The Portland Thorns (8-3-6) once again find themselves at the top of the NWSL table this week, after getting a strange 2-1 win against their perpetual championship rivals the North Carolina Courage. They very nearly dropped to second place later on in the weekend, thanks to the Chicago Red Stars’ game in hand, but Chicago dropped all three points away at a reinvigorated Sky Blue. Meanwhile, the Washington Spirit (6-6-3) come into town having lost four out of their last five; they last won two games in a row at the start of June. Despite having as hot a start to the season as any team could dream of, the Spirit haven’t been able to maintain their form and have slid from top of the table early in the season all the way down to seventh. Their young talent, the basis of their improvement, have started to show their inexperience after looking like a team full of rookies of the year.
The rotation up top last week for the Thorns is likely to get switched up again: Midge Purce and Hayley Raso are clearly first choice up top at the moment and should be back in the first eleven. Ellie Carpenter played her first first few minutes at the end of the game against the Courage since getting injured at Utah and has been cleared from the injury report. She and Meghan Klingenberg are both expected to return to the starting lineup.
Dagny Brynjarsdottir saw starting minutes at home to North Carolina over Gabby Seiler for the first time in a while because of her skill set (i.e., height) and acquitted herself well, making the competition for the third midfield spot tighter than ever. Whoever takes the position this week, it will likely come down to performances in training, but Seiler’s defensive fit in midfield in this team is undeniable at this point. Bryjnarsdottir will have to hit the attacking heights she was flashing at the end of the 2017 season if she wants to win the spot back.
The mood in the camp after the big win against North Carolina that sent the team back to the top of the table was a confident one: Not scoring any goals certainly made them feel like they could have performed better, but the positives outweighed the negatives. Thorns head coach, Mark Parsons, called the result a “confidence booster,” and said “there were good points, but also lessons.”
Despite not scoring a goal in open play in the last week, the Thorns were optimistic overall about their attacking ability and felt that the pressure they put Carolina under made them deserving of the win. “I cannot believe I missed that one goal,” Lindsey Horan said of the header she put wide of an open net in the 30th minute. “I was a little bit angry at myself, but obviously I’m going to try to continue to improve.”
With so many players playing well at the moment, Portland are now entering into a phase of the season where who plays and who doesn’t on any given week depends more on matchups than form. Mark Parsons said of the decision to play Brjnyarsdottir over Seiler against the Courage that “it was going to take more tactics than individual work,” leaving open the possibility of playing either as the season closes out.
The Washington Spirit have an uncanny knack of getting results against the Thorns: They handed Portland their first loss of the season in a strange game in the SoccerPlex, where the Thorns conceded two goals from corners. Since then, the Spirit haven’t scored any corners, and the Thorns haven’t conceded any. A big part of this is down to Britt Eckerstrom’s work on her aerial game (which has always been a big part of AD Franch’s goalkeeping skill set); if it turns out she does need to step in, Thorns fans shouldn’t be too worried.
The Spirit still have the joint-best defensive record in the league (alongside Utah), and they thrive on slowing games down to keep them as tight as possible. Up against a Thorns team that has punished defenses for dallying on the ball and moving too slowly in recent weeks, it seems as though Washington should be forced to adjust their game. Andi Sullivan has been one of the revelations of the World Cup season, getting back to the composure on the ball that garnered her a number one draft pick. Their solidity under pressure was tested severely in their loss to Chicago, however, and the Thorns are likely to be more aggressive in midfield.
The bigger question for Portland to answer is what happens when they don’t win the ball in their opponents’ half. With the team pressing higher up the field since the return of their internationals, positional discipline when running back toward their own goal fell down the list of concerns, and it has punished the team in recent weeks. Whoever slots alongside Horan has to be quick to pick up their mark in the box or just outside of it if the Thorns are going to reclaim their ability to get a clean sheet in any circumstance.