Preview, Thorns vs. Spirit, 10.12.19

NWSL Preview | Thorns in search of momentum ahead of the playoffs

PORTLAND, Ore. – “We need a win, and not just because of third, fourth place.”

Portland Thorns FC defender Emily Menges has become part of her team’s conscience since arriving in the Rose City in 2014, but you don’t need six seasons’ experience to diagnose her squad’s trend. Coming off a September that saw the team slip from first to third in the NWSL, the Thorns are in desperate need of some good news. A playoff game is less than two weeks away, and for the first time since head coach Mark Parsons joined the team before the 2016 season, Portland’s postseason journey will start on the road.

“We need momentum going into the semifinal,” Menges continues. “I don’t think we’re even worried about the semifinal, right now. We want to get back to the soccer we know we can play. 

“We need a shutout. We need a win. We need to score goals. That’s the focus of this weekend: just getting our momentum ramped back up for the semifinal.”

That need is all the context required ahead of Saturday’s home finale at Providence Park (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, Yahoo! Sports). Here are your need-to-knows ahead of the season’s second visit from the Washington Spirit.

A season of huge progress: Washington’s form

Record: 9-8-6 (33 points, fifth in the NWSL)
Goals for: 30 (fourth)
Goals against: 25 (t-3rd)
Goal difference: +5 (fourth)

The 2018 Spirit were a group of bright talents who, during year that saw a local coaching legend, Jim Gabarra, relieved of his job, hit a type of bottom. Two years removed from championship game heartbreak, the Spirit posted the lowest point (11) and win (two) totals of their NWSL era. Despite the presence of United States national team-level talents like Ashley Hatch, Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh and Andi Sullivan, the team was only saved from last place by an equally wayward Sky Blue FC.

This year, that talent has taken a step forward, with the impact of new draft-day additions (Sam Staab, Jordan DiBiasi, Dorian Bailey) and offseason acquisitions (Paige Nielsen, Chloe Logarzo) pushing the team to the edge of playoff contention. Those postseason hopes won’t be realized this season, but having tripled their point total from 2018, the Spirit have forged a season to build on.

It would have been too much to expect this team to make the playoffs in their first season under head coach Richie Burke, but their campaign will still have them motivated ahead of Saturday’s kickoff at Providence Park. What better way to cap a breakthrough season with a victory over one of the most famous teams in women’s soccer?

Recent history: A split 2019

Last game: 3-1 for Portland at Providence Park on August 17
All-time: Portland is 10-3-5 all-time against the Spirit

There’s almost nothing to see here. With the Spirit’s young talent taking their team to a higher level, the results of the past feel particularly meaningless. The team’s initial, Parsons’ era is too far in the past. The core that helped Gabarra to success (then struggles) has been largely phased out. Aside from the ever presence of Tori Huster, whose continued to contribute after a shift from midfield this season, there is little that links the current Spirit with their predecessors.

In the teams’ first meeting of the season, Washington dealt Portland their initial loss of the campaign, doing so with a convincing 3-1 victory that help lend validity to the team’s strong start. In the teams’ August rematch, though, Portland returned the 3-1 favor in a victory that had the Thorns up two within 20 minutes.

If those games tell us anything, it’s that the home team has generally been best over this season’s 180 minutes. But it’s only 180 minutes. And at the rate the Spirit have progressed, the two months that have passed since the teams’ last meeting (in which Washington is 3-1-3) may have significantly improved the squad.

Focus player: Aubrey Bledsoe, Spirit goalkeeper

Season: Started all 23 games in goal for Washington
All-time: 56 starts among 57 appearances for three clubs

This is less about focus than tribute, because as much as any player in the league, Bledsoe has worked hard to become what she is today: one of the standout keepers in the NWSL, and a player who continues garnering more respect from opposing teams around the league.

Two years ago, Bledsoe was a backup in Orlando, somebody whose willingness and athleticism projected her a potential NWSL starter. But like so many in that position, she lacked the first-team reps needed to iron out mistakes and make her willingness into a strength instead of a downfall. During the 32 starts she got between Orlando and Washington over two years (2017 and 2018), that athleticism shined through, but so did the excessive eagerness. Often, she was too wild.

But the same hard work that took the Wake Forest product from Norway to Sky Blue FC – then back to Norway then Orlando, with time in Australia along the way – also saw Bledsoe’s growth accelerate in her starting role. As her explosiveness continued to earn Save of the Week mentions and critical acclaim, so did her determination begin cutting down her mistakes. Like many who eventually earn time in starting lineups, Bledsoe’s decision making improved as live action allowed her to practice those decisions.

Today, Bledsoe is an unquestioned starter – not just somebody who looked the part in backup minutes, and not just somebody growing into the job in her first number one turn. The spectacular saves were there, before. Now, the mistakes have dwindled.

At 27, Cincinnati-born keeper has performed beyond qualifications. Bledsoe has become one of the better goalkeepers in the NWSL.

Focus matchup: Portland’s defensive midfield versus Washington’s attacking midfield

One of the most intriguing things about Washington’s 2019 is the style that’s been employed by Burke, one that has largely tried to leverage the high skill levels of his talent. It hasn’t always worked perfectly, and at some points, there seems to have been a slight shift to more pragmatism, but with talents like DiBiasi, Lavelle, Pugh and Sullivan at his disposal, Burke has decided to build with the ball on the ground.

As interesting, Burke has given his midfielders the freedom to move, change positions, apparently acknowledging their ability to perform each other’s roles. Along the forward line and into attacking midfield, Washington’s most skilled players are given license to find new space, establish different points of attack, and leave areas for their teammates to occupy. The result is a level of movement and variation that, at its best, replicates what you’ll see from the most talented teams in the NWSL.

For Portland, the burden of reading that play will fall on the team’s deepest midfielders, usually Lindsey Horan and Dagny Brynjarsdottir. Between them, as well as to their left and right, any of Washington’s key creators could pop up and demand they be accounted for. Once that accounting happens, though, new spaces will open, leaving other skilled Spirit teammates to provide new options.

Horan, Brynjarsdottir, or whoever occupies defensive midfield will need help. Ideally, Portland would create battles higher up the field, preventing the Spirit defenders and deep midfielders from picking from their team’s array of attacking options. But if that pressure doesn’t come, and those choices get successfully made, Portland’s last midfielders will have to even the odds. Because given enough opportunities, the Spirit’s talent will produce.

As for the Thorns …

Two major questions will define Saturday’s game for the Thorns. First, how well can they incorporate a series of talents which, just returning to Portland in recent days, have been scattered across the world for over a week. International breaks are always tough on the Thorns, but with nine players called to four continents, this week’s reintegration presents a bigger challenge.

The second question centers on the team’s form, as well as what that form means for the playoffs. Portland is already in the postseason, but in recent losses to rivals North Carolina and Reign FC, the team hasn’t looked like its normal self. Whereas normally, under Parsons, the Thorns hit a stride come the postseason, this year’s playoff arrives amid a regroup.

Saturday’s game will define the extend of that regroup. Are the Thorns ready for the postseason, or will September’s worries carry into October? Among the two questions that loom over the regular-season finale, that one is most important.