The NWSL is back after its last international break, and all eyes are on the prizes. Up for grabs – two playoff spots and the first piece of hardware. Here are the scenarios which could play out:
• The Red Stars are in the playoffs with a win.
• The Pride are in the playoffs with a win. They can also be in with a draw IF the Red Stars also win, unless they lose next week’s game AND the Reign win both games and make up a goal differential of 7.
• The Courage can take the Shield if the Thorns lose or draw.
Still following? Good, because it’s a fast and furious finish as the season nears its end in Week 21.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Portland Thorns FC (13-5-4) at Orlando Pride (10-6-6)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Thorns lead, 3-0-0
In Orlando: Thorns lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: April 15, 2017; 2-0 Thorns
This is easily the most important game in the Pride’s short existence. However, leaving things until the last minute has made their task all the more difficult. The Thorns are still in the running for the Shield and are in the best form of their season. Plus, they’ve never lost to the Pride. However, Orlando is an entirely different look from the team who started out the season losing in Portland. Alex Morgan is scoring nearly at will these days, and if she’s not, Marta has plenty of other players to assist if she doesn’t go for goal herself. Eleven different Pride players have found the back of the net. However, they will have to deal with fatigue, as five of their players just returned from the other side of the world, and Morgan saw minutes in both US games. They need to stretch the defense and attack from the flanks. Possession will be key, as the Thorns are masters at making other teams chase the ball.
Adrianna Franch can set the single season record for shutouts on Saturday – if she can keep the best offense in the league at bay. Key to that are the tandem of Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett, who have formed one of the best partnerships around. The Thorns also get a boon with the expected 2017 debut of Tobin Heath after she played her first minutes of competitive soccer since March in Tuesday’s USWNT game, but questions remain as to her game fitness and efficacy after being sidelined for so long. To make room for Heath, look for Ashleigh Sykes to head to the bench and Hayley Raso to move to the right. Regardless of personnel, the Thorns will do well to stick to what has served them so well – letting Amandine Henry and Lindsey Horan break up plays in the midfield and funneling the ball to Christine Sinclair while Raso and Nadia Nadim make diagonal runs into the box.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Krieger has kept the Pride defense together almost single-handedly at times this season, running down forwards left and right, but she hasn’t been able to keep them from giving up late game goals. If Orlando is to get a result, look for her to mark Sinclair very closely, as the Canadian captain is essential to Portland’s offense.
Meghan Klingenberg gets more of the attention than her fellow outside back due to her exploits at the other end of the pitch, but it’s Reynolds’ defensive abilities that will be tested here. She faces both Steph Catley and Chioma Ubogagu, who have run rampant on left flanks against nearly all comers.
Keep an eye on:
• Set pieces!
Boston Breakers (3-12-7) at Washington Spirit (5-13-4)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Maryland SoccerPlex
All-time series: Breakers lead, 5-2-6
In Washington: tied, 1-1-4
Last meeting: August 12, 2017; 2-2 draw
Some might call this the Andi Sullivan bowl, as the Stanford senior is widely expected to be the #1 draft pick in 2018. If Boston loses this game, they will clinch that pick (barring expansion, which seems more and more unlikely). That outcome would also clinch their third straight year in a row finishing last, and the second time in three seasons they’ll have gone winless on the road. After going 2-1-0 through their first three games of the season, they’ve gone 1-11-7 since. That lone win? Over Washington. Rose Lavelle was back to an extent, but the club is holding her out of this one for precautionary reasons. With Morgan Andrews out again the Breakers will be looking for someone to lead the charge. A high press would serve Boston well if they can finish their chances, but although they can get the ball down the pitch, their strikers struggle to move into dangerous positions.
Washington has had significantly more success scoring, but accompanying that is an equally significant struggle not to give up goals. After drawing with Boston in August, they went on a four-match losing streak before finally winning at Sky Blue in their last game. They’ve also lost Stephanie Labbé, and too many injured players to count. However, they have Rookie of the Year dark horse Meggie Dougherty-Howard bossing their midfield, which should be a good battle against Angela Salem, and Mallory Pugh, who has shown flashes of moments where she takes matters into her own hands to make something happen. Pugh is more of a creator than a scorer, and if someone (with Washington’s already diminished roster now in doubt of having Cheyna Williams, this particular role is up for grabs) can get on the end of her chances, Abby Smith could be in for a long night in goal.
Keep an eye on:
• The scoreboard – it wouldn’t be surprising if neither side got a shutout
Chicago Red Stars (10-6-6) at Houston Dash (7-12-2)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 4-2-2
In Houston: tied, 2-2-1
Last meeting: May 6, 2017; 2-0 Red Stars
The Red Stars may have more of a pressing reason to win this match, but Houston has a bit of pride on the line, as well as what is likely a last-ditch effort to please some very unhappy fans in their last home match of the season. Carli Lloyd is unlikely to return for the Dash this year, which isn’t a good sign for what’s been a woeful attack lately. They have not scored a goal in over a month. They are creating chances, with late addition Kristie Mewis providing some of what was lost in Kealia Ohai’s ACL injury, but the finishing just isn’t there. Rachel Daly and Nichelle Prince will have to take advantage of what chances they get, particularly if the formerly stout Chicago defense makes a resurgence. On the opposite end, Amber Brooks needs to keep the backline tight and organized, as they have a tendency to get out of shape. Look for a physical game to be battled in the midfield.
Chicago hasn’t had much luck at BBVA in the last few years, but they’re certainly in a better position than the Dash. However, they will have to combat fatigue, as six players in their starting lineup played in the recent US friendlies. What the Red Stars really need is a commanding performance whistle to whistle. Too many games have had narrow margins of victory or were marred by slow starts, and if they are to find playoff success, they need to step up, especially in the attack. That said, they have to get into the playoffs first. Christen Press will be hovering around the Dash centerbacks, ready to split them and make a run, but the Red Stars ought to look to take advantage of the flanks better and get their outside backs involved in the attack. They don’t often make enough use of the width of the field, a situation which is not helped by not having any naturally wide attackers besides Sofia Huerta.
Keep an eye on:
• Morgan Brian’s return to Houston after her abrupt departure