June 28 against FC Kansas City in Kansas City, Riley will look to save his players' legs as much as possible, perhaps bringing out most of the same lineup as Sunday, with Morgan and Van Hollebeke possibly moving into the Starting XI since they played fewer minutes than Long or Sinclair, bringing the latter two on as substitutes later in the match. Bringing in any of the internationals into the starting lineup would potentially damage the chemistry the team showed last weekend though, so we will have to wait and see what Riley decides to do.
The Spirit will potentially bring out a completely different look coming into this match, with Americans Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger and Canadians Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott all returning from international duty, while the team traded Bianca Sierra to Boston, who started Sunday, for Lisa De Vanna, while mid-season signings Niki Cross, Kersten Garefrekes, and Alex Singer could all be available for Mark Parson's side.
Additionally, Crystal Dunn could return from injury. UPDATE: Dunn is listed as OUT on the latest injury report.
Harris, Krieger, and Matheson all played 90 minutes for their respective national sides, while Scott played 61. The Spirit don't have the schedule congestion that the Thorns do, with a week between matches, so the Spirit would seem to be more likely to run their national teamers out on short rest and a thin roster to begin with, though this would also be affected by the availability of the three aforementioned signings, as well as losing Jordan Angeli to a in a mistaken identity Red Card after a foul resulted in a Yellow Card that should have gone to Tori Huster.
The Spirit only added to their speed by adding De Vanna to an already speedy forward corps that featured Renee Cuellar and Jodie Taylor, with the pesky Matheson sitting just behind them. None of this will matter though if the Thorns control the match like they did last week, as the Thorns never gave the Spirit much of a chance to get into the game, a trend they will look to continue in the rematch, while the Spirit will try to find a way to counter this and push a young Thorns backline.
Home and home matchups are not that uncommon in Champions League or playoff play, but it is a bit unusual to see them scheduled in this manner during a regular season. The returning internationals add some mystery to this match as both sides cannot simply use what they game-planned for in the last match again with so many potential starters being available. The Spirit seem to be the side that will be more or a wildcard though, bringing back their internationals, trading for De Vanna, and potentially adding three others who haven't seen time for them yet.
Morgan scoring twice for the United States on Thursday may have thrown a wrench into Riley's plans as he surely cannot start her now, though he admitted in an interview posted on the Thorns' website that decisions on the team wouldn't be made until Friday, but it seems unlikely that she would be held back form starting after only playing half the match Thursday. While that is short rest, players do it all the time in college, qualifying tournaments, and the like, and it helps that the internationals who were away were mostly on the younger side.
Morgan and Vero seems to have found their form, and a new Spirit backline, one that will probably not really be in sync with each other, gives the Thorns an ever better chance for a dominant performance. The Spirit like to use their speed and attack off the long ball, so the Thorns will have to play with extra awareness to not allow players behind them and alone with Betos, but if the Thorns control possession and the midfield, they will successfully contain much of the threat presented by Washington.
Thorns Keys to the Match
Avoid Complacency - Regardless of the lineup, the Thorns cannot afford to overlook the Spirit, who could bring out almost a completely new Starting XI, especially in the back. Yes, the Thorns were dominant on Sunday, but they were also playing a team that came out in a 2-5-3 because they only had two first team defenders available and they traded one of them away this week.
Find your Rhythm - The Thorns success came last week mainly because they didn't allow the Spirit to come into the match for more than short spurts. They looked like the team we expected to see from the start this season, playing connected and moving the ball easily around defenders, something they have been working on in training, and will need to continue this onward throughout the remainder of the season.
Attack and Finish - The beautiful, attacking football Thorns fans have been promised from the start made an appearance Sunday, as McDonald was sprung free on a through ball and later Vero danced her way past a defender and easily slotted it past Chantel Jones, just minutes after hitting the post. Plays like these made goalscoring look easy, and with Morgan coming in off her two goal performance for the USWNT, the Thorns have to feel good about their attack going against the Spirit.
Portland Thorns (5-4-2, 17pts.) vs. Washington Spirit (6-6-1, 19pts.)
Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 3:30pm PDT
Maryland SoccerPlex - Boyds, Maryland