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Week 8 Preview: Thorns return to site of Shield win

Over a quarter of the way through the season, and patterns are starting to emerge. Houston, Washington, and Orlando are just trying to avoid the bottom of the ladder, while North Carolina remains on top despite recent stumbles, wtih Sky Blue and Chicago closing in.  We could see a new leader emerge in NWSL Week 8.

The Thorns won the NWSL Shield in 2016, but Mark Parsons believes the best is yet to come. (Photo Courtesy Portland Thorns FC)

Lindsey Horan and Amandine Henry were crucial to victory last week. (Photo Courtesy Portland Thorns FC)

GAME OF THE WEEK

Portland Thorns FC (3-1-3) at Sky Blue FC (4-3-1)

Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series: Sky Blue lead, 5-4-2
In New Jersey: Sky Blue, 2-1-2
Last meeting: September 25, 2016; 3-1 Thorns

The Thorns will remember their last meeting well – it clinched the 2016 Shield. They’ll be hoping Yurcak brings them luck once again, as their offense finally found solid footing last week and kept Boston chasing for the entire match. Portland runs a slower game than Sky Blue, so they’ll want to avoid costly turnovers in midfield that allows Sky Blue a chance to play their deadly transition game. Look for Lindsey Horan to run the show once more, as she has stepped up to become the player who runs the Thorns’ attack.

Sky Blue is off to their best start ever at Yurcak Field, undefeated at home this season. They face their best test so far against a team that is finally playing up to its potential. Sky Blue will do well to keep up the pressure against the Thorns and try to catch the defense up the field. Look for them to exploit the space left behind the Thorns’ outside backs, who tend to play high. In defense, they’ll rely on Christie Pearce to organize the line a little better than in past weeks.

Players to Watch

Sam Kerr

Although it took the Australian international a few weeks to unlock her game, she’s been relentless ever since, creating as much as scoring and earning Player of the Month honors for her efforts. Kerr is the focal point of the Sky Blue offense and will be involved in nearly every attack.

Celeste Boureille

Boureille tends to fall under the radar surrounded by so many internationals, but after struggling to settle into her new role on the team, she ran rampant on the right flank last week, once setting up Christine Sinclair with a beautifully placed ball. She’ll have her work cut out for her trying to contain Leah Galton.

Keep an eye on:
• Rookie Mandy Freeman, overshadowed by Pearce
• Who, between Allie Long and Amandine Henry, drops back to receive the ball

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FC Kansas City (3-2-2) at North Carolina Courage (5-3-0)

Jaelene Hinkle (right) tries to get by Celeste Boureille in the first ever home match for the North Carolina Courage (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Jaelene Hinkle is having a solid season with the Courage. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 4-3-3
In North Carolina: First meeting
Last meeting: July 23, 2016; 1-0 Kansas City

What happens when the team tied for the least goals allowed visits the team with the most shots and shots on goal? A lopsided affair, most likely, but Sydney Leroux did score a brace last weekend, so perhaps Kansas City’s offense has finally been unlocked. Leroux’s game should serve her well against the Courage, who have a tendency to get caught up in their own high press and leave gaps. If FCKC learned anything from Chicago, it’s to keep the Courage chasing the ball, but that’s a tall order given that their midfield has taken a hit first from injury and now with a red card suspension to Alexa Newfield.

North Carolina may have stumbled recently, but a midweek win over Sky Blue helped secure their place at the top of the table for another week. However, their depth is about to be tested again, as an injury to Yuri Kawamura opens a chance for someone like Liz Eddy to return to the pitch. Lynn Williams is in as good a form as ever, and watching her try to beat Becky Sauerbrunn is likely to be a highlight of the weekend. The Courage’s pace may their best weapon, as they’re more than a match for FCKC in that area.

Keep an eye on:
• The kickoff time – Lifetime’s answer in an attempt to account for hydration breaks in their timeslot is to start the games even earlier.

