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NWSL week 13 preview: Who plays where now?

We’ll have to wait another week to see the full effects of last week’s big trade, but a lot of sides will see lineup changes, whether due to roster fluctuation, suspension, injury, or return from injury. We’re now halfway through the season – North Carolina retains a firm grip on the Shield despite suffering their first loss, Sky Blue still hasn’t won (but should have), and only three points separate four teams in the hunt for the final playoff spot. Will 13 prove lucky or calamitous for teams in NWSL Week 13?

Where does Huerta play?

Portland Thorns FC (4-4-4) at Houston Dash (3-4-5)
Friday, 8:30 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time Series:  Thorns lead, 6-2-3

Houston’s three new acquisitions aren’t likely to start on Friday’s game, but they’ll be available, so we could see somewhat of a new-look Dash. Taylor Comeau is likely to be on the bench as much-needed defensive depth, but the positions of Clare Polkinghorne and Sofia Huerta depend on what Vera Pauw decides to do with Huerta. Option one: abide by the wishes of Huerta (and by extension, Jill Ellis), and put her at right back. Polkinghorne slots in at center back next to Janine Van Wyk, while Amber Brooks returns to defensive midfielder. Option two: put Polkinghorne at right back and slot Huerta in the former role of Kristie Mewis. Mana Shim is likely the odd one out in either scenario. Option two is easily the better for the Dash, but whether or not that happens is much murkier.

  • Thorns injuries: OUT – Meg Morris, Midge Purce; QUE – Tobin Heath
  • Dash injuries: OUT – Kristie Mewis; QUE – Kyah Simon

Portland, too, will have to do some roster shuffling. Adrianna Franch and Emily Sonnett are off the injury list, which could be huge for a defense that is three goals against away from equaling their 2017 total. But perhaps a larger impact will be the loss of Lindsey Horan, who is suspended for this match due to yellow card accumulation. Horan and Christine Sinclair are the only Thorns players with multiple goals so far this season; in fact, only one other forward on the roster besides Sinclair (Ana-Maria Crnogorčević) has a goal at all. This exposes an issue the Thorns have never really solved – the underrated presence of Amandine Henry last season. Horan often fills the role of a deeper-lying midfielder, although it’s not where she’s best utilized. Angela Salem is the natural substitute in Horan’s absence, but as she’s played only 34 minutes this season. We’re more likely to see Celeste Boureille get the nod.

Can North Carolina fix their finishing?

Lynn Williams against the Spirit. (Credit: ISI Photos)

North Carolina Courage (9-1-3) Seattle Reign FC (5-2-4)
Saturday, 4:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series:  Courage lead, 6-5-4

It’s been the one sore spot of the Courage’s season – they outshoot the rest of the NWSL by leaps and bounds, but their conversion rate is frustratingly low. Credit must be given to defenses when it comes to off-target shots as many of those are forced to be taken from distance or under pressure, but anyone who watches the Courage knows that’s not always the story. We could talk at length about why that is, but the point here is that it finally caught up to them. Utah’s strong defense kept North Carolina at bay until a late stoppage time goal snatched three points for the visitors, handing the Courage their first loss of the season.

  • Courage injuries: OUT – Abby Dahlkemper, Elizabeth Eddy, Julie King, Samantha Mewis; QUE – Lynn Williams
  • Reign injuries: OUT – Yael Averbuch, Lauren Barnes, Jessica Fishlock, Jaycie Johnson

Coincidentally, Seattle has a similar situation at hand, and that is–if Megan Rapinoe isn’t finishing, no one is. Kudos to Aubrey Bledsoe for a stellar performance in keeping Seattle from scoring last weekend, but the Reign weren’t at their best, and this isn’t the first game they’ve relied on Rapinoe to lead the way. The league’s stingiest defense (tied with Utah) has played a big role in getting them to where they are, but as teams like Orlando and Portland start to pull their squads together, defense may not be enough to keep them there. Expect this to be a low-scoring affair, and possibly an early preview of a playoff match. If Seattle can win, their two games in hand mean they will be only two points off the lead when it comes to max points.

Will Orlando find a win in Maryland?

