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NWSL Week 9 preview: Teams finding form, trying to make moves

With five of the eight teams coming off midweek games (North Carolina finally has a bye week, while Portland, Utah, and Chicago didn’t play on Wednesday), expect to see both rotation and tired legs. We’re approaching that middle of the season grind, where most teams have found whatever form they’re going to have, but they’re beginning to be ready for a break. It’s not quite time for that break yet, so let’s see what’s in store as we wrap up NWSL Week 9.

Will Portland regain home advantage?

Utah Royals FC (2-1-5) at Portland Thorns FC (3-3-3)
Friday, 10:30 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series:  tied, 0-0-1

The Thorns are 1-2-1 at home this year, on a two-game losing streak in Providence Park, once such a fortress for them. A 1-0 win at Washington should help their confidence as it ended a five-match winless streak. It’s no coincidence that the win, and their first shutout of the year, came in Emily Menges’s first match back, as well as the first time since last season’s final that Mark Parsons had his first choice defenders all on the pitch at the same time. Unfortunately, he’ll have to go at least another five days without having that luxury again, as Emily Sonnett is out for this match with back pain. Portland will need to work hard in the midfield to help relieve another patchwork backline, but they’ve been struggling to fill the hole at defensive mid, the natural position of no Thorns player and often taken by Lindsey Horan at the expense of the attack.

  • Royals injuries: OUT – Alex Arlitt, Mandy Laddish, Kelley O’Hara
  • Thorns injuries: OUT – Adrianna Franch, Bella Geist, Meg Morris, Hayley Raso, Emily Sonnett

The midfield is where Utah improves each week, and you can expect a physical battle in the middle of the park between these two teams with no player likely to back down from a tough challenge. The Royals also possess a far stingier defense, anchored by the venerable Becky Sauerbrunn, so it’s imperative that Portland wins the midfield battle in order to overload this defense. They would do well to keep their wingbacks highly involved in the attack, as the Royals are stronger in the center of defense, and Portland’s setup favors width in this matchup.

Can the Pride function on both ends of the pitch?

Orlando Pride (3-3-3) at Chicago Red Stars (2-2-6)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park (Lifetime)
All-time series:  Red Stars lead, 4-1-1

Coming into this week, my question about the Pride was if their defense was playing so conservatively at times, it was affecting their offense. And that’s still true – whomever lines up at outside back, they haven’t been getting forward often, making it the responsibility of the forwards to create width and leaving Alex Morgan isolated. However, a twist on this is that against North Carolina, the offense managed to score three goals, a single-game season high thus far, but the defense gave up four in brutal fashion, also a single-game season high. Going forward, the Pride need to find a way to return to the defense that held strong against Portland’s onslaught, while continuing to get Marta involved, as she finally was against the Courage, and also unlock Morgan. Monica’s return will help immensely, whenever that may be, as will Camila’s 2018 debut, expected by the end of next month.

  • Pride injuries: OUT – Camila, Toni Pressley; QUE — Sydney Leroux, Monica
  • Red Stars injuries: OUT – Vanessa DiBernardo, Stephanie McCaffrey, Casey Short

But that’s not much help now, and putting themselves back together against Chicago is a strong order. The Red Stars excel at being a nuisance, agitating other teams, picking their pockets in midfield, and pulling apart defenses. While we’ve only gotten glimpses of the best of Chicago this season, that just means more potential is there to be unleashed. Despite a six-game winless streak, they’re still grinding out results of some fashion, with five of those six games ending in draws. But with nearly half of their games under their belt, draws aren’t going to be enough, as those dropped points add up quickly. Oh, and the lone loss in that streak? To Orlando.

Will Seattle get the sweep?

Nahomi Kawasumi (photo by Lewis Gettier)

Seattle Reign FC (4-2-1) at Sky Blue FC (0-5-1)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series:  Reign lead, 6-4-5

In another quirk of the NWSL’s interesting scheduling, the Seattle-Sky Blue series will wrap up this Saturday, although we’re not yet halfway through the season. With a combined score of 5-1, the Reign have a firm grip on the lead, and everything points toward a sweep. While Seattle took their foot off the gas in Houston and paid the price for it, that game was more of an aberration when compared to the 2018 Reign as a whole. Jess Fishlock should be back on the pitch, and her presence alone can breathe life back into a team. If anything, Seattle should take a closer look at their defense, where Lauren Barnes had a good game but Kristen McNabb did not, while Steph Catley wound up a quiet game (amidst a quiet season) by taking a late knock and then deflecting the game winning goal.

  • Reign injuries: OUT – Yael Averbuch, Jaycie Johnson, Megan Oyster
  • Sky Blue injuries: QUE — Erica Skroski, Rebekah Stott

If Sky Blue can manage to exploit those weaknesses is another question entirely. Janine Beckie had her best game of the season, and Carli Lloyd continued to pad her team-leading totals of shots and shots on target, but no one found the back of the net until stoppage time, a troubling sign for a team that appeared to be leaving their scoring issues behind, especially against a defense that isn’t great. Lloyd is starting to do a little too much by herself, probably a sign of frustration, but as both the captain and by far the most veteran of the players, that’s not a trend she wants to set.

Who has the stronger momentum?

Kickoff time for HOUvWAS has been delayed two hours due to high temperatures in the Houston area. (photo copyright EriMac Photography for The Equalizer)

Washington Spirit (2-5-2) at Houston Dash (2-4-4)
Sunday, 8:00 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series:  Spirit lead, 7-3-1

Houston and Washington entered Wednesday’s matches desperate for three points, and surprisingly, both walked out with just that. Houston probably has the bigger high, having gotten four seasons of defeats by Seattle off their back, while Washington narrowly defeated winless Sky Blue. Houston should also have a slight advantage due to being at home, as the Spirit have to travel and struggle on the road, but the Dash have never historically been a home-turf powerhouse.

  • Spirit injuries: OUT – Cali Farquharson, Arielle Ship
  • Dash injuries: none

Both sides thrive on the counter. The Dash aren’t likely to contain Mallory Pugh, who, if Jim Gabarra plays his cards right, will go at Kimberly Keever all night, so Amber Brooks and Janine Van Wyk need to stay close to home to provide support. On the flip side, Houston has the Washington defense beaten for pace, so they should find joy if they can stretch the backline.

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Stoppage time goals: Both Houston and North Carolina left it to the last minute to secure three points on Wednesday.
The Jess McDonald/Crystal Dunn partnership: Probably the strongest of any in the league right now, the two have added a wrinkle to the Courage’s game.

Not

Kristen McNabb: The centerback was turned inside out by Rachel Daly.
Sam Kerr: There’s more to her job than scoring, but for a forward to not register a single shot in 90 minutes is less than idea.
Playing for the whistle: Once Utah and Houston figured out the referee would whistle every bit of contact, there was more diving in last Saturday’s game than an Olympic springboard event.

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