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Week 7 Preview: Return matches dot the schedule

If these games look familiar, it’s because three of them are repeats from last week. However, if you expect more of the same, you’re in for a surprise. Opponents are fresh in the minds of coaches, so look for tactical battles as we head into Week 7.

Christen Press and Makenzie Doniak battle during the Red Stars' win over the Courage. (Photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Both Christen Press and Makenzy Doniak are essential to their teams’ success. (Photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

GAME OF THE WEEK

North Carolina Courage (5-2-0) at Chicago Red Stars (3-2-1)

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 5-4-3
In Chicago: Red Stars, 3-0-3
Last meeting: May 21, 2017; 3-1 Red Stars

Chicago handed North Carolina their first defeat at home last week in a clear 3-1 victory, and this time, they’re welcoming the Courage to their home field. Both Christen Press and Sofia Huerta turned on the jets, and the result was to find all sorts of space in the Courage defense, allowing Press to go 1v1 with Sabrina D’Angelo more than once (and somehow get a PK out of it). Although Press still has a tendency to take too much on herself, the equally impressive performance of Huerta is a great sign. Julie Ertz did well to break up plays before they turned into anything, and Casey Short offered an entertaining matchup against Makenzy Doniak.

North Carolina returned to their winning ways against a Sky Blue team that looked lost, but they come into this match at a double disadvantage, having played a midweek game before turning around to travel to Chicago. A few players were rested, but look for their depth to be tested. Paul Riley seems fairly set on the three-back formation, but it offered no answer for Press. The Red Stars have no problem letting Danielle Colaprico send long balls over the top if they can’t work down the midfield, so Abby Erceg, back in central defense, needs to be aware of Press on her shoulder at all times. Expect North Carolina to come out guns blazing, but D’Angelo will need to be on top of her game, as she has all season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Arin Gilliland

Gilliland has struggled this season, and facing the reigning NWSL MVP Lynn Williams is no joke. So what better time for her to revert to the form that earned her a USWNT look? If Chicago can’t keep the Courage tied up on the other end of the field, expect a very busy night on the Red Stars’ right flank.

Jess McDonald

Riley did McDonald no favors by playing her as a defender, but she wasn’t awful. However, the game immediately changed when she returned to her rightful place up top. Perhaps starting the game with her there will change the tune of this game.

Keep an eye on:
• Set pieces
***

Seattle Reign FC (2-1-3) at Houston Dash (2-4-0)

Nairn signed with the Seattle Reign for the 2017 after spending three seasons in D.C. with the Washington Spirit. She was originally drafted to the Reign out of college in 2013.

Christine Nairn hopes to lead the Reign to another victory in Houston.

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series: Reign lead, 8-0-0
In Houston: Reign, 3-0-0
Last meeting: April 22, 2017; 5-1 Reign

The last time these two teams played, it ended in an embarrassing (for Houston) 5-1 fashion, and thus far has been Jane Campbell’s lone appearance for the Dash. Since then, they took three points from Washington before going on a three-game losing skid. Houston will be desperate to stop that in its tracks, but can they do it against a team they’ve never before beaten? Randy Waldrum shook things up in the defense last week, including moving Rachel Daly to outside back, and Morgan Brian returned to the starting XI, but although they looked better in the second outing against Sky Blue, defensive lapses and a lack of a dangerous attack let Sky Blue sweep the series. In order to change the tide, first on the agenda will be containing Seattle’s flank attack, so the pace of Daly at outside back may be called on again. Second, someone other than Kealia Ohai needs to challenge Haley Kopmeyer, requiring a better performance from Janine Beckie. It may be worth moving away from the 4-3-3 and reinserting Denise O’Sullivan into the formation.

Seattle continues to lack consistency. After beating up on Houston and Washington in Memorial Stadium, they had to hold on for a draw with Orlando. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the Pride’s play, but the question remains as to what team Seattle really is. They’ll want to reverse the very quiet night they had from Nahomi Kawasumi as well as hope Megan Rapinoe has regained her accuracy, as her shots were all over the place last week. However, Bev Yanez continues to be in the right place at the right time, and Katie Johnson has proven to be a sparkplug off the bench. A return to their high-press ways is likely to pay dividends against the Dash.

Keep an eye on:
• Beckie on the bench
• A Jess Fishlock-Rapinoe combination that ends in a goal
***

{Read more: Run of Play: Defenders on the Rise}

Orlando Pride (1-2-3) at Sky Blue FC (3-3-1)

The Pride partnered with Florida Dairy Farmers for the 2017 NWSL Season (photo: Orlando Pride)

Can the Pride establish an undefeated streak without Ashlyn Harris? (photo: Orlando Pride)

Saturday, 7 p.m., Yurcak Field
All-time series: Sky Blue lead, 1-0-1
In New Jersey: tied, 0-0-1
Last meeting: September 10, 2016; 2-1 Sky Blue

However good Sky Blue looked against Houston, it was left behind in New Jersey when they traveled to North Carolina for Wednesday’s game. The team was too sluggish and uninspired to counter the Courage’s attack, and only Kailen Sheridan’s incredible 11-save performance kept it from being a beatdown. While the Pride aren’t as lethal, they do still have Marta, and the team kept Haley Kopmeyer plenty busy last week. Sky Blue’s defense has to find its shape and figure out how to keep it, or Sheridan will be called on too often once again. Expect Sam Kerr to return to the starting lineup, which helps up top, but Sky Blue’s biggest advantage is their superior midfield. If they can maintain possession, they’re likely to dictate the game.

