There has not been much talk around Portland Thorns FC about the significance of Saturday’s match at Sky Blue FC that pits the top two sides in NWSL. That doesn’t mean the players are not keenly aware of the stakes when the clubs play for the second of three times this season and the only time at Yurcak Field.
“Everybody kind of knows. It’s kind of one of those things that is unsaid but everybody knows,” defender Nikki Marshall said. “Every game of the season to me is the most important game of the season but obviously this one being between the first and second place teams is going to be huge for us.”
The teams met May 16 in Portland and Sky Blue FC put on a defensive clinic, marginalizing Alex Morgan and playing the Thorns to a stalemate until substitute Taylor Lytle blasted in a goal from distance in the 80th minute for a 1-0 result. Five weeks later they are both 8-2-1 (25 points), a joint seven points clear of the Flash entering the weekend.
“I wasn’t really surprised at how good Sky Blue is,” Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone said. “They move the ball really well. They are very tough defensively, they are tough to break down and through the midfield they move the ball so well and then (Lisa) De Vanna up front is a force to be reckoned with.”
Marshall agreed that Portland could have been better on May 16.
“I don’t think we played our best game when we played them,” Marshall said. “I don’t think there are a ton of adjustments, just playing with more heart and really just connecting as a team and finding that piece to the game where all lines are connected and we’re knocking the ball and working with each other offensively and defensively.”
Those sentiments extend beyond the loss to Sky Blue and into the entirely of the Thorns’ season which is exactly halfway over. Most observers feel the team’s record is in spite of some sloppy play, and while Marshall tries to avoid reading criticism of the team, she does agree that there is much room for improvement.
“I don’t think we’ve played to our potential yet. I think on paper we have a lot of solid individuals. I don’t think we have really played altogether yet. I’m really excited for that. I’m hoping that might happen this weekend.”
Asked to expand she said, “It’s been a little off and on with people leaving for national teams. Just completely clicking is going to be the biggest key for us. Being able to play as one unit instead of three separate units.”
Cone insists that Saturday “really is just another game” and that she looks at it just like any other game. But there’s no denying that it is, thus far, the marquee matchup of the season. And in a league that compresses 22 games into four months, it’s hard for some not to look ahead.
“It’s a very big game,” Sky Blue FC coach Jim Gabarra said. “But we’ve got three games in the next week, so you have to kind of pick and choose your spots when to use these players.”
On the injury front the Thorns are a week removed from losing midfielder Becky Edwards for the season with a torn ACL. Parlow Cone called Edwards irreplaceable.
Sky Blue are still without Brittany Bock who has missed most of the season with a rib injury and now a broken wrist. Kelley O’Hara, Melanie Booth, and Lindsi Lisonbee-Cutshall are all listed as probable for Saturday night.
On the national team front Sky Blue’s Christie Rampone, O’Hara and Jill Loyden all played between 40 and 50 minutes for the U.S. on Thursday, as did the Thorns’ Alex Morgan. Portland’s Rachel Buehler and Tobin Heath did not play at all.
Here is a closer look at all three weekend matches for NWSL Week 11:
Portland Thorns FC (8-2-1) at Sky Blue FC (8-2-1)
Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT
Series: Sky Blue lead, 1-0-0
Quick Look: The most anticipated matchup of the season comes on the heels of Abby Wambach’s record-setting performance up the road at Red Bull Arena. That jolt combined with the Thorns’ star power is expected to bring the largest crowd of the season to Yurcak, where the top two teams in the league will square off for top-of-the-table supremacy. Lineups figure to remain a mystery until game time with many of the U.S. and Canadian internationals having played either Thursday at RBA or the night before in Germany.
Tactical Short: In their meeting in Portland, Christie Rampone led a fabulous defensive effort that stymied the Thorns’ midfield and kept Alex Morgan from being dangerous in the 18-yard box. But with tired legs and/or different personnel, don’t expect this one to play out in the same way. Sky Blue’s defending begins with Lisa De Vanna’s pressure on the backline and if the Thorns are going to build up through the midfield they’re going to have to evade De Vanna and use Allie Long as a connecting piece in their first game without Becky Edwards.
Seattle Reign FC (0-9-1) at Western New York Flash (5-2-3)
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. EDT
Series: first meeting
Quick Look: The Flash return home for their first match at Sahlen’s Stadium in nearly a month after going 2-0-2 on the road. The draws were earned with goals in the 94th and 89th minutes, respectively. The Reign, meanwhile, remain in search of their elusive first victory and are now on 403 minutes without a goal. Western New York’s hometown hero Abby Wambach will play her first NWSL match since becoming the all-time scoring leader in international soccer Thursday night in New Jersey.
Tactical Short: About the only edge the Reign have here is if the Flash are on tired legs having played Wednesday and Thursday (U.S. players). The Reign have looked their best the two times Hope Solo has been in their goal. If Solo allows their defenders to play higher they can win some midfield battles through Jess Fishlock. But the Flash can attack up the gut or on either flank and it seems the Reign have their work cut out for them to avoid finishing the first half of their season with no wins.
Washington Spirit (1-5-3, 6 points) at FC Kansas City (5-4-1, 16 points)
Sunday, 4:10 p.m. EDT
Verizon Wireless Field
Series: first meeting
Quick Look: The Spirit were nothing if not rusty in losing 2-0 to the Flash in their first match in three weeks while a team of mostly reserves could not sustain it for a second game in FC Kansas City’s home loss to the Red Stars. That’s where both teams arrive to this match from in what will be their first ever meeting. None of the respective U.S. players went the full 90 on Thursday so that should be of minimal baring on this match. What is not of minimal baring are the standings. The Spirit are 10 points off the playoff bubble and have yet to beat any of the six teams positioned ahead of them.
Tactical Short: Aesthetically the Spirit are up against it vs. the Blues. Both teams prefer a controlled, possession style and no team does that better than FC Kansas City. The Blues also like to play Renae Cuellar in behind the center backs and the Spirit lack a defender with enough recovery speed to make up for any mistakes against the Mexican striker. The Spirit will need Ali Krieger (update: Diana Matheson is injured) to control the right flank and keep enough Blues’ players defending in order to keep the game moving in the right direction.
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