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{Related: Q&A with Yael Averbuch}

Houston Dash (2-5-0) at Washington Spirit (1-5-1)

Kealia Ohai scored 11 goals in her final 10 games of the season for the Houston Dash. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Kealia Ohai looks for more success in Washington. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT, Maryland SoccerPlex
All-time series: Spirit lead, 6-2-1
In Washington: Spirit, 4-1-0
Last meeting: April 29, 2017; 1-0 Dash

The biggest question going into this match, of course, is how the Dash perform without Randy Waldrum and if he truly was the problem, but don’t expect too much to change just yet as interim head coach Omar Morales is unlikely to rock the boat right away. Of more immediate importance to the Dash is that they’re on a four-game losing streak and were shut out in two of those games. They need more from Janine Beckie and Nichelle Prince, who both missed clear opportunities on goal against Seattle last week. Their speed is likely to find space in Washington’s backline once again, so look for the Dash to come out pressing.

Washington has yet to put all its pieces in place, and it seems like no matter how much they can score, they can’t keep from giving up goals on the other end. Whitney Church’s lack of pace has been exposed more than once, so if she’s going to continue to start in central defense, she needs more cover from Estelle Johnson and Shelina Zadorsky. The Spirit also want more from Mallory Pugh, who earned her first start last week but was not consistently dangerous. It was a tale of two halves last time these two teams played, and for either to find success they need to figure out how to dominate for more than 45 minutes.

Keep an eye on:
• The offside flag – Kealia Ohai and Francisca Ordega lead the league.

***

Boston Breakers (2-3-2) at Orlando Pride (1-3-3)

The Boston Breakers celebrate Natasha Dowie's first half strike against Sky Blue FC. (LINEHAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Equalizer Soccer)

The Boston Breakers look to return to their winning ways. (LINEHAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Equalizer Soccer)

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: tied, 1-1-0
In Orlando: Pride, 1-0-0
Last meeting: July 31, 2016; 1-0 Breakers

The Pride aren’t yet desperate for another win, but a match in which the defense can keep it together for an entire 90 minutes would go a long way for this team. After giving up an early lead against Sky Blue to a late game winner in a moment of what Tom Sermanni and Ali Krieger agreed was “abysmal” defending, they dropped points in what should have been at least a draw. However, as much as they need from the defense, they need at least as much from a midfield that’s been too quiet and a set of forwards who lack finishing. Marta will be involved in any goal-scoring opportunity, but also look for Krieger and Steph Catley to go for endline on the flanks. Orlando fans will remember the last time Boston visited Orlando, when Kristen Edmonds scored a stoppage time winner.

After getting off to a stronger start than anyone expected, Boston has cooled in recent weeks, and they enter this match missing a few starting defenders as Allysha Chapman is on red card suspension and Megan Oyster is out with injury. Both are key losses to a defense that lacks depth and is facing one of the best players in the world. Rose Lavelle is another to watch, as teams have figured out that if she’s not on the ball, the Breakers’ engine sputters to a halt. If she remains quiet, it falls to Rosie White to generate the attack.

Keep an eye on:
• Jamia Fields, who has quietly demonstrated some flair up top
• Brooke Elby to return to the starting XI

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Seattle Reign FC (3-1-3) at Chicago Red Stars (4-2-1)

Sofia Huerta's goal on Sunday afternoon helped the Red Stars secure a 3-1 victory over the Courage. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Sofia Huerta has been key to Chicago’s recent success. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Saturday, 3 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 4-3-4
In Chicago: Red Stars, 3-0-2
Last meeting: September 4, 2016; 2-2 draw

After defeating North Carolina in back to back games, Chicago is flying high, going undefeated in May. They’re now within striking distance of the top of the table and face a Seattle side that has struggled on the road. Julie Ertz continues her dominance at holding midfielder, breaking up plays and restarting the attack, and Danielle Colaprico has adapted well to being out of her natural position as a result. However, it’s the combination of Christen Press and Sofia Huerta up top who have really found success, and given the space Houston found behind Seattle’s backline, it could be open season on Haley Kopmeyer for those two.

Seattle finally shook their road woes last week, but it wasn’t an entirely convincing performance in the brutal Houston heat, as the Dash had numerous clear opportunities that with better finishing could have turned the tide of the game. Reign success will come from the flanks, as Chicago struggles with width, and Arin Gilliland in particular is having a tough season, which will be the cue for Megan Rapinoe to step up. But however good Lauren Barnes and Rachel Corsie have been individually, they’re susceptible to letting players slip in behind them, which is Press’s bread and butter.

Keep an eye on:
• Sam Johnson, who has become the backline’s anchor
• Katie Johnson’s first start

{Read More: NWSL Week in Review: Safety First? Or Maybe Not?}

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