The Portland Thorns (7-5-5) travel to Piscataway, New Jersey trying to extend a two-game winning streak. With six games left to play, the Thorns control their own playoff destiny. If they win out from here, third place (and avoiding North Carolina in the semifinals) is waiting for them. Before any of that, they have to take care of business away at a winless team—which they failed to do when that team was in Portland.
Meanwhile, Sky Blue (0-3-12) find themselves in the midst of a PR nightmare on top of their on-the-field troubles. After Sam Kerr scored a hat trick for Chicago on her return to Yurcak Field, she let her feelings be known about the state of things in New Jersey:
Kerr on returning to NJ: "If I'm honest I didn't enjoy it. I wish things were better here and that I could stay. I scored a hat trick, but I wasn't myself today. I feel sad. I feel sick playing against these girls. They're my life long friends... (1/) #NWSL— Dan Lauletta (@TheDanLauletta) July 8, 2018
The Equalizer followed up with a story interviewing some of the players and staff about the situation, which Once a Metro covered from an equally damning perspective. It’s a story that’s threatening to become a political scandal, since the governor of New Jersey is a part owner of Sky Blue. Meanwhile Sky Blue FC are going on as though nothing has changed (although they have reportedly added running water and a portable shower in an RV for players, which should be a bare minimum move at this point).
Projected Starting XI
The US Women’s National Team has made the decision to call up their players to camp the weekend before the international break, which pushes the Thorns back into the zone they were in prior to players returning to injury. Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Adrianna Franch and Emily Sonnett will all be unavailable for selection.
The good news is that Andressinha is cleared to play and Caitlin Foord is officially off the injury report. Foord is unlikely to see very much time on the field since she’s still completing her return from long-term injury, but there’s no doubt that seeing her finally make the field will be an emotional boost for the club going into the closing stretch of the season. Andressinha and Celeste Boureille will play in midfield with Andressinha getting license to move forward and create and Boureille mostly holding position and allowing the fullbacks, Meghan Klingenberg and Ellie Carpenter, to push as far forward as possible. Left-sided forward is a major question mark in Tobin Heath’s absence. Mallory Weber could take the spot, though Tyler Lussi is also in contention after looking sharp coming on late in the last two games.
Scouting the opposition
Carli Lloyd is the only player for Sky Blue who has been called into US national team camp. It’s a bit of a fall from grace for Savannah McCaskill to be dropped: McCaskill looked like the clear rookie of the year for much of the season (in an admittedly thin field of rookies) and now finds herself not completing matches due to rumored fitness issues and out of the national team on merit. When Sky Blue earned the draw at Providence Park, it was Lloyd who grabbed her team by the scruff of the neck and pulled them into position to come away with something. Without Lloyd on the field it’s a team that feels bereft of leadership and the will to win.
That’s not to say that they don’t have some decent players: McCaskill still has the capacity to produce something spectacular, and Imani Dorsey has looked sharp since coming into the team. Domi Richardson and Mandy Freeman are centerbacks with great recovery speed, as Crnogorcevic found out last time they met. The real x-factor, though, is Shea Groom: a dangerous runner, good with the ball at her feet but severely gun-shy in front of goal. She’s been threatening to put it all together for years, and no team wants to be on the field with her when she finally does.
It feels like the Thorns have finally come up with their offensive brand this season: overload the wings, combine in tight spaces to break past the players they’ve drawn wide and move quickly into the space left open in the middle.
This is a good opportunity for the Thorns to prove that they are who they are without their stars. Klingenberg led the team in assists last year but has become more of a secondary attacking option this year, and this would be a good game for her to be the one breaking lines and driving in low crosses. Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic is on a bit of a hot streak, having scored in her last two games, and is combining well with Hayley Raso, the player she switches with regularly. It’s an important chance for Crnogorcevic to dominate the team she missed several good chances against before. Eventually the Thorns are going to face another team that will force them to cross the ball instead of just torching them by cutting inside. Sky Blue, probably, are not that team.