Chioma Ubogagu lines up a shot against the Houston Dash on April 22nd (photo copyright Hannah Di Lorenzo)

Orlando Pride (5-3-4) at Washington Spirit (2-7-4)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Maryland SoccerPlex (ESPNews)
All-time series:  Spirit lead, 3-1-2

Despite having the better record this season and last, the Pride have historically struggled with the Spirit, especially on the road. Washington already pummeled Orlando once this year, a 2-0 win in Maryland in March. In many ways, Orlando looks better now – Marta is back, sort of, and Sydney Leroux is scoring left and right. But their defense is just plain bad sometimes, and a combination of that, a poor game from Ashlyn Harris, and Alanna Kennedy’s worst game of the year should have given Sky Blue their first win of the season. They got a little lucky in that game, but playoff contenders, they did not look. Playing Dani Weatherholt, more defensively minded than Christine Nairn, would help, but she is unavailable.

  • Pride injuries: OUT – Dani Weatherholt; QUE – Ali Krieger
  • Spirit injuries: OUT – Mallory Eubanks, Cali Farquharson, Mallory Pugh, Arielle Ship, Havana Solaun; QUE – Rose Lavelle

There are two ways to look at the Spirit currently. One is that they are on a four-game winless streak and haven’t scored in three. Another is that they are on a two-game shutout streak without a loss in either match. The second stat is more of a silver lining than much to write home about, but they have been riding the superb form of Aubrey Bledsoe to pick up two points, which is better than nothing. What needs to change? In lieu of the return of Mallory Pugh, the Spirit would do well to bring pressure to their opponent – an effective strategy against Orlando – and get the ball to Rose Lavelle, who appears to be making up for lost time with her efforts.

Can Chicago’s players return to form?

Sam Kerr against Orlando. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Utah Royals FC (4-2-5) at Chicago Red Stars (3-3-7)
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series:  Red Stars lead, 1-0-0

With the recent roster changes for the Red Stars, we’re going to see players return to roles they haven’t held in some time. Julie Ertz is back at centerback, alongside Katie Naughton, with Danielle Colaprico moving back to the center of the park, a position Ertz has occupied for the last year. She was great there in 2017, but Colaprico struggled out wide. Neither player has been anything more than unremarkable since Ertz’s return from injury, but both are going to have to dust off their previous form for Chicago to push back into the playoffs. Another big question is Morgan Brian. She hasn’t consistently played well – in fact, she hasn’t consistently played since 2015, but she and Vanessa DiBernardo are going to be running the Chicago midfield above Colaprico and Nikki Stanton. Direct ball worked to an extent against Portland last week, with Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato racking up six of Chicago’s seven shots on goal, but it’s not a very viable long-term solution, so the midfield needs to gel sooner rather than later.

  • Royals injuries: OUT – Alex Arlitt, Mandy Laddish, Kelley O’Hara
  • Red Stars injuries: OUT – Stephanie McCaffrey; QUE – Rose White

For Utah, however, form is something that they’re beginning to have in spades. While their defense has been sharp from the get-go, tying Seattle for the least goals against in the league, their midfield has been up and down. They did about as well as anyone has done against North Carolina’s midfield, which is the best in the league bar none, and it feels like the pieces are there if they can just get a strong performance out of all the midfielders at the same time (and tone down some of the needlessly reckless fouls). The last piece of the puzzle are their forwards. They have the least amount of shots in the league with the second-worst accuracy and only put three on target in North Carolina. Of course, one of those was a goal of the year contender that handed the Courage their first loss this year, but the fact remains that before that last foul they were headed for, and appeared satisfied with, a draw. When Christen Press does suit up for this club (not expected in this match), she will absolutely score, but the bigger question is if she and Amy Rodriguez, two very different players, can form a fruitful partnership.

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Sydney Leroux: Her second brace in three games helped counter Sky Blue’s threat.
Aubrey Bledsoe: My personal pick for Goalkeeper of the Year at the moment, she is all but carrying the Spirit at times.
Katrina Gorry: She was a pest to the Courage for her entire 77 minutes last week.

Not

Not substituting Gunny Jonsdottir: You have to wonder how many times it was going take for most-fouled player in the league to take a hard challenge, suffer a head knock, or need treatment to get subbed off.
Alanna Kennedy: The Australian is often called underrated, but all she was in last week’s game was unimpressive.

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