The Portland Thorns have a key match today when they’ll go against San Diego Wave for the second time in the NWSL Challenge Cup. It is an important game for the hopes of the Thorns to qualify for the knock-out stages. Let’s remember that the top team of each of the three groups and only the best second can go into the next round in this cup.
Portland comes into this match with two wins, one draw, and one loss and is placed second in Group B behind OL Reign. San Diego seats third with only one win, one draw, and two losses. The last and only time these two teams met, Portland won 1-0 with a goal scored by Sophia Smith (assisted by Natalia Kuikka).
Portland’s win in San Diego
In that match, the Wave tried to dominate the game, with chances from the boots of Alex Morgan but Sophia Smith put an end to any hopes of an early lead at home when she finished off a clean service courtesy of Kuikka.
The Californians made good use of Sofia Jakobbson, who did well on both flanks, sending dangerous low balls to the box, going forward through the left and right, while Alex Morgan tried to lose her markers at the near and the far posts
The previos match between these two teams also marked the first start in goal for Abby Smith, who was always well positioned to stop any of San Diego’s shots.
After 30 minutes of Jakobsson creating problems on both flanks, Portland raised its lines and stopped the Wave’s attacks. Kuikka stayed very wide on the right in order to receive the ball unmarked and initiate the attack, partnering with different players. And although the Thorns could’ve scored more than one goal in the first half, Kailen Sheridan was a huge factor to deny the visitors opportunities.
Amirah Ali entered the match at the beginning of the second half and she ended up being the best attacker for San Diego in the next 45 minutes. Meghan Klingenberg was given a yellow card seconds after Ali was subbed in and beat the Thorns left back. She also was brought down in the box 10 minutes later which could have been a penalty kick
San Diego made good subs and even though Jakobsson, Morgan, Dahlkemper, and Turnbow got subbed off, the players that came in gave the home team a new push in the last 10 minutes and Portland was forced to recover ball after ball on its side of the pitch.
The inclusion of Weaver in the second half gave the Californian defense work to do and Kuikka was very active until the very end.
What can we expect for this upcoming match?
We can expect an entertaining match between two teams that need to win. In the case of the home side, they need the three points and the goals to advance to the next stage of the cup, and in the case of the visitors, to prove that they can do more than just compete in their inaugural season in the NWSL.
Because Portland lost to OL Reign before the international break, and the Reign won their match against San Diego on Thursday night, it got harder for the Thorns to get first place in the group. So the next two matches are must-wins if they want to advance to the knockout stages.
Do the Thorns feel pressured knowing this is the scenario? Defender Meghan Klingenberg said this about the matter:
“I honestly don’t think there’s pressure whatsoever. We just need to be ourselves and play the way we wanna play and bring our style, type of game, to the pitch, and then see just what happens. Because right now is out of our control and I’m not trying to worry about or let my teammates worry about things that are out of our control. So hopefully the Reign will drop some points but either way, we just have to be us. We know we need to play like Thorns, bring our style and the things we’ve been practicing on into the matches, and just... see what happens.”
Hopefully, Portland can fix its problems finishing chances and Sophia Smith continues to make a name for herself on the club’s front line. We expect her to be on fire this Sunday after becoming the youngest USWNT player to score a hat-trick since 2000 during the international break. But we know Portland hasn’t been known in the last years as a team that relies only on one player to make the difference in the final result. So the fact that Rocky Rodríguez has been on a goal-scoring streak for her national team only adds good things for the club.
Natalia Kuikka has been one of the best players on the field since this Challenge Cup started and we can expect her to keep being that player despite the interruption of club games during the FIFA break.
As it was already mentioned, San Diego lost on Thursday night but key players were missing. Jakobsson was on international duty with Sweden and Sheridan also got to rest after two games in Canada. Nonetheless, it is expected that the Californians will get both Jakobsson and Sheridan back in the starting XI this Sunday. And since they only have one win so far, they will go to Providence Park wanting to prove something. It won’t be an easy match as the first game between these two teams showed us. But so far San Diego’s key player has proved to be Jakobsson and if Portland can control her runs on the flank, that will minimize the visitors' chances.
Of course, the Swedish player is not the only threat on the Californian team. Alex Morgan seems to have finally found her best form since her pregnancy and has scored three goals in the last two matches. We already talked about Ali and how dangerous she could be for the opponent’s defense, but leaving the first match aside, Casey Stoney has been using her as a sub. But if she decides to start her again, that will be another threat Portland must be aware of. And speaking of the defense, we still need to see if coach Rhian Wilkinson starts Abby Smith again or if Bella Bixby will go back as the team’s number one.
Lastly, the fact that San Diego played on Thursday surely took a toll on them and the Thorns will want to take advantage of that.
The Thorns host San Diego Wave FC tonight with kick off scheduled for 4 p.m. Pacific.