The Portland Thorns (2-0-2), fresh off of a 3-1 demolition of the Orlando Pride, flew straight to the nation’s capital to prepare for their upcoming game against the Washington Spirit (2-1-1) and complete their last two-game East Coast trip of the sea son.
The Spirit picked up a slew of new draft picks and internationals in the offseason and look significantly better than last season — they’ve already matched last season’s win total — but are still learning how to play together, especially in defense. Even at their lowest, the Spirit always get up for games against the Thorns: The teams drew once, and the Thorns only beat the Spirit by a solitary goal in both of their victories, including one match in the rain settled by Ellie Carpenter’s first goal in the league, which made her the youngest-ever scorer in the NWSL.
Meanwhile, the Thorns have their last game with internationals present until they start to filter out to the World Cup. They looked excellent going forward against Orlando: Can they sustain it?
This will be Andressinha, Caitlin Foord, Ellie Carpenter, and Hayley Raso’s last game for the club for a little bit. Hayley Raso is listed as questionable with a left hip issue and seems unlikely to start given the circumstances, which are that Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic and Midge Purce both need game minutes to get themselves settled into the team ahead of the coming absences.
The Thorns played in a back three last week and retain the flexibility to switch between this and their primary tactical system but, as I’ll explain below, it’s a formation that makes sense in this game as well.
Last week, we saw the return of the back three, something we haven’t seen since the start of last season. Ellie Carpenter and Meghan Klingenberg are in some ways perfect wingbacks: great attackers, comfortable on the ball, and patient in the box. Carpenter had a particularly notable game running at Rachel Hill because the Orlando defenders were pretty uncomfortable switching out wide. Amy Harrison has been playing at left back for the Spirit in recent games, and she’s very familiar with Carpenter from Australian national team camps. It’ll be interesting to see how they track each other’s runs. On the other side, Tori Huster has been playing right back, a match-up that Klingenberg will be ready to attack.
It might be a little difficult for the Spirit to support their fullbacks with their wide players, however, because they effectively play with only Cheyna Matthews and Ashley Hatch up top. Chloe Logarzo and Jordan DiBiasi have been playing as false nines that spend a lot more time supporting in midfield than running off the shoulder of the last defender. The Spirit will have to decide on the fly whether to bring back numbers in defense or try to punish the Thorns on the break, and if they go for the latter, not only does Emily Menges look up to speed, but Gabby Seiler already looks comfortable and capable alongside her center back partners. Katherine Reynolds can get beaten in space, but is excellent organizing her defense: If any individual defender loses their mark, the three center backs provide enough cover against two attackers to prevent any obvious disasters.
If the Spirit do drop one of the attackers to cover the fullbacks’ forward runs, or if the Spirit try and drop numbers to overload the midfield, Seiler is also comfortable stepping up when called upon. Thorns coach Mark Parsons praised Seiler’s instincts in her game against Orlando, saying she had:
“ ... the confidence to step and trust your defenders will cover you, and the confidence to drive and break lines on the dribble and wait for the right opportunity — it’s a bit cheesy, but it reminds me of a point guard in basketball. She’s a decision maker. She knows when to drive with the ball, she knows when to play two touch, she reads the game fluidly. We want to continue to improve that decision-making, and make sure she’s technically executing as well as she can. It was a great start, but it’s just a start [...] she gives us the ability to, when playing out from the back, we can break lines with passes and we can break lines with a dribbler, because not only does she have the tools, she has the thinking to go along with it.”
All of these wrinkles seem to suggest that the back four makes the most sense for the Thorns to go with for now. Whether they eventually switch out of it before the World Cup season finishes depends on how the new players, Seiler among them, adjust to their roles, and whether Parsons thinks they’ll translate well to playing in midfield, where the club will soon be losing some important players.