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Storylines: Portland Thorns at Washington Spirit

Lindsay Horan trying to make space in the box against the Washington Spirit at home.
Nikita Taparia

The Thorns hit the road again in a quest to break their now five-game winless streak. Portland’s home loss to Orlando pushed them to 2-3-3, but the Washington Spirit are 1-4-2. Both teams have been underachieving based on talent and both will be eager to get back on track as soon as possible.

Annoyingly, the Thorns played some of their best soccer all season in stretches against Orlando last Saturday, but couldn’t find the finishing touch to put Orlando away after letting them go ahead on some simple giveaways. Similarly, the Spirit successfully held off North Carolina pressure for large stretches of their last match but were undone on a set-piece after an hour.

Projected Starting XI

Portland is likely to start what is very close to their first choice XI next Saturday. The major absences left are AD Franch and Hayley Raso.

In text format: Britt Eckerstrom in goal, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds ahead of her, and Meghan Klingenberg and Midge Purce at wingback. Andressinha, Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath in midfield and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic will be up top.

Crnogorcevic should return to the lineup after missing Satuday’s game. Emily Menges is expected to play 60 minutes after making her first appearance all season last weekend where she played 45. Meghan Klingenberg will return from her pre-planned personal absence to make the XI.

Scouting the Opposition

The Washington Spirit, like the Thorns, are winless in their last five games. Unfortunately for them, that run has included two games against the North Carolina Courage (the last-minute nature of the NWSL’s schedule is apparent to anyone watching).

Estelle Johnson, who put up a defensive highlight reel against Ifeoma Onumonu when the Spirit came to Portland a month ago, has been out for the past few games with a right hamstring strain, and the rookie Canadian international Rebecca Quinn has been brought into the defense in her place. Quinn has been adequate if not an immediate standout: she is probably a better midfielder, but the Spirit are loaded in that position. Johnson is listed as questionable for this game and could return.

The Spirit like playing against the Thorns, even when they’re in poor form. Mark Parsons noted that despite the Spirit finishing dead last in the table last season, they played well in their series. “Spirit have had good success against us the last couple of years. Both times at home last year they had a bit more of the ball than any other team. They probably feel good about how they match up against us. We’re unhappy about how we’ve matched up against them [...] Jim [Gabarra] is always prepared to tweak and do what he thinks is needed depending on the game.”

How The Thorns Can Win

Mistakes aside, the Thorns have been doing almost everything right over the past few games. Aside from the game away at Houston, in which the Dash kept a steady shape and broke Portland open on the counter, the Thorns have dominated the ball and haven’t really been beaten defensively. With a mostly complete XI, the mistakes should be on the way out, but a few weak points remain. Mark Parsons was keen to emphasize that the team were targeting specific areas and training them hard.

Offensively, Portland should be trying to utilize their strength on the wings to win their individual battles there and draw Washington’s central players out of position. With Klingenberg’s service back in, the left side should look a lot more dangerous. Midge Purce has been strong in the open field but needs to be a little bit more patient in the final third: if she forces a centerback to come over and help against her that should open up more space for Christine Sinclair, the league’s top scorer in 2018 with five goals from just 18 total shots, to split the defense. Aubrey Bledsoe in the Spirit goal makes amazing saves but poor decisions; testing her with a variety of crosses might be more effective than peppering her goal from all ranges as the Thorns did against Ashlyn Harris.

The defense should really be keeping the Washington Spirit from scoring and aiming to keep their first clean sheet of the season. Surprisingly, the side of the Spirit that looks the poorest at the moment is their offense. They’ve failed to score in their last two games. Ordega, after a bright start to the season, has tailed off significantly, and Mallory Pugh has only two shots in her last 180 minutes of play. Ashley Hatch has been their main offensive outlet recently but has only one goal all season despite taking the seventh-most shots in the league. Only four of her 21 shots this season have been on target, inefficiency numbers rivaling Lynn Williams.

Players to Watch

Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic has been adjusting to them team but has so far looked uncomfortable with the level of physicality in the league, applying too much force when looking to win the ball back and not enough when trying to keep it. Now’s the time for her to find her range, and if she’s matched up against Rebecca Quinn, another player getting her first few games in the league, Crnogorcevic might find the experience a little more forgiving.

When Mallory Weber plays on the front line she looks to drop deep and get more involved with play, which tends to push Sinclair further up the field to look for space. Crnogorcevic will likely look to stay on the front line which means that Sinclair will spend more time in between the lines with the ball at her feet. Sinclair won a few early tackles against Andi Sullivan last game to set the tone in the midfield, and it will be interesting to see how that battle goes again.

When Tobin Heath drops centrally, the Thorns midfield could look like a box, though Heath is sure to want to drift forward and out to the left wing when she gets the chance. When on the left wing, Heath will be matched up against Taylor Smith, which will be their first meeting since their encounter in the NWSL final. Smith has not impressed since her move to the Spirit, having been effectively dropped from the national team, and it will be interesting to see if there’s any bad blood between the two.