The Portland Thorns (6-4-2, 20pts) return to the Providence Park pitch as Sky Blue FC (2-6-6, 12pts) comes to town for their final meeting of the season on Wednesday at 7:00pm PDT.
The Thorns and Sky Blue have met twice this season. The first match ended as a 1-1 draw in Piscataway, New Jersey, that saw Christie Rampone score her first professional goal off a corner kick in the first half and the Thorns responding with an Allie Long penalty kick goal in the 75th minute. Sky Blue then earned a penalty kick of their own at the end of the match, but Kelley O'Hara badly mishit the ball. The second match began the Thorns recent 3 match losing streak, as O'Hara scored a late winner, but Sky Blue has gone winless in 5 since.
The Thorns come into the match off the high single scoring output by a team in NWSL history, when they hung 6 goals on the Spirit on Saturday, after both Alex Morgan and Jessica McDonald netted brace each and Christine Sinclair and Allie Long each scored a goal as well, as the Spirit appeared to simply give up in the last several minutes of the match.
Sky Blue is not a team that will let that happen against them, and goalkeeper Jill Loyden has had the Thorns number this season, particularly Christine Sinclair's, who has had several golden opportunities saved, registering 8 shots (3 on goal) in their first two meetings, with none of them finding the back of the net.
There is something about Sky Blue that the Thorns seem to struggle to produce an attack. If the Thorns' 3-1 victory on July 31, 2013 is taken away, the matches have ended 1-0, 0-0, 1-1, and 1-0, with Sky Blue having a 2-1-2 advantage all time against the Thorns. Sky Blue prides themselves on controlling the midfield and limiting the chances of their opponents, but they also don't score particularly often, only more than 1 goal three times this season.
The Thorns are clearly a different team than the one who played in either of the matches earlier this season. They have nearly doubled their total goal scoring output (10 to 18) in their past two matches, albeit against the team with the most goals allowed on the season. Morgan scored 4 goals in 3 days (2 w/USWNT), Sinclair is looking dangerous, Vero has found her groove, and leading goal scorer McDonald has found herself relegated to a super-sub role with the return of Morgan, but still had 2 goals herself on Saturday. Additionally, the Thorns have a finally healthy Rachel Van Hollebeke and Nadine Angerer back to co-captain the backline, which means the early-season defensive flubs are like a thing of the past.
Sky Blue FC
Sky Blue has found themselves struggling mightily after stunning the Thorns on May 24. Winless in their past 5 and only capturing 6 points in their 12 matches since their first meeting with the Thorns, it has come to the point that even their broadcasters doubt their ability to get back into the playoff chase. They currently sit just 2 points ahead of the Boston Breakers on the table and the Breakers have a game in hand.
Defense, as always, is the name of the game for Jim Gabarra's side, as the Thorns will likely keep them busy all night. Loyden, Rampone, and the rest of the Sky Blue defense will need to play out of their minds if the Thorns keep up their current run of form, as their offense, a weakness to begin with, will be missing forward Monica Ocampo (2 goals), while midfielder Katy Freels and O'Hara are their only other multi-goal scorers.
Sky Blue are likely up for the challenge presented by the Thorns, but they have never faced this iteration of the Thorns and the weapons they possess. They can no longer afford to clog the passing lanes and have the personnel to contain the Thorns four-pronged attack and could find themselves on the end of a very lopsided scoreline of they simply play one-dimensional all match.
A major factor that comes into the play for both sides in this match is the short rest between matches, with the Thorns playing on three days' rest, while Sky Blue will be playing on two days' rest and both had to travel from the east coast after their weekend matches. This is where the Thorns' depth will play a huge factor, especially with another match in Kansas City on Saturday. The Thorns have only two players who have yet to make a start this season, and one of them (Van Hollebeke) is likely to make a start this week, so even if Riley does a bit of squad rotation to save players for Saturday, the Thorns will have players with starting experience in the lineup.
Injuries will also play a factor for both sides, though much more significantly for Sky Blue, who will be missing starters Taylor Lytle and Ocampo, and possibly Ashley Nick, who is listed as Doubtful with a concussion. The Thorns will be without Mana Shim, who is listed as Out with a left patellar subluxation, a previously undisclosed injury, and Kat Tarr, though both players were in training and Riley believes that Shim will not be out long.
The Thorns want to put on a show for the home fans. It is something that has been mentioned time and time again by Riley and the players, and coming off the heels of a record-setting performance and a struggling opponent, Wednesday may be the day that this latest iteration of the Thorns shows itself to be the dominant force we've all been waiting for.
Keys to the Match
Play a Full Match - Despite the final score, the Thorns were only in control of their last match early and late, while letting the Spirit dictate everything until Morgan scored her second goal. Sky Blue's defense is far superior to that of Washington, and a good way to break this down is to put on sustained pressure from the start.
Don't Underestimate Sky Blue - Sky Blue has a very poor record, but they were still a playoff team last season, though they slid drastically over the last several weeks of the season and simply couldn't score at the end, a problem that continues into this season. The Thorns have been shocked several times this season, but with as close as the table has become, the Thorns are reaching the point where they can ill-afford to drop points.
Put on a Show - The Thorns have been disappointed that they have yet to show their best at home, especially dropping their previous meeting with Sky Blue on a late goal. This is a bit of a revenge game for the Thorns, and a dominant performance against a team that has constantly frustrated them would certainly lift the spirits of every in Portland.
Portland Thorns (6-4-2, 20pts) vs. Sky Blue FC (2-6-6, 12pts)
Wednesday June 25, 2014 at 7:00pm PDT
Providence Park - Portland, Oregon
TV - Comcast SportsNet NW