Nobody can look at the rosters of the Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns FC and bemoan a lack of talent Saturday night (5pm PT, ESPNEWS). On one side, a team will have arguably the game’s best player (Sam Kerr), a world-class midfield enforcer (Julie Ertz), and the starting goalkeeper for the world’s most famous squad (Alyssa Naeher). Their visiting opposition will feature one of the game’s active legends (Christine Sinclair), the enviable versatility of an emerging talent (Lindsey Horan), as well as one of the top, most consistent defenders in the NWSL (Emily Menges).
The North Carolina Courage clearly deserve a spot in this conversation, and when you look at the talent on the rosters of the Orlando Pride and Seattle Reign FC, you see their cases, too. It’s not clear that Chicago or Portland have so much more talent than the rest of the NWSL’s playoff hopefuls. But with the depth and variety at Rory Dames’ and Mark Parsons’ disposals, you couldn’t blame either for looking at their corps, thinking about their potentials, and deciding theirs is the group they’d pick to conquer the NWSL season.
That’s why it’s so surprising, ahead of the team’s weekend kickoff, to see both on the fringe of the playoff race. As the season eases through its half-way mark, the defending champions Thorns find themselves in fourth place, coming off a 4-1 loss, and holding a negative goal difference. In some respects, Chicago’s situation is even worse, sitting in fifth place despite playing an extra game, still having an uncertain timeline for the return of two of their stars: creative fulcrum Vanessa DiBernardo; all-league-caliber fullback Casey Short.
|2018 NWSL standings, through June 15|
North Carolina Courage
Chicago Red Stars
The Thorns have had injury problems of their own, having gotten no minutes, yet, from Australian attackers Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso. And much like Chicago, they’re on a bit of a tactical journey, hoping to expand on their 3-4-1-2 look while the Red Stars baptize themselves at the Church of Guardiola (really, it’s a lot to get into, and something I probably should have written about, instead). In both cases, it’s not one cause, but issues of both absence and approach that are conspiring against these teams’ seasons.
Still, to the extent Chicago and Portland have disappointed, it’s a disappointment both clubs could have anticipated. For the Thorns, the first months of the season will always be about building toward October. Parsons designs his seasons as such. Though his first year in the Rose City saw his new team enjoy a prolonged unbeaten start, last year’s title campaign found the Thorns mid-table at a similar point in the season. Back then, midseason tweaks eventually propelled Portland to a second league title. The answers Parsons seeks over the coming weeks could very well do the same, now.
For Chicago, a drastic shift in tactical approach meant 2018 would always have a learning curve. The tried-and-true from three straight playoff runs – a combative, diamond midfield that both stymied opponents and came up short in successive postseasons – was cast aside in favor of the approach Pep Guardiola has developed over his time with Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City. With the help of a new technical staff, Dame and Chicago are transitioning into full positional soccer – complete with Guardiola’s ideas of player distribution and false fullbacks – in an attempt to fully leverage their talent. It’s not a system you’d expect a team to master in four months, but come the end of the season, the advantages players like Kerr, DiBernardo, Sofia Huerta and Yuki Nagasato might enjoy could be difference-makers in a playoff run.
A version of the Guardiola positional grid, as posted by Blizzard.co.uk
Like the Thorns, this year’s Red Stars have had their pragmatic moments, reverting to that tried-and-true when their confidence has been fragile, or when opponents loaded up too much on their new approach. But, like the Thorns, they seem as attuned to the big picture as their short-term results. There is a best version of each of these teams, one which, if it arrives soon enough, will see each competing with North Carolina for the league’s latest. And while, as the season goes on, collecting points will become more and more important, there’s almost no point to scraping into the postseason if you haven’t developed a plan that will works.
At least, that’s where both Chicago and Portland are at, something that dovetails with the strange feeling of seeing each midtable. These are teams that have had consistent success, can afford to think long-term, yet with that long view, they’re putting their postseasons in danger, now. How much danger is open to debate, as there’s still half a season to go, but over the back half of the NWSL’s schedule, both the Red Stars and Thorns will have to figure something out.
What to watch for on Saturday:
- Sam Kerr. If you’re watching for one thing – beyond Sinclair, Horan, Menges, and all your Thorns favorites, of course – it’s got to be the reigning NWSL Most Valuable Player. The 24-year-old Australian international has 22 goals in her last 29 games, including five in seven since joining the Red Stars.
- There is a name notably missing from that list of Thorns, included above. What about Tobin Heath, you might be asking. As of Friday morning, the Portland standout is officially out of Saturday’s match, per the league’s injury report, with an ankle injury picked up during national team duty with the United States. She joins Midge Purceon the list, with the right back expected to miss multiple weeks with an ankle problem incurred in U.S. camp.
- Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch is also listed as out while Emily Sonnett’s back leaves her questionable, but noticeably missing from the injury report is Hayley Raso, who has spent the last month-plus recovering from a knee problem picked up while representing Australia. Raso’s six goals and three assists last season made the 23-year-old Matilda one of Portland’s breakout performers.
- As for Chicago, neither DiBernardo nor Short are on their injury list, putting both foundational pieces in line to get their first minutes of the season. Although attacker Stephanie McCaffrey remains out, this is the healthiest the Red Stars have been all season, giving Chicago a chance to finally start put its best XI on the field.
- How the Thorns matchup against that is an open question, which is probably Parsons’ intent. Prior to the North Carolina match, Portland appeared to be migrating toward a 4-2-3-1 formation. That migration changed course against the Courage, with the Thorns choosing a version of their three-center-back approach. Saturday’s lineup could employ either look, though, recently, against other teams that played something like Chicago’s 4-3-3 (like Utah, Washington), Portland went with their one-front.
- And a reminder: Saturday’s game is not going to be on Lifetime, as originally scheduled. It won’t kickoff at 12:30pm PT. Instead, Chicago-Portland is the first of a series of games that have been moved to ESPN News. Kickoff time: 5:00pm PT.