PORTLAND, Ore. – Replicating what we had last Sunday at Providence Park might be asking too much. The record-setting crowd. The confidence-boosting win versus a rival. So many things had to line up to make Portland Thorns FC's 2-1 victory over the North Carolina Courage a special game, it would be unfair to expect that two weeks in a row. Sunday would be so much less poignant if that happened every weekend at Providence Park.
This Saturday is going to be special in Goose Hollow, albeit in the same way every match day is special in Portland; which is to say, things will get back to normal. Instead of a noon kickoff for national television, a 7:30 p.m. Pacific start will mark the Washington Spirit’s trip to Portland (TICKETS, Yahoo! Sports). And instead of facing a team that’s fighting at the top of the standings, the Thorns will host a club trying to return to the playoffs.
It’s a testament to the Spirit’s campaign that that goal, the postseason, remains in sight, especially after two years that ended with 10th (in 2017) and eighth (2018) place finishes. But the emphasis on youth the club embraced after the 2016 campaign is starting to pay off. Rookie standouts Jordan DiBiasi, Samantha Staab and Dorian Bailey have rounded out a core that already included a number of U.S. international-caliber talents (Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh, Andi Sullivan) and has built its own cadre of Australian contributors (Chloe Logarzo, Amy Harrison, Elise Kellond-Knight).
This is no longer the regrouping team that barely missed out on 2016’s title. Now, the Spirit have an enviable collection of talent.
That talent was evident in the teams’ first meeting of the season, when Washington handed Portland a 3-1 loss on May 18. Saturday gives the Thorns their chance at redemption, though on the last day of the regular season, there'll be one final meeting between the clubs this season.
Here is a quick look at Saturday night’s kickoff – three areas of focus ahead of the Thorns’ eighth home game of the season.
Leveling the roller coaster
There were two ways the Thorns could have reacted after last Wednesday’s 1-0 loss at Reign FC. The team could have lost confidence and let doubt grow after a second-straight disappointing performance, or they could have met their confusion by moving forward. Clearly, the latter approach won out, but the result charts the team’s last two weeks as a bit of a roller coaster. Sunday’s high at knocking off North Carolina only came after the dip in Tacoma and the strange, coasting slide against Sky Blue.
At some point, the Thorns need to level off and keep their highs from matching their lows. At the same time, the team can’t live off of the fear of dropping back to their low points. As much as their performances have to be defined by consistency, so too does the team’s approach.
In that way, Washington may be the perfect opponent. If a team like the Chicago Red Stars were coming into town, the Thorns could fuel themselves off the prospect of facing a Sam Kerr, or a Julie Ertz. The Spirit don’t have those names, but they still have a team capable of beating you, meaning any focus spent on things beyond Washington may bring back the poor results.
These are the games Portland needs to manage, doing so methodically, predictably, in a way that can be replicated throughout the rest of the season. It isn’t about highs. It isn’t about lows. It’s about finding the team’s stable level.
First place in focus
Thanks to Sunday’s win, Portland find themselves at the top of the league, but their margin leaves no room for error. North Carolina is only two points back with a game in hand, and had Chicago – in second, one point back – not stumbled mid-week, they’d be sitting in first before their weekend off. With only seven games left and two talented teams keeping pace, any slip could cost Portland a second NWSL Shield, and possibly a playoff game at home.
Of course, the same is true for Chicago and North Carolina, and given how unlikely (and schedule-wise, impossible) it is for all three teams will win out, one slip might not bury you. But with only a month-and-a-half left in the regular season, results are starting to matter more. With each misstep, there’s a potential: that you won’t have time to make up the points you’ve lost.
More questions than usual for the starting XI
Forwards Simone Charley and Caitlin Foord only played 45 minutes against North Carolina, but they were the first 45, and although the team went into halftime down 1-0, the work of Charley and Foord help set a tone. For the last 20 minutes before intermission, Portland was starting to get the best of the Courage.
Perhaps that’s not enough to wrestle starting spots away from Midge Purce and Hayley Raso, but there’s a conversation to be had. In what circumstances does it make more sense for Charley to start? Or Foord? And are those circumstances present against the Spirit?
The same conversation could be had with Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Gabby Seiler, who’ve split the last two starts next to Lindsey Horan in midfield. Likewise, with Ellie Carpenter and Meghan Klingenberg potentially ready to return to the lineup, the fullback positions occupied by Elizabeth Ball and Katherine Reynolds could have new starters.
That’s five places in an 11-person lineup where there’s some reason for doubt. It’s strange to think that, despite coming off the team’s most important win of the season, Portland might have a very different look come Saturday’s kickoff.