Orlando’s biggest story going into the game is the loss of starting goalkeeper and captain Ashlyn Harris, out for up to eight weeks with a hip flexor injury. Brand new acquisition Caroline Stanley did well enough last week to hang onto a draw amidst a late-game Reign frenzy, and after a week of practice with her new team under her belt, it’s likely she’d love nothing more than to beat the team that waived her if she gets the nod over Aubrey Bledsoe, also a former Sky Blue keeper. She’ll rely heavily on a defense, led by Ali Krieger, that has improved from week to week but still isn’t as solid as their resumes would indicate. Look for the Pride to absorb pressure and look to the flanks for attack.

Keep an eye on:
• Madison Tiernan, who can’t seem to step on the field without earning a yellow card
• The shifting lineup of Tom Sermanni’s forwards
***

Washington Spirit (1-4-1) at FC Kansas City (2-2-2)

Brittany Taylor of FC Kansas City takes on Mallory Pugh of the Washington Spirit. (photo by Erica McCauley for The Equalizer)

Brittany Taylor of FC Kansas City takes on Mallory Pugh of the Washington Spirit. (photo by Erica McCauley for The Equalizer)

Saturday, 8 p.m. EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Spirit lead, 5-4-2
In Kansas City: Kansas City, 3-1-1
Last meeting: May 20, 2017; 1-0 Kansas City

FC Kansas City spoiled Mallory Pugh’s debut, and they’d love to do it again for what is likely her first professional start. However, she’s no pushover, and a full week of practice under her belt isn’t great news for Becky Sauerbrunn’s defense. Also not great? The three shots on goal FCKC registered against Washington. However, one goal was all it took, and so long as Nicole Barnhart can remain big in their own net, it might be enough. Becca Moros has seen more playing time recently, allowing Lo’eau LaBonta, who is off to an excellent start, to push forward, which could generate more offense.

Washington currently sits in last place, but with Kristie Mewis and Pugh now running court on the wings, they could change the narrative. A slightly revamped attack isn’t likely to face a bigger test than FCKC’s defense, and they’d do well to press as much as they can to keep FCKC on their heels, as well as offer Stephanie Labbe breathing room in net. The Spirit will once again be without Tori Huster, leaving a space as the midfield engine that perhaps Line Sigvardsen Jensen can fill. Ultimately, all eyes – and all pressure – are on Pugh.

Keep an eye on:
• Christina Gibbons, likely to be kept busy no matter who she faces on her side
• Who shows the beginnings of a strong (and essential) partnership with Pugh
***

Boston Breakers (2-2-2) at Portland Thorns FC (2-1-3)

Christine Sinclair prepares to celebrate as Nadia Nadim's 83rd minute equalizer steals a point for the Thorns in Boston (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Christine Sinclair prepares to celebrate as Nadia Nadim’s 83rd minute equalizer steals a point for the Thorns in Boston (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Saturday, 10 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 6-5-1
In Portland: Thorns, 4-1-0
Last meeting: May 19, 2017; 2-2 draw

Boston likely regrets giving up points at home to the Thorns, as well they should, allowing Lindsey Horan to lead the Thorns back in the second half after the Breakers dominated the first. They’ll find that getting similar or better results in Providence Park is a tall order. Rose Lavelle continues to lead a strong midfield that is punishing in transition, but it’s a quietly efficient performance from Angela Salem that allows her to do so, as well as assisting the young partnership of Megan Oyster and Christen Westphal in central defense. The Breakers’ best tactic will be to use their superior speed and keep the Thorns’ midfield in their defensive half, although this game is likely to be battled and decided in the center of the pitch.

The Thorns have shown resilience over and over again, doing just enough late in games to get results. But they have the least number of shots in the league and the second least shots on goal, and as time goes on, waiting for Tobin Heath to return to provide the necessary spark is less and less of an option. They need a command performance in which they are in control from start to finish, proving that one player does not a winning team make. It’s also been a puzzlingly quiet season from captain Christine Sinclair, who has rarely looked threatening since week 1. They will get Allie Long back, which is a boost, and if she and Horan can put themselves on the same page, so much the better.

Keep an eye on:
• The space left behind Meghan Klingenberg
• Lavelle’s speed on the dribble

{Read more: Heath joins Thorns Academy staff}

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