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Match Preview: Chicago Red Stars at Portland Thorns

Hayley Raso

Saturday we will see the last match of the NWSL 2017 regular season when the Chicago Red Stars come to Portland for a match that might be a preview of a semifinal or a re-shuffling of the last two playoff spots.

The Thorns (13-5-5) drew Orlando nil-nil in last weekend’s surly match in Florida that saw the home team hammering on a bunkering Thorns for most of the first half, only for the visitors to regroup and reorganize in the second period to see off the tiring Pride and claw in the road point.

Chicago (11-6-6) locked up their third consecutive playoff appearance with a lights-out affair in Houston that saw some questionable penalty calls - one for each team - and two penalty kick conversions. The Red Stars lost Nagasato for this match due to a late red card within three minutes after stepping onto the pitch but held on for the 2-3 win.

All-time, Portland is 4-1-5 against Chicago. This season, however, Thorns FC has owned the Red Stars, defeating them 1-0 here in April and 2-3 in Chicago in mid-August.

What’s at stake?

For Portland:

The same as in Orlando; a role in deciding who they will play here on October 7th, as well as ensuring the Thorns enter the postseason in peak form.

With the Shield both almost out of reach (even with a Thorns win Saturday, Carolina would have to lose both their final regular season matches for Portland to finish ahead on points) and effectively meaningless (with the Final set for Orlando), Portland has to decide how badly it wants the points from this match.

Go all in against Chicago, hope Orlando can beat Carolina on the final day, and thus ease Orlando into third and hope to beat them here in the semifinal, rather than risk them beating Carolina in the other semifinal and then meeting them at their home in the Final.

And just as a completely unbiased observation; “neutral venue”, my backside.

Or take their foot off the gas, rest some starters, cruise into the postseason in second and take their chances - but in so doing possibly take some of the edge off the team going into the postseason?

For Chicago:

With their semifinal guaranteed, Chicago, like Portland, will be playing to stay sharp for the postseason and keep a hand in deciding who plays where on the first weekend in October.

The latter might make the match more interesting because, unlike Thorns FC, the Carolina Courage has been Red Stars’ meat all season; losing both home-and-home matches back in May 6-3 on aggregate. A meeting with Portland here might be much less appealing than going to Carolina.

However, in order to do that the Red Stars would have to play to lose here. Even a draw against the Thorns would ensure a rematch here in Portland if Orlando beats the Courage, since Chicago owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Pride. The prospect of sending the team out to deliberately throw a match away and still ending up playing their semifinal in front of a big hostile crowd can’t be appealing for Rory Dames.

Thorns Starting XI

Probably similar to last weeks’; Raso-Sykes-Nadim up front, Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan in midfield, and Reynolds-Sonnett-Menges-Klingenberg across the back with AD Franch in goal.

The real tossup is who the other midfielder will be.

Allie “Nigel De”Long was lucky to avoid getting sent off in Orlando after a relatively ineffective hour that savagely picked out her inability to find a place in the starting XI.

As a forward she’s a walking offsides call, Sinclair is a better attacking midfielder, and Amandine Henry and Horan are better defenders. She lacks the pace to play out wide, and the mere thought of her in the back line sends a shiver of horror up my back, if no one else’s.

So my guess is she goes back to the bench to come in for Henry in the second half. Henry is the first choice as DM and it might be nice to have her on the pitch to help out with Christen Press, so that would seem to make the Henry-then-Long combination the third of the three Thorns in the middle.

I suspect we will see Tobin Heath come on for Horan in the second half - perhaps for the entire second half, if she’s fit enough - and that should help the Thorns’ attack given how good she was looking by the final whistle in Orlando.

City on Fire?

Chicago’s starting XI is very likely to depend on Dames’ decision regarding the question of how hard to play this match.

A Red Stars team that is coming out to win will send out their standard 4-3-1-2 that includes Alyssa Naeher between the posts, Short-Johnson-Nauton-Gilliland along the backline, a midfield of Colaprico-Ertz-Mautz across the back with Vanessa DiBernardo in attack, and Kristin Press and Jen Hoy as strikers.

A Red Stars team that intends to use the match to fiddle with the league table might well rest several of these players, particularly DiBernardo and, possibly, Press, so we might see Sofia Huerta in place of Press and Taylor Comeau or Michele Dalton in place of DiBernardo.

What to Expect

Hard to say.

The last time the two teams met, in Chicago in August, Portland won 2-3, but largely on the strength of a terrific first ten minutes and a second-half Klingenberg-to-Sonnett free kick.

Ahhh. But that first ten minutes. Remember this?

Possibly the prettiest team goal the Thorns have scored this season?

Yep. It was against Chicago in Chicago.

Sigh. Pure poetry.

Sorry, I just wanted to enjoy that one over again. Because the rest of that match was a nailbiter and pretty scary for Thorns FC.

Chicago had Portland under the hammer most of the match but just couldn’t convert. The Red Stars put in 28 crosses to Portland’s 6, almost 55% of the possession, outshooting Portland 12 to 6 and 5-to-3 on target.

Chicago’s “expected goals” - xG - for that match was 2.47, Portland’s xG only 0.927 (three shots on goal, three goals? Try doing that twice). Thorns FC did much, much better against Chicago than they deserved back in August.

In the teams’ first meeting in April, however, A.D. Franch stood on her head to keep the clean sheet and Emily Sonnett bounced a random pass off Press’ arm that was called a handball for a penalty for the 1-nil win. That match was hard-fought as well (30 fouls between the two teams) but much better from Portland; Thorns FC had 9 shots to 14 for Chicago, almost 60% of the possession, almost half again as many passes made (405 to 287), and almost half again as many completed (285 to 197).

This Saturday, however, it’s likely that both teams will want to play safe. Neither wants to lose a critical player to injury, and neither has anything crucial to gain from breaking a leg to win. I suspect we’ll see a careful, conservative match from two teams that already have one eye on the semifinal and have little to prove, knowing they’re likely to meet again in a week.