Thorns Preview, Thorns vs. NC, 9.11.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

NWSL Preview | Courage return to face Thorns for the biggest match of the regular season

PORTLAND, Ore. – There are times when quick turnarounds help: when both of your games are at home, and your opponents are losing time to travel; or when your team is clicking, and the only thing time does is give the world a chance to catch up. Bodies need to heal, and occasionally, minds need to get away from the game, but once those resets happen, it’s time for the next challenge.

Sometimes, part of that challenge is forgetting. That’s where the Thorns are, now. Friday’s performance in Utah against Royals FC included a series of positives in most aspects of the game – limiting their chances; dictating how the game was played; creating chances on goal – but it also featured some disappointing conclusions. Utah forged the game’s only goal, meaning the Thorns left Salt Lake City with their season’s fourth loss.

Now comes the biggest game of the regular season – the third time this year Portland’s faced a team which, at the moment, is their biggest rival. We’ve covered that before – the whys and hows the North Carolina Courage have seized that mantle from Reign FC – but it’s worth considering how the rivalry’s intensity shapes this moment, one where the National Women’s Soccer League sees its two preeminent teams again fighting with each other for honors.

With only two points separating them at the top of the league, the Thorns and Courage have cast the rest of the NWSL as outsiders in the race for the league’s top regular-season honor, the NWSL Shield. It’s an honor that went to the Courage the last two seasons and the Thorns the year before. Such has also been the case for the league’s top honor overall, the actual championship, which went to North Carolina last year, Portland in 2017, and the Western New York Flash the year before. And the Flash were the Courage before their post-2016 move.

Such is the nature of the NWSL, that everything has become defined by the Courage and Thorns. For the rest of the league, trophies become a goal that can only be understood in terms of catching the pacesetters. And for those pacesetters, you’re either better than your rival and claiming honors or second-best and headed and in search of solutions.

This year, Portland has had the better of their rivals, taking four points from two meetings. But a slip on Wednesday (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, Yahoo! Sports) would leave them in second place, even on the season in terms of results, and at a severe disadvantage in the race for 2019’s first honor. That’s where we start this week’s NWSL preview.

High stakes for a regular-season game

Let’s walk through the scenarios. If the Thorns win, they re-open their five-point gap on the Courage. North Carolina will still have two games in hand and control their own NWSL Shield destiny, but their margin for error will be obliterated. Any slip in their final five games would practically give the regular-season title to Portland, who would will hold the first tiebreaker by winning the teams’ season series.

With a draw, Portland will still hold the teams’ tiebreaker, but the overall picture would look dourer. They’d still be two points up, but they’d also have two fewer games to play. North Carolina’s backloaded schedule because of their participation in the International Champions Cup would give them a runway to catchup, and averaging nearly two points per game this season, the Courage would be strong favorites to again claim first.

A Thorns loss, and the Shield might be gone. They would be one point behind North Carolina with three games to play but potentially as close to third place as first. The Courage would have 37 points, Portland would still have 36, but the Chicago Red Stars, if they win Wednesday night in Orlando, would climb to 35. Utah and the Reign could have something to say about the Thorns’ future, too. They each have a game-in-hand on Portland, and although they’re five and six points back of the Thorns now, respectively, a Portland loss combined with wins from their makeup games would tighten the race from second down.

A couple of weeks ago, we stopped thinking about the playoff picture and focused on the Shield. It made sense. The Thorns were five points up on the field. Now, we’re left with a scenario that includes playoff jeopardy if Wednesday doesn’t go as planned. For a regular-season game, the stakes couldn’t get much higher a month out from the postseason.

The options to replace Sonnett

Friday’s 1-0 loss in Utah cost the Thorns more than points in the table. Having picked up a second yellow card late in the game, center back Emily Sonnett will miss Wednesday’s match, set to serve her corresponding, one-game red-card suspension.

The first option to replace Sonnett is Katherine Reynolds. She’s second on the team in minutes this season (1426), has been the center-back choice when others have missed time this season, and has a decade’s worth of experience that informs games like Wednesday’s. She’s been the first Thorns defender off the bench in recent games, and it would make sense if she was the first Thorns defender to fill Sonnett’s spot.

Elizabeth Ball is also a possibility. Although she’s seen more time at right back than in the middle this season, she is a natural center back who will likely spend most of her career in that spot. At some point, she’ll be ready to face these type of challenges. Is that point now?

There’s also Kelli Hubly, somebody who has only made three starts this season but was in Mark Parsons’ XI nine times last year. Though she may occupy a different spot on the depth chart now, the third-year pro is still an option for Wednesday’s lineup.

If past selections are any indication, Reynolds will slide into the spot to the right of Emily Menges. She’s played the team’s second-most minutes for a reason. But Parsons does have multiple options ahead of Wednesday’s selection. All three have seen their names in this year’s lineups.

Not the same North Carolina

The Courage’s 2-1 loss on August 11 at Providence Park gave Thorns fans a glimpse, but it’s worth emphasizing where and how much the defending champions have changed since last season. Whereas the last couple of years have provided some consistency in terms of the team’s biggest stars, now, those stars have rearranged themselves.

In attack, the pairing of Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams has been the league’s most productive since 2016, but the emergence of Kristen Hamilton has provided a new dynamic to Paul Riley’s forward corps. Leading the team with eight goals, the 27-year-old has been one of the most effective attackers in the NWSL, with her goal-every-135-minutes rate earning her a recent call into the U.S. Women's National Team. Riley has always been effusively high on Hamilton’s potential. Now, the forward’s numbers are backing it up.

There also is a slightly different look in midfield, though that picture may be in flux. Still, McCall Zerboni has not been a guaranteed starter over the last five games, having come off the bench in three of them. Perhaps there is a fitness concern, or maybe Riley is managing minutes in light of the team’s ICC commitments. Either way, one of the league’s best midfielders over the previous two seasons has seen her role evolve over the last month-plus.

They’re not massive changes in terms of quantity, but in terms of the caliber of the players, they’re big moves. If McDonald and Zerboni are no longer starters, that says a lot about the depth of Riley’s squad.