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Tactical Preview: Portland Thorns vs. Washington Spirit

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Timbers head into the third game of the 2020 season in search of first win.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 3 Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The Portland Thorns will take on the Washington Spirit on Sunday at 7:00 pm (PT). The Spirit opened the season with a 2-1 win against the Chicago Red Stars. In their second game, they lost to the North Carolina Courage 2-0 after a valiant first-half display.

Offensive Set Up

In both matches, the Spirit’s greatest strength was their ability dictate play in the midfield. Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan are key to holding the ball and progressing the Washington offense. Against Chicago Spirit coach Richie Burke went with a 4-3-3 formation. In this formation, the Spirit consistently attacked through the midfield. They were most successful when Lavelle got the ball in space and was able to run at the centerbacks. She repeatedly made passes in behind the defense causing Chicago a lot of trouble and late runs into the box by Lavelle and Jordan DiBiasi were difficult for the Red Stars to track.

The Spirit relies heavily on possession and carving the defense through the middle. When defenses commit, Washington can effectively play balls down the line to Ashley Hatch who can create danger with her pace and tenacity.

Against the Courage, Washington set up in a 4-4-2. They tried to combat North Carolina’s box midfield with a diamond. It was successful in the first 20 minutes. The Spirit were able to maintain possession and break the Courage’s initial press. This allowed the Spirit to get the ball to Lavelle in space. North Carolina adjusted and began pressing the fullbacks and forced giveaways, especially on the right, which resulted in both goals. The Courage were eventually able to take control of the midfield battle and pinned the Spirit, rendering them completely ineffective in attack.

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Chicago Red Stars vs Washington Spirit Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Set Up

In both of their matches, the Spirit pressed high up the pitch without the ball and counter pressed when they lost it. Washington rotated its pressing formation. They either used a 4-2-3-1 with Hatch providing on-ball pressure or a 4-3-3 with Lavelle pressing highest.

The defensive pressure helped create some of the Spirit’s best offense. Lavelle would win the ball high up the pitch and look to drive at the defense, releasing Hatch or shooting herself.

In the second half against North Carolina, the Spirit tired. They set up in a 4-4-2 defensively but were unable to press North Carolina and had to sit back and bunker in.

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-NC Courage vs Portland Thorns Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Keys for the Thorns

Lavelle running in space and playing balls in behind is fundamental to the Spirit’s offense. North Carolina was able to pin Washington in their own half. They also forced Lavelle to receive the ball deep and did not allow her space to run into. The Thorns have pressed well so far in the tournament. If they can successfully disrupt the Spirit’s midfield and limit Lavelle’s space in the final third the Thorns could really stifle the Washington attack.

Similarly, if Portland can press high they could force the Spirit fullbacks into turnovers in dangerous positions. Coach Mark Parsons has rotated heavily and it is unclear who will start, but the pressure applied by Morgan Weaver, Simone Charley and Christine Sinclair against the Red Stars could result in transition opportunities against the Spirit.

The team needs to be successful in defending in transition. If the midfield gets caught out the backline will have their hands full dealing with Lavelle and Hatch in space.

Both teams relied heavily on their stars in the first two matches. It will be interesting to see if the coaches choose to rest key players as the knock out round nears.