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Week 18 Preview: Shield in sight for Spirit; FS1 in Portland

It could be locked up before they start, but a win Sunday will assure the Thorns of their first home playoff game. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

It could be locked up before they start, but a win Sunday will assure the Thorns of their first home playoff game. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Once again overshadowed by off-field events, the NWSL marches into the rest of Week 18 on legs tired after a round of mid-week games. With only two playoff spots left and three teams still in the fight, every point counts.


Western New York Flash (8-5-5) at Portland Thorns FC (10-3-5)
Sunday, 9:30 PM EDT, Providence Park (FS1)
All Time Series: Thorns lead, 4-2-3 (Thorns, 1-0-0 in playoffs)
Last Meeting: June 17, 2016; 2-0, Portland

With their playoff spot secured, Portland would dearly love to finally host a semifinal game, while Western New York scrambles to stay in the top four. After being surprised into a draw against Boston on Wednesday, whom they’d previously outscored 11-1 this season, the Flash winless streak stretches to six games. The Flash will want to overwhelm Michelle Betos with shots, taking advantage of their pace to outpace Meghan Klingenberg and Katherine Reynolds on the flanks. The quickness of the Flash, from the literal speed of their players to the swiftness of their counterattacks, is their biggest advantage. Portland is also weaker on the right side, so look for Jaelene Hinkle to get very involved in the attack. The Flash have shown themselves adapt at coming from behind, but the Thorns are not as prone to late game lapses as other teams. If both Seattle and Chicago win, the Flash are in danger of being overtaken, so three points are a must. If they get them it means a playoff berth.

Portland has good momentum coming off a solid match against Houston in which they had significantly improved from the previous game against Seattle. With their chemistry seemingly back in action and players on all three lines in form, it’s not surprising they’ve already clinched a playoff berth. Look for the team’s creativity to continue to flow from Tobin Heath, but if she gets double teamed and frustrated, another player needs to step up. That may be Christine Sinclair, who is a tremendous forward with the best finishing around, but whose playmaking skills are underrated. Both teams are among the best in the league at not giving up no matter the score, so no matter who goes up first, expect this to be played down to the wire.


Emily Menges

Much of the defensive attention has been on rookie Emily Sonnett, but the other Emily on the back line has quietly been running the show. While Sonnett pushes forward into the attack, it’s often Menges who stays at home, providing the last line of defense in front of Betos. Menges’ steadiness will be invaluable against the Flash’s punishing offensive firepower. Their strikers love to split defenders and slip inside, so Menges will need to be aware of not only their positions but also her fellow defenders, helping direct traffic and cover holes before they’re exploited.

Jessica McDonald

Tied for second in the league for both goals and assists, McDonald has been making a case for herself as MVP all season long. Whether she is scoring or setting up a teammate, taking a set piece or serving as a target, the striker is dangerous the moment she moves into the attacking third. With the Flash struggling to deny goals on one end, it’s essential they make up for it on the other, and McDonald is the key to that. She brings invaluable veteran experience to a young team, which is essential against a strong, experienced squad like the Thorns. A win for the Flash will likely include McDonald being in the thick of things.

Sky Blue FC (6-7-5) at Orlando Pride (6-11-1)
Saturday, 7:30 PM EDT, Camping World Stadium (watch live)
All Time Series: tied, 0-0-1
Last Meeting: September 7, 2016; 1-1 Draw

The Pride dropped points on Wednesday when they gave up a late Sam Kerr goal after Ashlyn Harris made a great save but her defenders failed to clear the ball or block a rebound shot. Trying to end the season on a high note, they’ll have to do better to avoid making the same mistake. Josee Belanger and Monica are both international-level defenders who should be able to help balance their lesser experienced teammates on the back line. Fortunately for the Pride, they are usually stronger at home, and they should have a much longer appearance by Lisa De Vanna, which should only help Alex Morgan up top.

After their playoff hopes were ended, Sky Blue are looking to save face. While they could get a morale boost with the possible return of Kelley O’Hara after an ankle sprain, it’s unclear how long she can play or how effective she’ll be.   Raquel Rodriguez ought to return to the starting lineup, and teamed with Sarah Killion, she should be effective in overrunning Orlando’s weaker midfield. Putting the ball at the feet of Kerr is essential, as the young international is quickly rising through the ranks of the best in the world.

