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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs Washington Spirit

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Crnogorcevic stretches for a cross against Orlando last Sunday.
Kris Lattimore

After a convincing win in wet conditions in their home opener, the Thorns get their second game at home just five days later in what promises to be much nicer weather. Their opponent, the Washington Spirit, get a day’s more rest for travel after having been disassembled at home in a physically demanding game against the North Carolina Courage. Last weekend’s game against the Pride kicked off a long West Coast stretch for the Thorns: the furthest they will travel is Houston before the return fixture of this Friday’s game away at Washington on May 19th.

Projected Starting XI

Emily Menges is still not in full training, and is officially out for the game. Kelli Hubly has made the case for her importance to the squad in Menges’ absence, leading the league in tackles going into the Orlando game, and will continue at left center back. Angela Salem, a late recall to the squad last game, is out with an excused absence: read that as meaning she’s not getting flown across the country for a weeknight game. Elizabeth Ball, who missed the squad last week with a hamstring strain, is questionable but with the team severely short handed she will probably be sitting on the bench hoping not to be used for very long. Meg Morris’s ongoing hip issues are preventing her from being match fit.

The starting lineup will probably only have one change from Sunday: Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic is likely to get her first start for the Thorns ahead of Tyler Lussi, who despite putting in critical defensive shifts from the front, hasn’t quite found her final ball yet this season. Mallory Weber was excellent at both running channels and keeping the ball against Orlando and has made possibly the biggest contribution to overall play of the three forwards who started the season: she is odds on to retain her spot for now.

The big news of the early week was that Tobin Heath was going to play on Friday but will not complete the full 90 minutes. As this is her first game back, she is more likely to get 30 minutes at the end of the match.

Scouting the Opposition

The Washington Spirit have been as badly hit with injuries and international absences as any other team in the league. Most notably, the red-hot Mallory Pugh came off early last week against the North Carolina Courage with what coach Jim Gabarra called “hamstring soreness”. While it seemed more precautionary than anything else and Pugh is not listed on the injury report, it’s unclear whether she will start. Rebecca Quinn failed to make the bench last game with a muscle strain that will continue to keep her out. Estefania Banini is busy lighting up the Copa America and long-term absence Rose Lavelle remains unavailable. All the midfield absences leave Havana Solun alongside the veteran Joanna Lohman as the most likely pairing in the center, which probably feels uncomfortably 2017 for the Spirit.

History

One of only five wins the Spirit had last season was against Portland during the Thorns’ early season malaise. The Thorns would go on to win the title and the Spirit would go on to finish dead last in the league. Expectations are high in Washington this year with an influx of young talent, but it’s early in the season and much of the team is still getting used to each other. The Thorns are 3-1-1 against the Spirit since manager Mark Parsons traded Washington’s Soccerplex for Providence Park ahead of the 2016 season, and the Thorns are 7-2-4 against the Spirit all time.

Players to Watch

Washington’s centerbacks have been woeful this season, and Friday’s game is a good opportunity for Crnogorcevic to demonstrate her skills, but the really interesting matchup is Christine Sinclair against Andi Sullivan in midfield. This year’s number one NWSL college draft pick has been thrown in at the deep end and she hasn’t always looked like the steady heartbeat in midfield that she was billed as for either club or country. It’s one thing to be bossed off the ball by McCall Zerboni or Jess Fishlock though, and quite another to be facing a crafty player in Sinclair who can do almost anything in attack. Sinclair can drag you out of position and open up space for others, but if you leave her alone she’ll punish you, as she’s demonstrated twice already this season. We’ll see if Sullivan is up to the tactical challenge.

On the other end of the field, Francisca Ordega is consistently one of the Spirit’s most dangerous attackers, and she’ll need to be kept quiet if the Thorns want to record their first clean sheet of the year. Against Orlando’s front three, Meghan Klingenberg sat a little deeper than usual in order to provide an extra player in defense, and also to allow Midge Purce to push as high as she liked: look for Klingenberg to do something similar to try and keep Ordega under wraps.

In goal, Aubrey Bledsoe can run both hot and cold in the space of a few minutes. She’s capable of making amazing saves back to back but also makes bad decisions and can be exposed by high balls into the area. Purce’s crosses have been looking dangerous and this may well be the game they bear fruit.

Gameplan

Talking about the quick turnaround between the two games, Coach Parsons didn’t sound too worried, noting: “The players are in great shape, and when you’re at home it’s simpler”. This season, loaded as it is with international obligations, will have a lot of these short gaps between games, some even shorter, and they will test the whole squad even when the internationals return.

If the Spirit have been good at anything this season, it’s been picking balls off other teams’ defenders in possession, and after some sloppy passing from the Thorns last game you can be sure this will be targeted as an area where they can benefit. Once that initial line of pressure is beaten, the Thorns will be looking to dominate the midfield like they did in the second half against Orlando. If the battle in midfield can be won, that will go a long way toward keeping the ball in Washington’s half and denying the Spirit chances on goal.