Chicago Red Stars (8-5-5) at FC Kansas City (6-8-4)
Sunday, 6:00 PM EDT, Swope Soccer Village (watch live)
All Time Series: Red Stars lead, 5-4-3 (FC Kansas City, 1-0-0 in playoffs)
Last Meeting: September 7, 2016; 3-2, Kansas City

FCKC could draw the series with another win, but they face a big challenge in doing so: it’s difficult to beat the same team in back to back matches. However, late positives came out of their previous match: Heather O’Reilly and Shea Groom found better chemistry, Alex Arlitt is healthy enough to play, and Nicole Barnhart is nearly as unstoppable as ever. Becky Sauerbrunn may be looking for revenge after being denied a goal-line save, so look for the captain to push her teammates to their best.

For the second game in a row, Chicago could lock up their playoff spot. They’ll want to do better on defense after one of their worst nights of the year, but with players who looked like they’d reached the bottom of their tank and a drop-off in talent on the bench, it’s unclear how they’ll do so. Fortunately, Christen Press remains in top form, sending in a ball that broke the laws of physics with its bend, and if anyone in this league can deliver victory, it’s her.

Boston Breakers (3-13-2) at Houston Dash (5-9-4)
Sunday, 7:00 PM EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium (watch live)
All Time Series: Dash lead, 4-2-0
Last Meeting: August 31, 2016; 3-1, Houston

The bottom two in the league once again after a brief Houston move up the table meet for the second and last time this season. Houston’s offensive streak came to end, as did Kealia Ohai’s, as they were shut out for the first time since July 9, but Ohai remains tied for the Golden Boot. A combination of defensive errors, rare mistakes by Lydia Williams, and plain Portland talent saw them give up three goals on the road. Against a Breakers team that continues to show improvement, they need to do better. Houston is at its best in speedy transition play, so look for Morgan Brian to restart the attack and move the ball quickly. With two home games to close out the year, the Dash want to grab as many points as possible to move up a spot or two.

While not exactly the result they wanted, Boston can’t be upset with a draw against rival Western New York, but they also won’t be pleased with giving up the lead twice. They’re in last place no matter the results, so Boston will be playing for pride and looking to see what will work for 2017. With Natasha Dowie continuing to lead the offense and Kristie Mewis back on the field, expect Louise Schillgard to look for the two of them up top. Deeper in midfield, Angela Salem will be tasked with breaking up the attack of Carli Lloyd and Denise O’Sullivan. The Breakers will be without Julie King, who is suspended for one game due to yellow card accumulation.

Washington Spirit (12-3-3) at Seattle Reign (6-6-6)
Sunday, 10:00 PM EDT, Memorial Stadium (watch live)
All Time Series: Reign lead, 5-4-1 (Reign, 2-0-0 in playoffs)
Last Meeting: September 7, 2016; 2-1, Washington

Like FCKC, Washington faces the daunting task of beating the same team twice in a week. Their biggest motivation is the chance the clinch the Shield and officially mark themselves as the best team in the regular season. Jim Gabarra took a risk on Wednesday by resting the majority of his starters, the only team to do so, and that could be an advantage, one they’ll need facing a highly motivated Reign team in Seattle. Ali Krieger, getting a rare rest, was brought on late to handle Megan Rapinoe and will probably be called on to do the same as the crafty winger continues to play more minutes. Gabarra seems to be settled on Kelsey Wys over Stephanie Labbe in goal, which raised some eyebrows, but although the shutouts have ended, the only goal given up to the Reign was a Kim Little penalty kick after a handball call. The best news for the Spirit is that Crystal Dunn scored her first goal of the season, and more can’t be far behind.

In what has to be one of the most unexpected stories of the season, Seattle’s playoff hopes are slipping away, but they still remain in the hunt. They’re in a must win situation again. While they created their share of chances, the Reign were all but stifled in the end by Kelsey Wys and Estelle Johnson, whose form has significantly improved over last year. A highly motivated Megan Rapinoe continues to work her way back to full fitness and improves every time she steps on the field. With the creative capabilities of her, Little, and Jess Fishlock, the Reign are capable of attacking all over the field. They’ll want to be as disruptive as possible against the quick-pass, possession-based system Washington prefers and look for breaks on transition.

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